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Clients who cast aside convention

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Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History by Alice T Friedman. Abrams, 1998. 240pp. £25

Given the rarity of women-headed households, a surprising number of this century's most significant houses were commissioned by female clients. This is the premise behind Alice T Friedman's book. Drawing on letters, diaries, office records, photographs and interviews, Friedman examines the relationship between six female clients, and their (male) architects, and offers some convincing arguments as to why these collaborations yielded such significant results.

A woman who commissions her own house, by definition, does not play the role traditionally assigned to women. She is controlling her own finances, which would today suggest a healthy independence but, during the last few decades, probably meant she was widowed, divorced, single, lesbian or living in any other unconventional household. Having rejected, or been ejected from, 'normal' family life, it is understandable that some would reject the conventional family house. Each of the six houses explored in Friedman's book reassesses the traditional spatial hierarchies in some way.

The Schroder House designed by Truus Schroder and Gerrit Rietveld, has a large open-plan sleeping area in place of the more usual arrangement of the prominent parental bedroom, with smaller separate cells for each child. As a widow, who had been married to a man with old-fashioned views on childcare, Schroder was determined that she should be available to her children at all times. Le Corbusier's Villa Stein-de Monzie rejects the master bedroom in favour of two bedroom suites of equal status, one for Gabrielle de Monzie and her daughter, the other for the married couple with whom they chose to live. The house designed by Robert Venturi for his mother addresses the status of the adult son still living at home: Venturi's own quarters are at the top of the house, part of, but apart from, the main body of the house.

Many of the women Friedman describes sought an environment which could accommodate both personal and professional life. Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House in Springfield, Illinois, served as a backdrop for Susan Lawrence Dana's social activism. With a gallery which doubles as a stage, theatrical lighting and open-plan rooms, the house was used for hosting lavish receptions for women and children, and for entertaining prominent politicians. Aline Barnsdall, who was committed to the theatrical community, also commissioned Wright, who designed a small outdoor theatre which occupied a central position in the house, in place of the family hearth.

If these houses were means of expressing the client's aspirations in every area of life, it is perhaps not surprising that the clients had particularly intense relationships with their architects, whether as lovers, mothers, enemies or friends. Often, this closeness meant that the architect was treated with an unusual degree of indulgence: Venturi recalls that his mother objected to his designs only once, protesting that the proposed marble floor would be too ostentatious. Even then she didn't put up much of a fight; as Venturi remembers it, 'I went to her and I said, 'Look Mother, I really want this,' and she said, 'ok'.'

But there are instances of the architect exploiting his client's faith. Le Corbusier seemed to have an idealised, rather more youthful version of his clients in mind when designing Villa Stein-de Monzie: plans for an 82m running track on the roof had to be abandoned, and Madame de Monzie was too fearful to venture up to the lookout. Edith Farnsworth proved to be the 'wrong' client for the house which she herself commissioned from Mies van der Rohe. She hated living in an all-glass house, and eventually sold it to a 'better' client - a Mies enthusiast, who promptly installed the Mies furniture which the architect had always envisaged for the house. Alice Millard would have sympathised with Farnsworth. Reminiscing about designing Millard's house, Frank Lloyd Wright recalled, 'I might as well admit it - I quite forgot this little building belonged to Alice Millard at all.'

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