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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

28 in 28 #6: West Coast Modern

February is Book Month on A Daily Dose of Architecture. The "28 in 28" series features a different book every day of the month.

West Coast Modern by Zahid Sardar with photographs by Matthew Millman
Gibbs Smith, 2012
Hardcover, 248 pages

The name of this coffee table book with 27 houses is intriguing, for how can one define a modern architecture in an area as large as the West Coast? If we take Wikipedia's definition of the area to mean the area includes California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska, we're talking about mountains, deserts, coastlines, and some of the largest cities in the United States. Therefore the modernism that is found in these five states should ideally exploit the differences of each particular context. And thankfully that is what Zahid Sardar has done with this collection, dividing the houses into five chapters based on natural and human-made environments: Coast, City, Desert/Prairie, Ski Mountain, and Wine Country. If the author partitioned them up by state (different ones than Wikipedia, mind you), then it would have resulted in some lopsided chapters: California (17), Washington (2), Arizona (2), British Columbia (2), Hawaii (1), Wyoming (1), Alaska (1), Idaho (1).

In grouping by landscape over political borders, the book prioritizes the environmental aspects that influence each design. This decision therefore questions the long held notion that modern architecture ignores the environment in favor of hermetically sealed boxes run on air conditioning powered by fossil fuels. These are big houses for people with lots of money, but they are not houses that ignore their context; they are aware of landscape, climate and, in the case of the last chapter, economics. But they are also homes accompanied by modern furnishings, so it's no surprise that when Matthew Millman moves inside each house, the photo captions describe what chair, lamp, or other piece is in the frame. Like Dwell and other magazines, this book offers a lesson in how to live in a modern house. Designing and building a house like Mayer Sattler-Smith's House for a Musher may seem like the hard part, but the owners can't just throw some IKEA furniture in there and call it a day. In this regard, the most interesting project in the book is Bade Stageberg Cox's Art Cave in Calistoga, California; art enters the picture where mid-century and Scandinavian furniture predominates elsewhere.

Sardar and Millman should be commended for a very good selection of houses beautifully photographed. It is a book that would be more home on the coffee table of a distinguishing client than the architects themselves. The book makes modern residential architecture accessible through the large photos and the words of both the architects and the clients. Ultimately the book reveals how the landscapes of the west have inspired architects to find suitable responses in a modern idiom, creating some stunning spaces that respond well to their environments.

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