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Formative Houses

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Anyone who was precociously imagining houses and spaces instead of playing outside like a normal kid probably has a series of formative houses they enjoyed imagining being in long before they even knew it was someone’s job to design them. These are mine. The first was an A-frame chalet with a spiral staircase, It was something out of a book of generic house plans reproduced as House of the Week in the local Sunday paper. The A-frame I remember was more alpine than this one but the rendering style is familiar and from that time. Drawings such as these were known as “artist’s impressions” – because that was what they were.

My A-frame didn’t have the compromising deck or side protrusions for what almost certainly are the kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen and bathroom of mine were satisfyingly at the rear of the lower level even if they had compromised headroom. A mezzanine sleeping level accessed by the spiral stair extended halfway to the front and overlooked the double-height living area. I did not think this of this arrangement as Corbusian and I didn’t wonder if an A-frame chalet was suitable for the Mediterranean climate of Perth, Western Australia. Growing up in a single-storey house like most Australians at the time, I liked the idea of a second floor and imagined myself going upstairs to sleep with the comforting walls forming the roof above. Not once did I think of these weekly house plans as the newspaper filler they probably were.

I learned about my second house either from the same Sunday paper or possibly the Saturday West Australian that was always thicker with advertisements for used cars or project homes open for weekend viewings. One day one or the other had a short article on Frederick Keisler’s 1956 Endless House. Now this house is as old as I am so it took ten years to find me. I remember reading about pools of water here and there for impromptu bathing and thinking that strange. Also, I didn’t understand why it was raised on columns that, I later learned, had things called capitals. I still don’t but, if it hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t remember it at all. I soon outgrew the A-frame but Keisler’s Endless House still has a special place in my heart. Perhaps it’s because nobody has destroyed it for me by posting some crass render on social media. Not that I would know. Or it might be because there’s insufficient information to go on. Or because the plan, section and elevation information there is, is either indecipherable or not worth the effort to decipher – in other words, lost – for students keen to show off their visualization skills on social media. I freshly admire Endless House for its sheer irreproducibility, even though this was its downfall. At nine years old though, I visualized and experienced this house in my head and that was all I needed. I hope I never see it built.

Some houses are best left unbuilt.

At nine years old I had a very rich architectural life. There was also Thomas and Mary [Otis-Stevens] McNulty’s 1965 Lincoln House I saw in a LIFE magazine in the barbershop. I spent many hours poring over the plans and photographs of this house, annoying my older brother who had done “technical drawing” at school so I assumed he had the knowledge to convert the exploded isometric into the simple plans I was used to. (He didn’t.) The magazine in the barbershop was probably not that new or old so I was probably still about nine.

My mother must have noticed my interest in buildings because one day she brought home a secondhand copy of a UK magazine – probably House & Garden which, if it was, was a much thicker, meatier and informative magazine than it is today. I enjoyed the advertisements for self-cleaning electric ovens and washing machines with a window in a front door that you open to put the clothes in. There was some award-winning garden that, instead of lawn, had stepping stones across a shallow pool with low circular planters dotting it like islands. I never saw or heard of this garden again but it made a big impression. The early seventies being the early seventies, people older than me would have said it blew my mind.

What I remember most from that magazine was an article on a UK House of The Future competition that may have been the one sponsored by The Daily Mail. One of the entries was a yellow house by Richard Rogers and it was only when I saw a model of it at the 2015 Venice Bienalle that I remembered not liking it. That’s it in the background of this photo. It had moveable internal walls and was called Zip-up House or something.

Oh yes.

The RSHY website says the year was 1967-69 so I’m somewhere between 10 and 13 now. This period is confirmed by the following image from 1967 for an experimental pneumatic house by Jean-Paul Jungmann, I just learned. It was another of the competition entries. I didn’t warm to it at the time, perhaps because I’d picked up on the Australian prejudice for anything other than double-brick and tile construction as lowly. [Brick veneer construction was cheating while timber frame + “weatherboard” wasn’t even trying.]

Because it was circa 1967 and the only inflatables I knew were plastic beachballs, bouncy castles and bicycle tires, I imagined this house in black rubber and didn’t enjoy it at all.

Right now, all our best brains can think of is how to eliminate construction workers by sucking up to a nascent 3D printing industry but tensile bubble structures that are self-“inflating” in low atmospheric pressures might be lighter and more compact to transport to Mars than 3D printers, as well as being almost instantly habitable. Not that anybody really cares what happens on M`ars, let alone when. Closer to home and now, an inflatable and deformable inner skin of a room might have some useful applications.

The only other house I remember from the competition was a glass cube in a red frame curiously angled like a picture frame perhaps 10 x 10 meters and five meters high. Internal spaces were on or under a free-standing structure shaped like a four-leaf clover. Also red. The upper floor was more like a balcony with the bedrooms curtained off at night. This one might have even won the competition but I never saw it again. Below is my memory of it. There must have been at least two more entries in the competition but I remember nothing of them.

Individually, none of these houses was a formative house but, together, these three showed me there was more than one way for things to be. I began to have opinions. Matti Suronen’s 1968 Futuro House closes this era of my architectural life.

It looked fun but decades later I snarkily tweeted “Isn’t it a bit odd for people to be dancing around a fire in a house of the future?” But Suronen was Finnish and it’s perfectly fine for him to design a future Finnish house. What’s more important is that it was a prefabricated house with a production run far larger than Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion I or II combined, and the hundred or so that were built found their way around the world to become a cultural icon. Not many buildings can say that.

The municipal library was open until 9pm every Wednesday evening and during my high-school years I borrowed books and discovered architecture as something people did. I remember being intrigued by Bruce Goff’s Bavinger House but I also remember thinking it untidy. I was upset when it was demolished, but not that upset. Even now I’m not moved by buildings that claim to be “organic”.

Speaking of, the library had a book on Frank Lloyd Wright but I absorbed more from a history book (surely not Gideon?) that taught me something about Architecture as a discipline. Given that the year was about 1970, the book ended with LMvdR’s Farnsworth House and PJ’s Glass House as examples of minimalism as HISTORY still hadn’t settled on today’s accepted readings. I remember preferring Glass House to Farnsworth but then I did think both had been designed for full-time living. I still prefer Glass House even now when I know it wasn’t even designed for all-day living. I must have come across a book of Philip Johnson’s houses because his 1964 Boissonas House II still has an effect on me. I was recently reminded of it and it was like meeting an old friend again.

Post-modernism was already happening in my early undergraduate years but they were my Modernist years. In first year I made a 1:100 model of Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein that put me off making architectural models. In fourth year I had a Xeroxed photo of Richard Meier’s 1974 Douglas House pinned in front of my desk. It was the long shot with the boat on the shore.

By then I’d already discovered Japanese architecture and a path was set. I can’t not mention the houses of Kazuo Shinohara but, with the exception of House in Uehara, none of them were formative. They were intellectual appreciations either individually as [dare I say it?] art, or collectively as a body of work. They’re not houses I reacted emotionally to.

Unlike the 1974 Mochizuki House by another of Shinohara’s rogue students, Hiroyuki Asai. I wouldn’t have remembered it by its artwork name of House With a Sloping Wall if it hadn’t been called that at some stage. Whatever its name and whatever the reason, it’s comforting walls make it one of my formative houses but to form what I still don’t know.

The rest of the story is one of self-awareness and what I thought was an intellectual appreciation of architecture. In 1979 I was on a train from Sendai to Ishinomaki and reading an A+U special issue on Peter Eisenman’s 1975 House X.

The train line closely followed the shore and, if I hadn’t been so keen to understand this new and exciting architecture, I’d have looked out and seen the beautiful pine-studded islets of Matsushima.

Circa 1992 just prior to my leaving Tokyo for London, I had a book compiled by a poetry magazine that ran a monthly competition in which readers were invited to satirize a given theme, poet or poetic form. This satirization of haiku may be analogy for you but for me it’s metaphor.

“Flight of geese above.
A wondrous sight – that I missed.
Counting syllables.”