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Modern House Three By Raul Barreneche. Phaidon, 2005. £39.95

BOOK REVIEW

'This book concerns the individual villa type of house, ' wrote FRS Yorke at the beginning of The Modern House (1934). His prediction that 'for some time to come the majority of people will continue to want to live in detached or semidetached houses' has remained true, and Modern House Three is concerned with the same type of house that Yorke illustrated over 70 years ago.

The similarities don't end there. Not only do people like, in their dreams at least, to inhabit such houses, but architects like to design them and a certain kind of public likes to look at glossy pictures of them without an overload of information.

Assuming that such aspects of a project as difficult clients, cost, over-runs and planning battles - not to mention the client's taste in furniture and decoration - can't be mentioned, there's not much left to say. Yorke believed he was writing primarily for other architects and included basic technical information, costs, plans and a few construction details. Barreneche provides one drawing (sometimes a plan, sometimes a section) per project, which is useful, although the pictures are what matters.

These are, of course, glamorous, with only two ghostly human presences featured.

The narrative on each project tells us something about the client's lifestyle and the architect's CV, before taking a walk around. Examples are grouped in three sections, although most could qualify for another one. The geographical spread is worldwide, with several of the most interesting houses coming from China - such as Father's House on Jade Mountain by MADA, with its walls of local pebbles and window shutters of woven bamboo - but there is nothing as yet from former Communist Eastern Europe.

There are two Brits: Sarah Wigglesworth's Straw Bale House; and David Adjaye's Dirty House. Since there is less opportunity in this country to build spectacular modern beach or mountain holiday homes, we have little to offer in the category that fills about half of the book. Even before the Modern Movement, this type of house was the perfect site for experiment, where the daily constraints of living don't apply.

The myth that books like this foster is that they depict the normality of the future. Some aspects of these houses might be adopted as common practice but they are mostly unadventurous in respect of energy saving or plan form.

The most ingenious device is the long glass table in the shared living space of 'C House and Y House', Tokyo, by Power Unit Studio. The floor level steps up twice beneath the table top, offering different sitting styles in an elegant visual conceit.

The appearance of Pierre Bourdieu in the bibliography indicates an authorial agenda so hidden as to be almost invisible, but it is clear that, above all, these houses confer status and that the book celebrates this fact. Among the status factors in Modern architecture has always been the apparent possession of private space, which allows the house to seem open to the world and confers a mystical power on the dweller; transparency as an indicator of wealth - which in cash terms is more costly than ever in a crowded world.

Turning the pages of Barreneche's book, it would appear that the Modern house has scarcely evolved at all.

There is little on show that, barring a few fashionable twists, had not already been imagined by the 1930s. Only a posthumous project by John Hejduk at Groningen, designed in 1973, reminds us of three decades of Post-Modernism, now airbrushed out of history as painlessly as the clutter and mess of everyday living.

Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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