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To be tried and tested

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Experimental Houses By Nicholas Pople. Laurence King, 2000. 240pp. £45

This well-illustrated book explains some 42 houses, mostly from the past decade, from many countries. They are arranged in seven categories: shelter and mobile houses; prefabricated houses; conversion and re-use; infill houses; cluster houses; ecological houses; and one-off houses. Each section has its own introduction before the examples are examined in detail.

There is also a general introduction to the whole book which opens with Raphael of Urbino's unfinished but extraordinary Villa Madama outside Rome. As the author says, the villa 'represents one of the most radical departures from established house design practice'. Just as radical, he explains, were some of the projects by Claude Nicolas Ledoux and Jean-Jacques Lequeu immediately preceding those of John Soane. We are then taken through Victor Horta's Hotel Tassel, Rudolph Steiner and El Lissitzky, to Adolf Loos and Rudolf Schindler.

The introduction reminds us of Frank Lloyd Wright and shows early Mies projects plus, inevitably, Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye.

While the author politely refers to Madame Savoye's difficulties with the house, other sources have told me she and her husband positively loathed it, as much as its escalated cost. Why, after 70 years, must writers still approach the place on bended knee instead of realising it was one of the maddest mistakes of the Modern movement? But we are, thank goodness, taken to Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bigvoet's Maison de Verre, surely one of three unsurpassed house statements of the 1930s, the others being Wright's Fallingwater and Aalto's Villa Mairea - both surprisingly omitted.

The introduction then offers a fair picture of industrialised housing in Britain and more particularly the US, before summarising some of the more questionable examples of the 1980s. I personally find Frank Gehry's early work hard to take seriously immediately after turning the page on the genius of Charles and Ray Eames.

There are, though, some intriguing inclusions, such as Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue's Mercaders building in Barcelona, a truly stylish conversion; Tony Wrench's Round House in Pembrokeshire, its recycled components giving it 'back to nature' appeal; Svi Hecker's Spiral apartment building at Ramat-Gan, Israel, typical of this fine architect's geometrical puzzles; the very personal work of the Open City co-operative at Valparaiso, Chile; and Villa Vison by Flemming Skude at Taastrup, Denmark, for its reticence.

But even these are not truly remarkable.

The two houses that are, though - and I would buy the book for these alone - are Can Lis (1971) and Can Feliz (1994, pictured above) near Porto Petro, Majorca, which Jorn Utzon built for himself after the debacle of Sydney Opera House. The later house was occasioned by the first being made untenable by the noise of a Club Med or similar on the site next door, but the differences between them are worth serious study.

Whereas in Can Lis we find the 'house' divided into four separate buildings sited close to each other, the second is one building with much unroofed space. After the high technology of the design of the Opera House, here Utzon is content to use local stone and tiles, fairly roughly constructed. A small window in the west wall of Can Lis' living room allows a late sun to say hello at five o'clock each afternoon.

All one-off houses are experiments because they need to satisfy the owner's soul.

Utzon's houses in Majorca have none of the archispeak common to most of the other 40 examples in the book, yet they strike a certain note of perfection in how most of us regard the soul. That, I suppose, is why I found the houses I have not singled out to be just experimental rather than architectural in the sense of Raphael's Villa Madama. Comparatively, there is more sheer class in Clare Melhuish's Modern House 2 (AJ 7.12.00).

Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor at the University of Bath

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