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Comfort zone

New Home: Architecture & Design By James Soane. Conran Octopus, 2003. £50

It is helpful to both the critic and the general reader when an author clearly states his intentions. In his introduction, James Soane writes: 'New Home seeks to examine the issues and debates currently surrounding the design of modern homes. No particular style or approach is shown to be more valid than another, but what does link each of the projects illustrated in these pages is the strength of the idea embedded at its heart. All take a different approach to solving the age-old problems of shelter, comfort and aesthetics in an innovative and unique way.'

In pursuit of this goal the book is straightforwardly organised. Five chapters address themes of 'History and Context', 'House and Home', 'The Changing Face of the City', 'Escape Homes' and, finally, 'Mass Housing'. These are followed by 16 case studies of individual projects.

The historical chapter, which has the nice subtitle of 'From Shelter to Comfort', takes us from Pompeii to Koolhaas, via Horta, Wright, Gaudí, Le Corbusier, Aalto, Mies, Eames, Venturi and Gehry. The other narrative chapters draw upon recent international practice to illustrate their respective themes.

'House and Home' sets out to explore the potentially interesting question of 'identity and self-expression'. It is a good idea to consider the relationship between house and city, and the urban chapter draws a distinction between the suburban and urban situation. 'Escape Homes - Nature and Nurture' reviews designs in rural and even wilderness settings. 'Mass Housing' is interpreted broadly in the presentation of a sequence of predominantly high-density projects that range from luxury apartments, by such as Seidler and Piano, to AHMM's 'Caspar' project in Birmingham.

The narrative is, perhaps inevitably, broad-brush and selective in tracing its path through two millennia and addressing the pluralism of the contemporary situation. The historical review suffers from its brevity and lack of explicit scholarship.

There are no references, footnotes or bibliography to encourage wider reading, and this limits the book's value for all but the most general reader.

This is particularly sad when the brevity leads to significant omissions. For example, the remarkable achievements of British domestic architecture in the 19th century, when it was internationally esteemed - as in the three volumes of Hermann Muthesius' Das Englische Haus - receive scant attention.

To present Lutyens as the principal representative of the Arts and Crafts movement does disservice to figures such as Webb, Voysey and Baillie Scott, and is actually a misrepresentation of Lutyens himself, who was never close to the heart of the Arts and Crafts, in spite of the appearances of some of his early houses.

The omission of the Garden City, which, from its British origins, influenced housing throughout the world, is also a pity. Remember that les cités-jardin were a major component of Le Corbusier's City for Three Million Inhabitants. On a point of specific detail, the image of a design by Mackintosh is of Haus eines Kunstfreundes and not of Hill House as stated. On a positive note, attention is given throughout these chapters to the influence upon design of climate, comfort, in a gratefully wide definition, and to broader themes of sustainability.

The case studies are, almost without exception, interesting examples of contemporary house and housing design. These, including buildings by Tony Fretton, Herzog & de Meuron, MVRDV and Alberto Campo Baeza, reflect the scope of the earlier chapters and are a useful reference source. They do, however, suffer from serious shortcomings of presentation. The numerous photographs are of a very high standard, but the correlation of text and image is frequently loose, with artful but often enigmatic images failing to illustrate the most significant spaces of the houses.

For example, there is only one, small image of the interior of Sarah Wigglesworth's Straw Bale House. While its complex and unusual materiality is a major issue, its inhabitation merits at least equal representation. An appendix presents plans of all the designs, apparently drawn to a uniform scale. But the scale is not given, and the absence of site plans and sections and such fundamentals as north points is a serious flaw.

In the broadest of terms the book achieves its intentions. It touches in interesting ways upon many of the 'issues and debates' that influence the design of housing. In general, the buildings that illustrate the argument are well-chosen. It could, however, have been much more useful if greater care had been given to many points of detail in its production. Its aspiration would seem to be to find a place in the library, but its style is dangerously close to the coffee table.

Dean Hawkes is an architect in Cambridge.

See profile of James Soane on pages 26-27

Elain Harwood's England: A Guide to PostWar Listed Buildings (Batsford, £24.99) was first published by ellipsis in its series of small, square-format, black-and-white architectural guides (AJ 6.7.00).These books are now issued by Batsford - a mixed blessing.Although they contain no extra information, they are no longer pocketsized, and the colour photos in some new editions (eg Venice) have been lamentable.

But on this occasion, the colour is a bonus, and Harwood - an EH historian at the heart of the listing process - writes with authority.

Above: Lasdun's Royal College of Physicians.

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