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Home comforts

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review - One Hundred Houses for One Hundred European Architects of the Twentieth Century Edited by Gennaro Postiglione. Taschen, 2004. 480pp. £19.99

This book is a spin-off from a Milan-based research project funded by the European Union. Focusing validly on the phenomenon of the self-designed architect's house, using examples of varied date by both major and more minor figures, it is a richly informative resource. Its rather pretentious introduction, which begins with the questionable claim that 'the interior has never attracted much attention', is best ignored, reflecting as it does the kind of jumble of vaguely theoretical guff that still seems to pass for intellectual substance in some Italian universities.

Following the current publishing vogue for producing thematic books defined by a suspiciously neat number - 100 in this case - it places a self-imposed restriction on its subject that has little academic justification and is, in turn, undermined by a quixotic approach to selection.

A glaring example is the inclusion of William Morris - who died in 1896 - in a book supposed to focus on the 20th century.

Moreover, he is there for the Red House at Bexleyheath, completed in 1860, which was largely designed by Philip Webb. More disappointing, given the book's pretensions to pan-Europeanism, is the exclusion of one of the most singular and inventive architects of the 20th century: the Slovenian Joze Plec. nik.

His own house in Ljubljana is an absolute masterwork - maybe now Slovenia has joined the EU, Plec. nik's brilliance and extraordinary range will be more widely recognised.

From a UK perspective there are also a few curiosities, as with the inclusion of slightly dull works by two Scottish architects - A N Paterson and Leslie Grahame Thomson - while Ernö Goldfinger's ground-breaking design at Willow Road, Hampstead, does not feature.

Unfortunately, the quality of the individual textual entries is very varied in terms of style, accuracy and technical knowledge. To be fair to the editors, though, collating this material from writers based all over Europe and fashioning it into something consistently structured and intelligible, must have been a difficult task.

The book is richly illustrated and the inclusion of plans of each building elevates it as a research resource. The reproduction of archival photographs taken shortly after many of the buildings were completed adds a very engaging element, and underlines why architects should ensure that their designs are recorded comprehensively and professionally. There is no substitute for seeing images of a building, particularly its interior - usually the first part to be changed from the original conception - when it most clearly reflected the architect's vision.

This book is all about that singular vision, allowing insight into how architects defined their domestic spaces, while also revealing personal design preferences freed from patron-defined compromise. Yet some of the buildings reinforce preconceptions about individual designers. As one might expect, for example, Alvar Aalto's house is a model of elegant and relaxed restraint while Erich Mendelsohn's is fitted out with claustrophobic precision. And for all the formal variety and definition of his exteriors, Bruno Taut's interiors are unresolved and were evidently very difficult to furnish effectively due to his preference for irregularly shaped spaces.

In some cases you get that slightly depressing sense of architects' homes being treated as showcases for their personal branding, as with John Pawson's house in Notting Hill, a pristine monument to simple, pure design.

How much more interesting had it been a little less predictable, a little more chaotically personal.

Ultimately, the value of this book resides not so much in the vaunting claims made in its introduction that it reveals an undiscovered field of 'hybrid cultural praxis', but simply in allowing us to see how architects of different periods and nationalities have configured their immediate environments. It also, of course, appeals to the voyeur in us all.

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