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Designs for living: the house as home

Open plan living room area and kitchen. Usonia, Town of Mt Pleasant, by Frank Lloyd Wright (completed 1951)
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Houses don’t have to be one-off architectural masterpieces to have life-changing effects on their occupants, writes Jay Merrick

What do architects think about when they think about houses? Do they always remember that the design of a house, or housing, is the most fundamental test of humane architectural engagement? Do they always imagine, in the greatest detail, how the domestic spaces they create might affect the physical, mental and emotional well-being of those who inhabit them? Do they think they are designing houses, or homes? And if their idea gives form to a particular form of dwelling, where does that idea begin, or end?   

Those questions would have verged on bad form in Edwardian times, when most house designers pondered architectural modulations of homes such as the villa inhabited by Mr and Mrs Pooter in George and Weedon Grossmith’s 1910 bestseller, The Diary of a Nobody, which opens with these words:

‘We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary. Tradesmen trouble us a bit, so does the scraper. The Curate calls and pays me a great compliment. My dear wife Carrie and I have just been a week in our new house, “The Laurels,” Brickfield Terrace, Holloway – a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour. We have a little front garden; and there is a flight of ten steps up to the front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up.’ 

The Penguin edition of The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith

The Penguin edition of The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith

The Penguin edition of The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith

Modernism’s great one-off houses generated startlingly different possibilities… Wright’s Robie House, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Chareau and Bijvoet’s Maison de Verre, Oud’s terraced housing at the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, Loos’s Villa Müller, Behrens’s New Ways in Northampton, Taut’s Gehag ‘utility’ flats in Berlin, not to mention his Japanese diary entry in 1933: ‘Bamboo fence. Courtyard and entrance to the Katsura Palace. Lizards motionless. Architecture bare, pure.’

It seems a peculiar luxury to write a paragraph like that in 2015, because that degree of architectural originality was produced by individually brilliant imaginations within a zeitgeist that allowed new, if not blatantly experimental, house forms to be designed and built; they were not just physically or socially experimental, but philosophically determined, as in Mies van der Rohe’s declaration: ‘We should attempt to bring nature, houses and the human being to a higher unity’.

To state the obvious: different house forms cause us to think, feel and behave differently. They provoke different engagements (or failures of engagement) with space, surface, light, shadow, atmosphere and physical closeness. Think of living in the Farnsworth House, and then imagine walking around one of Wright’s Usonian houses: your sense of existence in each of them would be entirely different.

But houses don’t have to be one-off architectural masterpieces to have important, or even life-changing effects on their occupants. In conversation with Peter Zumthor earlier this year, he mentioned to me that the atmosphere of his grandfather’s house had remained important to him – ‘very mysterious, almost no light, a smell, maybe of cider’.

Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, noted that ‘a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in our daydreams.’ And here’s Hannah Arendt, from The Human Condition: ‘Without being at home in the midst of things whose durability makes them fit for use and for erecting a world whose very permanence stands in direct contrast to life, this life would never be human’.

A ‘quietely heroic’ cadre of architects are striving to improve British housing

Rowan Moore wrote, in a thorough Observer piece earlier this year, of the ‘quietly heroic’ cadre of architects who strive tirelessly to achieve notable improvements in the design of British housing. Quite so, and admirably so. And yet the majority of housing developers will continue to treat the majority of architects as bolt-ons to their investment models – their financial architecture, as it were, which only pays for notably better housing design when profitability is likely to safely exceed the standard margins.     

There is no ‘higher unity’ involved in most house or housing design, no firm ethical position, and perhaps not even a thoroughgoing attempt to fashion a contemporary equivalent of the Pooters’ ‘nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement’. Meanwhile, housing associations are under threat; housing schemes offering ‘affordable’ homes at 80 per cent of the market cost are simply not affordable to most people; ditto swathes of the private rented sector.

And so it is not, after all, a luxury to finger a rosary of singularly great house designs. We will always need them as potent reminders of the intense degree of focus required to design houses in new ways to meet new situations. For most architects, the luxury is in imagining the faint possibility of actually being commissioned to design housing, or individual houses, in which people can feel at home in the 21st century.

Living room of the Farnsworth House, Piano Illnois, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (completed 1951)

Living room of the Farnsworth House, Piano Illnois, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (completed 1951)

Source: Peter Cook/View

Living room of the Farnsworth House, Piano Illnois, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (completed 1951)

We may, before long, encounter Taut’s phrase – ‘architecture bare, pure’ – being applied to an award-winning and just about affordable Cabanon-like abode, or perhaps to tower blocks composed of compacted spirals of Cabanons: Le Corb-Cob est arrivé.

The house as home is central to our sense of existence, our awareness of family, place, community, possibility. The way houses are designed encourages or represses civility, emotion and creativity. The idea for a house design should not be the product of a solipsistic imagination, however brilliant. Nor can the idea arise solely from the suggestions of specific sites, or localities, or even legendary architectural precedents.

The design of a house, or housing, cannot belong only to the architect or client. The architect’s idea must take shape, modestly or extraordinarily, as a deliberate and personal act of responsibility, a ramifying decency addressed to the daily home lives of people that they will probably never meet.   

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Great article, it seems to balance the highly specific and the inherently generic attitudes that are needed in house design. The specific can create interest and individuality, while the generic will promote more widespread acceptance (from both developers and purchasers) along with a collective impression of 'homeliness'. After all, most of us still aspire to a version of the Pooters' house.

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