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BOOK

REVIEW

Wood Houses By Ruth Slavid. Laurence King, 2006.208pp. £30

Wood and houses seem to belong together, since wood is a natural material of great exibility, with tactile and visual appeal and proven performance. Introducing her book, Ruth Slavid takes us briskly through the history and precedents for timber in housing, by way of Taliesin West, Villa Mairea and the Sea Ranch, to current multi-storey prefabrication. This sets the scene for a celebration of the sheer versatility of wood as used to build dwellings.

Unlike many packaged collections of buildings in print, each house is fully and generously described, placing it in the context of the architect's other work; explaining the often very particular brief; and setting out the design response.

Especially welcome are the 'virtual tours' of these houses, the reader being led through the interiors and around the site as a guest might experience them. Why and how wood was used and the distinct personality that results are deftly described.

A clutch of 'retreats' and 'simple houses' head the themed chapters. Dreams of the great outdoors, of an escape to sylvan or shoreline cabins, have often materialised in wood, starting with the beguiling model of the tree house itself - exemplified here by a lavish number in Tuscany, designed by one former rock musician, Roderick Romero, for another, Sting.

The 'retreats' range from the truly spartan, such as the four square Box House designed by Nicholas Murcutt (son of Glenn) for artist clients, by way of the crisp geometry of Brian MacKay-Lyons' convincing take on the shipbuilding traditions of Nova Scotia in his Messenger House II - as taut as any wind-racked boatshed - through to the bizarre but beguiling antics of the Accordion House. This creation, by the Dutch duo of Maartje Lammers and Boris Zeisser, takes a lakeside fisherman's cabin in Sweden and grafts on a zoomorphic section that can be extended by a system of ropes and pulleys. Lined with reindeer skins inside and clad with undulating shingles, the result is a welcome departure from familiar timber cabin-land.

In the right hands, wood can deliver a calm sophistication. It provides an effortless blend of warmth and elegance, whether in the form of a deceptively simple studio house by Will Bruder Architects, set in an aspen glade in Wyoming, where a rectangular envelope belies lively twists of the plan within; or in the form of the two dramatic suspended staircases of untreated iroko wood leading skywards though a Parisian house extension by Christian Pottgiesser and Florian Hertwerk.

This book is not exclusively about freestanding, bespoke delights. The challenge of urban housing in timber is hinted at by examples, but would merit a volume of its own. What makes Wood Houses so attractive is the author's ability to tell the story of her chosen projects with real enthusiasm and panache.

Neil Parkyn is a London-based architect and writer on design

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