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the house of muthesius

At next week's conference 'Joined Up Housing', Stefan Muthesius will be arguing that the English terraced house is one of the most efficient building types. He has the weight of history and a lifetime of research to back him up by austin williams. photogr

The terraced house is a loved and yet often reviled building type.Next week at an AJ-sponsored conference at Sadler's Wells in London, a gathering of architects and planners will discuss this long-neglected architectural model in examining the issue of urban densities.'Joined Up Housing'aims to explore some of the key themes arising out of the recently published Urban White Paper.

One of the keynote speakers will be Stefan Muthesius, senior fellow in art and architectural history at the University of East Anglia, and author of the seminal book The English Terraced House.Covering the history of the terraced house from the eighteenth century, he aims to explain its diversity and popularity at different moments in history.

Muthesius spends a great deal of time on the lecture circuit and will be flying in from Rimes next week having attended a conference on conservation in England.

Born in Germany in July 1939, Muthesius was educated at Frankfurt am Main and studied in Munich and then London's Courtauld Institute in the early 1960s under Nikolaus Pevsner.It was here that he developed a love of English buildings and their historiographies.

After what he describes as a 'traditional and formalist'early education he began to specialise in nineteenth century housing - 'because it was disliked by many - that was its appeal'. Pevsner, he says, 'was a most tolerant teacher, encouraging students to do their own thing'.

He says that Pevsner was in many ways archetypally German, although he rejects any stereotypical analogies. He confides that Pevsner, like himself, 'did not have a very philosophical mind'.

Muthesius settled in Britain for good in 1968 to work at the University of East Anglia. A school of art history had just been formed and he realised that there was scope for exciting new work into 'fascinating gaps in research' including the English terraced house, 'a much maligned typology'.

For someone who has written and co-written more than 10 books, Muthesius is engagingly diffident about his work and achievements, preferring to say only that it is his job to understand the built form.The English Terraced House remains an exemplary piece of rigorous and readable research and will undoubtedly inform much of the conference's discussion.

Muthesius is also modest about his family pedigree, which has made a significant mark in architectural theory and historical analysis.His great uncle was the influential Hermann Muthesius, intellectual leader of the German Werkbund, the group which adapted William Morris'Arts and Crafts ideals and applied them to the industrial arts and mechanical mass production; a curious marriage. In a split between Muthesius and van der Velde in 1914, Muthesius'faction, which advocated the greatest possible use of standardisation, held sway over the demands for individual artistic expression.Herman Muthesius is best known for his work, Das Englische Haus, an art historical study of construction in the English countryside.

Muthesius' uncle was the lesser known, though no less fascinating architect, Eckhart Muthesius, who worked for Sir Raymond Unwin, designer of Letchworth Garden City. In 1929 he was appointed by the Maharajah of Indore to plan and construct an International Style, 'Garden of Rubies' palace (which included the first air-conditioning system in India).

Unfortunately, after this plum commission, Eckhart Muthesius fell into relative obscurity.

Muthesius is slightly reticent on his famous relatives: 'I am always asked about my great uncle but nobody asked him about me.' He considers it purely coincidental that he too is fascinated by the English house and the English way of living.He says, 'I suppose that we are all just outsiders looking in on British life' - although after 30 years, he considers himself to be 'well and truly British'.

Muthesius champions the terraced house because it is 'an elegant model for living'. He is quick to point out that his appreciation is for the architectural form - not for social, political or economic merit.His is an academic interest.

When Muthesius first started writing in the early 1970s, no book or research had been published on the terraced house type. 'The obvious often escapes notice, ' he says, 'precisely because we take it for granted.'To emphasise the point, he has written on high- rise buildings (Tower Block: Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and student dwellings (The Postwar University: Utopianist College and Campus).

He is passionate in his love of the terraced style and considers that it is one of the most efficient and humane design patterns. In The English Terraced House he notes that 'by about 1910 stands the house which still fulfils today's demands in almost all respects . . . only the central heating is missing'.

He believes that the terraced house was dismissed as a valid housing style from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.Since Nash, 'no architect would touch it'. Indeed, he identifies Sir Raymond as being instrumental in condemning the terraced house to architectural purdah.

Muthesius is fascinated by the fact that continental highdensity apartment living never caught on as a philosophical premise in Britain. Rejection of the terrace was in favour of a lighter, airier and detached style. But the working-class terraced housing of the old industrial heartlands of Britain, continued, he says, to be much loved by their occupants.

He puts today's different view down to the fact that 'in the nineteenth century, builders didn't have ideological reasons for creating their terraced layouts. There was no question of it helping to ensure social harmony, keeping yourself to yourself, or anything like that.' Perhaps today's converts to high-density urban developments should bear this in mind.

'Joined Up Housing' takes place on 29 November. For details contact Richard Mullane on 020 7482 8030 or e-mail info@designforhomes.org

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