21st Century House By Jonathan Bell.Laurence King, 2006.£19.95
Creating a definitive picture of the 21st-century house in 2006 is, as Jonathan Bell admits, far from practical. 'This book identifies four themes but there could just as easily be 100 such distinctions. These categories are little more than classifying snapshots, ' he says.
Bell's brief introductory essay rails splendidly against the culture of media-driven imagery, grotesque McMansions and the 'eccentric predilections of moneyed egoists on Grand Designs'. It is wonderfully opinionated stuff from someone in a position to know a good deal about his subject (Bell writes for Wallpaper*, Blueprint and Grafi k).
He pointedly comments that 'architectural publishing has a mania for categories and classification: modern houses, small houses, extreme houses, experimental houses, houses on the edge, see-through houses, minimalist houses, vernacular houses, wooden houses, moving houses, each a neat peg upon which a number of glossy, even iconic, projects can be hung.'
After such a breathless list one can almost hear the cry of 'somebody stop me' as Bell rolls out this latest collection on the pegs of the Iconic House, the City House, the Practical House and the Future House.
Given that the book is itself promoting the latest crop of novelty, however creatively themed, the mismatch between the sentiment of the text and the book's content is ever present. As Bell observes, the forum for debate has shifted from books to imagery, with architecture books becoming 'thinly disguised brochures or academic treatises of limited interest'. Given that 21st Century House has 55 projects, 'lavishly' presented in 300 colour illustrations and 150 drawings, but only 22 of its 256 pages are critical text, I suspect the author himself would think it was in the brochure category.
While the examples in the first three sections are generally interesting, the final section contains some optimismcrushing projects for 'the future house'. From the fuchsia graphics of House D, or the tragic images of Parasite Paradise, to the plain silly Home-Scape Project, the future seems to resemble a poor end of year show at a struggling school of architecture.
Generally Bell is articulate, astute and entertainingly annoyed. Much in the same way that watching Grumpy Old Men is amusing for its powerless sniping against the world, he stabs away at modern house culture and the organs which feed it.
I found the book generally enjoyable - partly because I agreed with pretty much everything the author had to say, but also because I too find myself unexpectedly grumpy and old. There is something comforting about flicking through the pages to confirm that the new new is just like old new. Unfortunately it's all invariably worse than the original, but that's probably just a 20th-century point of view.