Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Two Books about Modern Houses

Houses: Modern Natural/Natural Modern by Ron Broadhurst
Rizzoli, 2010
Hardcover, 300 pages

The New Modern House: Redefining Functionalism by Jonathan Bell and Ellie Stathaki
Laurence King Publishing, 2010
Hardcover, 240 pages

These two collections of contemporary residential architecture attempt to find unique strands within the well documented typology. One book looks at houses with strong ties to nature, and the other book finds houses that place function over aesthetics. How well does each argue and present its case?

Modern Natural starts with a foreword by MoMA curator Barry Bergdoll, who uses Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe as the Modern masters most diametrically opposed in their views of nature. Broadhurst's subsequent introduction points to a preference for Mies's framing of and existential relationship to nature, but the nearly thirty examples that follow also embody Wright's use of natural materials and dramatic siting. Here the houses inspired by nature in both their construction and physical relationship to it are spread across the globe but concentrated in three countries: Japan, Switzerland, Chile. In the first case nature is not scenery but the world around, be it a dense urban condition or overlooking the ocean; for Switzerland and Chile, mountains, forests, and water are the features that the houses respond to in their design. Unlike The New Modern House Broadhurst is content to simply present the designs as a snapshot of how architects confront nature in unique circumstances; he does not argue for a new movement. The result is a coffee table book with generous photography and drawings of some stunning architecture. Examples include Pite House by Smiljan Radic, the Palmyra House by Studio Mumbai, and the Passage House and Square House, both by TNA.

Bell and Stathaki use The New Modern House to outline their argument for a "New Functionalism," first in a lengthy introduction that finds favor with Modernism's original goal of "social progress through technological innovation," and then with a collection of case studies in rural, suburban, and urban contexts. They explain how the fifty projects they've assembled go against the popular, if not prevailing, tendency for "elaborate formal invention." While the aesthetics of the various designs in the book are diverse, their argument for hitting upon this so-called New Functionalism is problematic, because they fail to define function. Is it how the house serves the occupants? Is it how the house meets greater concerns, such as environmental ones? Is it something different than the Vitruvius's "Commodity"? While they may rely on an unspoken definition for the term, with an argument predicated on function it should be clarified at least. As presented, function is not so much the overriding aspect of the houses, but the hinge upon which their aesthetics revolve, because it is clear on just a quick flip through the book that form and aesthetics are very important to these designs. As well they should be for any architect creating architecture. 

But I'm not convinced that these fifty houses function any better than ones with the elaborate formal invention they are rallying against. I think the designs illustrate how architects can be influenced by function in its many guises (program, site, structure, environment, etc.) to find something appropriate for each design, rather than espousing a particular aesthetic. A few examples in the book have been featured on this web page: Casa Tóló by Alvaro Leite Siza Vieira, Casa no Gerês by Graça Correia Arquitectos, and the Element House by Sami Rintala. The last isn't actually a house, but a pavilion that is "as close as possible to a fully functioning residence." Its inclusion points away from function and towards aesthetics responses. Again, function is the hinge, and these and other designs show that thinking of the basic concerns of architecture can lead to some great houses.