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How we happen to be

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Modern House 2 By Clare Melhuish. Phaidon, 2000. 240pp. £35

Due to the clarity and candour of the author's mind, you might call this volume hunky-dory, with its fine photographs and production values that we now expect from Phaidon. After an introduction which gives a brief picture of the Modern Movement (from which Frank Lloyd Wright is strangely excluded), Clare Melhuish considers the cultural values of the 1990s, which all 30 included houses represent.

The body of the book is divided into five chapters: Environmental Awareness; Changing Patterns of Living; Urban Interaction; The Rural Retreat; and Concept Houses of the Future.

There is a good bibliography for further reading and an index.

Melhuish's assiduous choice of material and her accompanying comments gave me hope for what might happen in the next decade. Here, lively architects and owners have thrown aside the shroud of the classical Modern Movement, and what almost inevitably followed it, and picked up instead on the real issues that matter most of the way around the world - given our increasing need to build on the earth's surface (sometimes under it) in highly economic ways.

Indeed, I was reminded that, from 1890 for almost two decades, under that weirdo banner of the Arts and Crafts movement, there were Mackintosh's, Lethaby's and Voysey's extraordinarily beautiful houses, which leaped quite clear of revivalism and pseudo-Classicism but in which you can still smell the mint for the homely English roast.

Now, of course, the problems of the ecosphere are far greater but (under 'environmental awareness') Glenn Murcutt's Marika Alderton House at Yirkala, Australia, summarises simple family life so dextrously, while the rounded forms of Javier Senosiain's Whale House on the outskirts of Mexico City reflect his belief that curved spaces are a natural habitat for humans. This strangely beautiful house was constructed by inflating a pneumatic membrane, spraying it with polyurethane foam and, once hardened, spraying that in turn with metalfibred cement, the inside faces stuccoed and those outside faced with broken tiles in widely varying colours.

Under 'Changing Patterns of Living' there is Rem Koolhaas' house overlooking Bordeaux for his unfortunate wheelchairbound client who wanted a complex house because it would be his whole world. Koolhaas gave him just that, but I find it as hard to understand as I always have done its architect. For me, Thomas Craig's own simple but open house in Christchurch, New Zealand, has a directness and subtle charm.

'Urban Interaction' gives us the sort of well-heeled place you would expect to find in New York, but more interesting is Ravsthi Kamath's Nalin Tomar House in New Delhi, which has so much of historic India built into its stuccoed forms. Bauhaus functionalism, after all, denied us our place in an ever-evolving world where almost nothing is finite.

On the other hand, Future Systems'half-buried house overlooking the Atlantic from the Pembrokeshire coast carries just those functionalist notions to extreme lengths by marrying it with minimalism. I have to admit, however, that this present tiny holiday cabin has an amazing spirit - so much so that the owners want to make it their only home sometime in the future. The planners rightly stipulated that the hillside should always remain in its raw state. Meanwhile, 'Concept Houses of the Future' makes you think, particularly Pierre d'Avoine's Slim House: Model Terrace, which was at the Ideal Home Exhibition last year.

Were I a young married parent toying with the idea of building a house, or especially an aspiring architecture student, I would hug anyone giving me this book for Christmas. It is so full of ideas about people as they happen to be, which is why I described Melhuish's choice as assiduous.

Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor at the University of Bath

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