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Domestic bliss

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review - Housey Housey: A Pattern Book of Ideal Homes By Clare Melhuish and Pierre d'Avoine. Black Dog Publishing, 2005. 256pp. £24.95

Last year Pierre d'Avoine staged a quirky exhibition of housing designs at the RIBA, working with students from London Metropolitan University who peopled models of his houses with Bob the Builder and Bratz dolls (AJ 18.11.04). Here, belatedly and more seriously, is the book, intended as a pattern book for modern housing in the manner of those produced in the 18th century, and with essays by d'Avoine and his partner, the historian Clare Melhuish.

D'Avoine, born in Bombay in 1951, has lived in Britain since 1962, but has worked extensively abroad. One of RIBA's '40 under 40' in the late 1980s, he has been commended as a thinking man's architect, without having produced a major work in Britain.

This is not a practice history as such, for it does not include any commercial work, such as his competition entry for Grand Buildings off Trafalgar Square (1985) or shops for Michiko Koshino in Japan. What d'Avoine offers, in a series of carefully presented plans, elevations and renderings, is a series of proposals for infill housing - some realised, many not - that address 21st-century living.

These range from Invisible House (199798) for a backland site in Acton, its lower floor submerged in the ground, to a highprofile terrace of Slim Houses, 5m wide, shown at the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1999.

All are long, narrow plans, usually with some form of internal courtyard or lightwell, or bent around a central courtyard. D'Avoine gives his sources as Schindler's modest houses, built using natural materials, and the Case Study Houses; I was reminded too of Phippen, Randall and Parks' narrow terraced houses at the Ryde, Hatfield, built for a housing association in 1964.

There are some common characteristics for the modern house. Many have a landscaped flat roof, developed most thoroughly in his Climate House scheme for Tehran, where the roof acts also as a thermal insulator and contains solar panels. By combining high insulation, and requiring relatively little energy in their construction, such schemes offer great possibilities for the 21st century.

The other modern twists are the amount of space devoted to concealed storage and secondary bathrooms, while the office or studio often occupies the focal position in the scheme. This was very evident in d'Avoine's Sheendale Studios in Richmond (1987-89), where a fold-down desk is built into the staircase landing. It is seen on a larger scale in a house and studio in east London for an artist and graphic designer, where work spaces occupy two-thirds of the built area.

Is this Modernism? The long narrow plans are often coupled with double-height living or studio spaces, reminiscent of Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation and the terrace of narrow houses by Bill and Gill Howell with Stanley Amis in Hampstead. The materials are a partial steel frame often combined with timber, encouraging the possibilities of offsite prefabrication. But this is a measured, pragmatic Modernism - even in d'Avoine's largest single realisation, Big House in Mortlake (1999-2002). His Monad House, runner-up in the Welsh House for the Future Competition in 2000, invites comparison with recent houses that recreate the barn in the landscape, such as Mole Architects' Black House at Prickwillow or Dow Jones' Marshall House in Suffolk.

D'Avoine's greatest preoccupation is with suburbia. Just as Britain invented the industrial city, so philanthropists thereafter encouraged those workers who could to move out - Ebenezer Howard was but the most famous clerk to take up commuting.

D'Avoine and Melhuish argue that, along with the breakdown of the post-war nuclear family, we see DIY degrading the manicured, stereotyped swathes of suburbia.

It is in its subtle alternatives for infill and extension, such as the Invisible House and south London's White House, that this book offers most possibilities for the future. A pity, then, that some of the essays are from the early and mid-1990s and are palpably out of date, repackaged as texts - little pearls of wisdom - like those of a previous couple responsible for an Ideal Home house, the Smithsons. It does not work. We are not yet back in the early 1990s recession that starved d'Avoine and his contemporaries of the chance to build; rather, the last five years have seen new opportunities for small-scale architect-designed houses and extensions.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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