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Home truths

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Living in Motion: Design and Architecture for Flexible Dwelling By Robert Kronenburg et al. Vitra Design Museum, 2002. 288pp. £40.

Distributed by Art Books International Xtreme Houses By Courtenay Smith and Sean Topham. Prestel, 2002. 176pp. £19.95

When the Vitra Design Museum, Courtenay Smith and Sean Topham (erudite authors of Xtreme Houses), and even Ikea are queuing up to challenge cherished assumptions about domestic space, there is a hint of the old zeitgeist appearing. Indeed, about the only defence of the old Parker Morris norms I have seen recently was by David Wild in these pages (AJ 30.1.03). Living in smaller spaces with less fixed dimensions is the new home ownership.

The real point here is that, for Parker Morris and his disciples, space - irrespective of its quality, location or equipment - was what delineated the domestic realm. It was a viewpoint that appealed to architects, because they had already claimed for themselves the sole right to orchestrate space and, therefore, controlled domesticity. Inhabitants fought back, customising their interiors with all manner of surfaces and furnishings, proving once and for all that housing is not just about space. These publications merely take that trend to the opposite extreme.

Vitra's Living in Motion is the more serious of the pair. Of course, being Vitra, furniture plays a significant part in carrying the identity.

Curator Mathias Schwartz-Clauss has plenty of pornography for design aficionados, including a picture of 36 disassembled Thonet bentwood chairs coerced into one cubic metre phew. But Robert Kronenburg on 'Modern Architecture and the Flexible Dwelling', and Stephanie Bunn on 'Mobile and Flexible Vernacular Dwellings', are notably informative, if not especially insightful.

Bunn limits herself to describing numerous examples, and Kronenburg loses some clarity in blurring Modernist obsessions with space with flexibility per se. Together, these two essays show that descriptive and functional concepts like mobility and flexibility do not fit neatly with stylistic concerns, which necessarily include far more elusive qualities.

It is technology, rather than style, which defines the parameters of these two concepts, whether on the pre-Columbian North American plains or in 21st-century Tokyo, and Living in Motion has enough source material to be a useful touchstone.

More nakedly polemical in format, Xtreme Houses has some very familiar content: Sarah Wigglesworth (all her time must be taken up showing writers around that house), FAT, Ushida Findlay, and Piercy Conner's microflat. Interspersed with these over-exposed images are some new ones, but whether because of the too-insistent graphics, or an extraordinary homogeneity between young designers across the world, they all seem to come from central casting - an impression that the clumsily didactic text does little to dispel.

It is a book to flick through rather than to read and, doing this, the blend of the familiar and unknown starts to suggest less heavyhanded links between the examples. There are affinities in modes of representation and modes of construction, for instance, which imply much about the future of design, if little about housing as such.

For the authors, 'Xtreme' seems to mean minimal, and some of the more interesting schemes are means to annex a tiny piece of otherwise unallocated space, necessarily on a temporary basis. They include Stefan Eberstadt's 'rucksack house' (pictured left), an extension slung out of a window, and inflatable bubbles by Martin Ruiz de Azua and Michael Rakowitz.

Exploring how minimally we really can live, rather than relying on dear old Parker Morris, is certainly a worthwhile exercise, but taken too far can lead to the same conclusion that Tolstoy reached: all we need is a two-metre hole in the ground.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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