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BOOK

REVIEW

Modern American Houses: Fifty Years of Design in Architectural Record Edited by Clifford A Pearson. Abrams, 2005. 296pp. £27

'Do I have to live in a 'statement'? Can't I just have a home?' a bewildered client asks his architect in a cartoon published by Architectural Record in the 1950s. Yet there was never any shortage of affluent Americans prepared to back innovative, even outlandish, designs and live with the results.

The annual round-up of new houses in Architectural Record provides vivid insights into the changing tastes of a progressive-minded American elite. Into the 1980s, indeed, the magazine never looked beyond the USA for houses to illustrate.

From 1990 onwards, examples from elsewhere, even Britain (Ken Shuttleworth's Crescent House), began to appear.

In one of fi ve distinguished essays introducing the Record houses of five decades, along with critiques of them written at the time, Thomas Hine captures the mood of the 1950s, where houses 'seem to exist in some prelapsarian state of nature, without neighbours or any evidence of a larger community'. They were singlestorey structures, reflecting 'a horizontal state of mind', intended for spacious suburbs or virgin sites in forests or overlooking the ocean.

British architects, little influenced by the USA in the pre-war period, lapped them up. Rogers and Foster were inspired by Case Study houses, Mies, Paul Rudolph and, of course, Wright; Ted Cullinan by the West Coast aesthetic, evoking it even in the back streets of Camden. The trade in ideas was, until recently, very much one-way.

Architectural journals rarely admit lapses of judgement and it's refreshing to read Charles Gandee's comments on Record's 'old-boy network' that allowed others, notably Progressive Architecture, to grab the really interesting houses and saw the magazine miss early work by Gehry, Eisenman and Holl in favour of 'gentleman-architects', of whom Hugh Newell Jacobsen comes in for some particularly sharp comments.

By the 1980s, however, Record was back on track. In Britain, Post-Modernism is often seen as both morally and aesthetically deficient, but it is hard not to be engaged by the work of, for instance, Charles Moore or Fay Jones. Another West Coast practioner, Stanley Saitowitz, is little known on this side of the Atlantic, but his McDonald House makes one want to see more.

Americans frequently joke about their country's lack of antiquity, yet what emerges from so many of these houses is a concern for the vernacular and the landscape that is natural and unsentimental.

Thirty years ago, Vincent Scully pinpointed the Shingle Style as a source of inspiration for Charles Moore and others, while current architects as diverse as Will Bruder, Rick Joy, and Williams and Tsien all take the vernacular tradition as their starting point - small wonder when the landscape setting is often so spectacular.

A book then to enjoy for mouth-watering pictures and excellent writing - great reading for architects still searching for billionaires set on building the ideal house.

Kenneth Powell is a London-based architectural journalist

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