No place like home The Un-Private House At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 5 October
'All of architecture is coloured by the problem of the house' are the words which form the gateway to 'The Un-Private House'. Jean Helion's contention that the private house has played a uniquely influential role in the history of architecture, is undoubtedly true for the twentieth century at least, and this exhibition, curated by Terence Riley, updates that observation into the next.
This means, above all, challenging the concept of the house as a purely inward retreat from the public realm, away from the noise, speed, immorality and general disorder of the city and into an internalised world of calmness, quiet, and individual tastes. Today, 'The Un-Private House' posits, this binary division is no longer tenable because of the gradual dissolution of the boundaries between private worlds and city spaces.
Exploring this thesis are 26 different projects for (un)private residences, mostly from the us but also from the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Argentina, Japan and the uk. Most predictable are those that develop the notion of 'unprivacy' through technology: hence the media screens to project video art in the Kramlich Residence and Media Collection (by Herzog and de Meuron), and the more fantastic Digital House (Hariri & Hariri) where walls are conceived as smart skins, and telematic guests arrive for a virtual meal.
The mere existence of technology does not impose unprivacy however, and in any case screens, projections and the like are no more radical than televison. More significant are those designs that play with the traditional 'technologies' of the house: its physical fabric and formal qualities. In Shigeru Ban's Curtain Wall House, glass and huge fabric curtains expose the residents to their Tokyo neighbours. Similarly, in the bv House, Ribble Valley, Farjadi Farjadi Architects counterposes adult and social areas against the children's wing (the binary of public and private exemplified within the house), while Ben van Berkel and Bos uses a continuous architectural loop to drive the circulation of the Mobius House (public and private diffused within the house).
As these indicate, for privacy and publicity it is how the homes are lived in, and with what attitude, that matters most. Hence another architectural strategy is to address social relations. Proposals here include the archetypal loft apartment (examples by Hanrahan and Meyers, and Lupo and Rowen) or the loft-like spaces of 64 Wakefield, Atlanta (Scogin and Elam), where enclosed rooms are replaced by spatial 'situations'. While none of these are as extreme as, say, the house for a divorced couple recently designed by Saunt and Hills, such designs do help challenge relations of living and, in particular, the over-powering presence of children as the driving motor for all house design.
The 'Un-Private House' offers no single-minded manifesto and no prototypes for mass-production (although comparisons with the us Case Study programme and the more recent Concept House/Ideal Home collaborations are inevitable). It focuses on the private house made unprivate, rather than challenging the whole notion of the house as home (there are, for example, no houses for the homeless, as recently programmed in the uk by Crash).
Nonetheless, it contains thought-provoking proposals, many of which successfully rework existing typologies, as with mvrdv's two houses in Amsterdam, or the Ghirardo-Kohen House in Buenos Aires (Clorindo Testa) and the House for a Bachelor proposal (Joel Sanders). In the last case, a 1950s suburban house becomes a bachelor pad, where surfaces wrap and reconstruct the body of the new occupant in relation to fashion, self-image and the landscape outside.
Moreover, this is an exhibition which is itself 'unprivate'. The extraordinary multimedia element designed by mit Media Lab provides an interactive experience of the various projects, including plans, walk-throughs, images and texts, through a metaphor of the dining table, place settings and conversation pieces on the Internet at www.moma.org. This is certainly worth a private visit.
Iain Borden is director of Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett