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Putting the house in order

review

Who hasn't imagined the perfect house? As children the house is one of the first things we draw. As adults it is the building type which non-architects most often design for themselves. With such a vast potential audience, it must be hard to know how to pitch a book about houses. Home, Single-Family Housing and A House for my Mother range in tone from the sensible to the fanatical to the downright saccharine.

Sudjic is the voice of reason, going for an architect/general reader crossover. Decade-by-decade chapters take in the outstanding houses of the twentieth century and conclude with a round-up of architect-designed houses which are newly built or currently on the drawing board. It's a glossy hard-back production, with great photographs and a cover which says that this is not quite your average architectural history: Rudin House by Herzog and de Meuron is that very house we all drew as children - solid walls, pitched roof and chimney - except that it sits on stilts.

Similarly, Sudjic's is pretty much the architectural history we all think we know - Hill House, Villa Savoie etc - but his ability to weave together cultural, social, technological and aesthetic factors makes for a much richer brew than the standard historical text. The book is stimulating, competent, but still decidedly polite.

Single-Family Housing is a sequel to Housing: New Alternatives, New Systems! (aj 19.11.98), a volume-with-attitude which combined an outstanding visual record of everything that's radical in housing design with utterly unintelligible text. Second time around Manuel Gausa, who was sole author of the earlier work, has been joined by Jaime Salazar, who appears to have had a marginally calming effect.

The fanzine-style exuberance is still there: it's impossible to tell whether the book has been thrown together at random or orchestrated by an unusually cutting-edge designer. Photographs of Mobius House by Ben van Berkel (see above) are interspersed with fashion-plate images of a slightly spooky-looking female, plus a lone shot of a tired bloke listening to his headphones and slouched in a chair. Crazy.

But the exclamation mark has gone from the title, the cover is a little less 'Soviet manifesto', and the introductory essay almost makes sense. Or at least, like many English-language versions of text by foreign architectural theorists, it manages to sound powerful and mysterious, as if it probably made sense in the original.

As with its predecessor, when the book moves on to boring old project descriptions, the text suddenly becomes crystal clear and rich with the kind of anecdotes which inevitably accompany the design of private houses - such as the fact that Villa Wilbrink, also by van Berkel, was stretched over as much of the site as possible in deference to the client's hatred of gardening.

A House for my Mother is a homely-looking book with lots of jolly houses inside, occasionally accompanied by family snapshots of doting parents and the architect children who designed their homes. Beth Dunlop is the Martha Stewart of the architectural world. Despite the introduction's claim that 'to design a house for a parent is to tip the balance between authority and deference', she never really addresses the thorny psychological issues which necessarily arise when architect and client are on intimate terms, and presents instead an apple-pie world where proud parents have unquestioning faith in the abilities of their talented children, and all coexist in a spirit of happy collaboration.

Compared with, say, Alice T Friedman's analyses of the complexities of close architect/client relationships in Women and the Making of the Modern House (aj 23.7.98), Dunlop's work is one-dimensional, a weakness which is particularly apparent in the case of the house Robert Venturi designed for his mother, which is described in both books. Where Dunlop's account is all sweetness and light, Friedman's is meticulous in tracing the minor but nonetheless fascinating moments of friction, such as the time when Venturi's mother looked at the ordinary nineteenth-century house next door and wistfully remarked: 'Oh, isn't that a nice house'.

The book may have its uses. If you happen to be in the process of trying to persuade your parents to go down the offspring-as-architect route, you should definitely send them a copy. Dunlop will persuade them that the process will be painless, and the outcome will be exactly what they want. They might like Sudjic's book too. But if you're trying to convince them that architects aren't necessarily full of weird ideas, keep Salazar and Gausa's book for yourself.

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