In a holiday mood
Now that Glasgow's reign as UK City of Architecture and Design 1999 is becoming a distant memory, its exhibitions have hit the road in a reduced travelling form. First off the blocks is its flagship show 'Home: Domestic Roots of Twentieth Century Architecture', now at Manchester's CUBE gallery. Though smaller in size, the show still displays the 14 seminal houses of the twentieth century which originally constituted its core. These are houses with such an aura that they seem barely contained by the display cases, ravishing photographs, and plans which have been shoehorned into the CUBE galleries.
Loos, Rietveldt, Corb, Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gehry are all here, with a duly deferential nod to Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Hill House at the start of the sequence - a somewhat odd choice, if it is suggested that this is the grand-daddy of them all.
'Home' is, and was no doubt meant to be, a fun show, aesthetically seductive, and a game we all can play - a sort of Desert Island Houses. And there's the rub. These are houses, re-presented to us by this exhibition as homes, as if the two terms were interchangeable - which they are not. And they are houses which have long been afforded a special place in the history of twentieth century architecture, to the extent that they are seen as its domestic roots.
While I have little trouble in understanding the Hitchcockian lineage of their position today, the confusion of terminology is worrying. Many of these houses are not homes in the usual sense, but holiday homes. Philip Johnson gives the lie to the show when he tries to argue that his Glass House of 1949 (see picture) is a house for year round occupation: 'It is often written about as a house you cannot live in. I don't know why - I've been going there for nearly 45 years.
Over the last 10 years I've spent almost every weekend there.' Several of the houses fall into this category, most crucially the Villa Savoye which had countless international derivatives.
This forces you to consider not just the validity of the exhibition concept but the seminal role of the weekend and vacation house within twentieth century architecture.
Was there, at the heart of the Modernist project, a programme of transforming the dull, everyday house into something more akin to the lightness of a holiday home? An unlikely intention, perhaps, but the holiday homes on display here did play a disproportionate role in establishing Modernist aesthetics.
Where we have been reading (sometimes by stretching credulity to its limits) these house as prototypes for the mass-production of social architecture, should we equally have been thinking 'It's time to get out the buckets and spades?' But whatever doubts the exhibition raises, it should win a new audience for architecture as it tours the country. These houses have such iconic value: 'Home' is a fun day out for all.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian