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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Wednesday, March 8, 2006
    Home-Land Insecurities

    Catching up on reading—and weblogging—I want to recommend "Home Alone," a terrific essay in this month's Atlantic, in which the professor and critic Terry Castle comes clean about her addiction—to shelter magazines. Castle teaches at Stanford and specializes in 18th-century English literature—her books include Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction—but she's apparently passed many an enraptured hour paging through the décor glossies. Castle knows her House and Garden and Met Home, her House Beautiful and Architectural Digest and World of Interiors, her Dwell and Wallpaper and Nest, and, as a sister addict (though naturally I tell myself I subscribe for professional reasons) I can't help but agree about their dependably narcotic effects. Castle writes: "An ex-girlfriend (we split up in part over closet space) informs me I am a 'house-porn addict,' and although the term is exactly the sort of metrosexual-hipster cliché, cheeky yet dull, that one finds every Thursday in the New York Times House & Home section, it does get at the curious feelings of guilt, titillation, and flooding bourgeois pleasure—relief delivered through hands and eyeballs—that such publications provide."

    Clearly Castle is in no position to moralize. But she's too sharp not to have some fun with the pretensions of the genre, and she's on target about the most curious contradiction of shelter lit: how month after month the magazines offer the slick spectacle of sophisticated homeowners plunking down pots of money to make places that express inimitable personal style, only to concoct predictable variations on one of the styles du jour. For architects, it can get more than a little uncomfortable to confront the implicit limits of originality—including one's own. I remember a conversation I had years ago with a friend, soon after we'd graduated from architecture school and had started working in a design firm. Had I noticed, my friend asked, that our apartments, and the apartments of our other architect friends, looked more or less the same—that despite our efforts to be innovative, fresh, quirky, etc., we'd all somehow contrived the same mix ("mix" being, of course, one of the operative concepts of ambitious home décor) of period architectural detail and contemporary furniture (Bauhausian knockoffs and Ikea placeholders, usually—though I recall one friend who so resisted the purchase of non-pedigreed furniture that he lived for years with a reverse-snob sofa-equivalent made of plywood and paint cans), of wood floors and threadbare Orientals, of Artemide lamps and (this being the late '80s) Alessi kitchenware and maybe even some outré Memphis-style bric-a-brac. Obviously we couldn't escape the décor-zeitgeist. Here is Castle on the double message of the magazines:

    "That the 'express yourself' ethos of the shelter mag is both illogical and manipulative should go without saying. While encouraging you to find your 'personal style,' the [magazine] also wants to show you how. Even my own fanatically considered décor, I’m forced to admit, may be part of some greedy stranger’s business plan—a version of that nostalgic 'vintage' or 'Paris flea market' style heavily promoted to urban college-educated women of my generation throughout the United States and Western Europe over the past decade or so. (Other incessantly marketed 'looks' now vying for dominance in Shelter-Mag Land: 'mid-century modern'—a variety of Baby Boomer Rat Pack retro distinguished by funky space-age design, Case Study houses, pony skins on the floor, and, if you’re lucky, lots of Eames, Mies, and Corbu—and the more minimalist, Asian-inspired 'W Hotel' look, involving wenge wood, stark-white walls, spa bathrooms, dust-mite-free bedding, solitary orchids in raku pots, etc. Chacun à son goût and all that, but the latter mode—like the frigid minimalism of the British cult architect John Pawson—always strikes me as simply the latest twist on twentieth-century fascist design.) But whether my never-ending quest for antique finials, faded bits of toile de Jouy, old postcards, and other quirky 'flea-market finds' is a product of disposition or suggestion, I am, I realize, as much a slave to commodity fetishism as any McMansion-owning reader of Architectural Digest—hideous bible of parvenus from the Hamptons to Malibu."

    For the record, my own shelter-mag jones has never gotten as desperate as Digest. Not necessarily because of the parvenu problem, but because most of the stuff it publishes—20,000-square-feet of faux-cozy in Sun Valley, over-plush and lugubrious Park Avenue triplexes, etc.—reminds me of that scene in The Philadelphia Story where the journalist Macauley Connor/James Stewart is shown around the Main Line mansion of the heiress Tracy Lord/Katharine Hepburn, and he mutters, "You'd have to be as rich as the Lords to live in a dump like this."

    Castle speculates too on the reasons for the popularity of interior mags. Personally I've always assumed that our growing home-obsession could be explained much the way we explain eating disorders: as a way of taking charge of something, when so much is beyond control. The demands of domesticity, the volatility of the work-world, not to mention the bad politics and policies of our hapless leaders: when these seem much too much, how comforting—how compensatory—it is to curl up on your perfect licensed-reproduction of a sofa. (Perhaps you caught that recent segment of This American Life, which chronicled one man's decade-long search for the ideal couch, including his fixation—something I understand, actually—on the oeuvre of Jean-Michel Frank?) In any case, though Castle doesn't see redoing your living room as a hedge against anorexia nervosa, she does view the interiors itch as an understandable—albeit pricey—response to geo-political anxiety:

    "How to understand such collective absorption? One might moralize, of course, and simply write off the phenomenon as yet another example of life in obscene America—home of the fat, spoiled, and imbecilic. . . . [Yet] [o]ne could as easily argue, it seems to me, that house porn, like the billion-dollar business of home improvement itself, is symptomatic—of a peculiar disquiet now haunting ordinary American life. However callow it may seem to point it out, being middle-class these days means feeling freaky a lot of the time. The heebie- jeebies are definitely a problem. The issues here are deep ones. Home—no less than the cherished 'homeland' of dismal fame—seems in desperate need of securing. The precariousness of All We Hold Dear is dinned into our heads daily. It’s hardly feckless to feel scared or neurasthenic at times.

    "Might paging through a shelter mag be seen—in an analytic spirit and with a certain Freudian forbearance—as a middle-class coping mechanism? As a way of calming the spirit in bizarre and parlous times? House porn, I’m beginning to think, could best be understood as a postmodern equivalent of traditional consolation literature—Boethius meets Mitchell Gold. Though shamelessly of this world—and nowhere more so than in the glutted and prodigal U.S.A.—it’s as spiritually fraught, one could argue, as the breviaries of old."

    For the rest of the essay, click here, while the link is still live.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 2:15 pm | Permanent link



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Prefab seems always to be the next big thing—the solution to our chronic shortage of middle-class housing, a means to making contemporary design affordable. It's been around for a while, of course, from the "Modern Homes" that Sears, Roebuck sold via catalogue to Buckminster Fuller's curvy Dymaxion prototype to recent experiments in shipping-container chic. But lately there's been a lot to look at, and much of it's good-looking.

The LV Home, by the Chilean-born, Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero, is an effort to make "high-end modern design" not only affordable but unintimidating too. The kit-of-parts—basically the exterior shell—starts at $32,900, and Romero's web site features testimonials like this, from a Wisconsin homebuyer: "the closest I could ever get to the aesthetics of the Mies van der Rohe Plano house."

For the manufacturer Kannustalo, Ltd., the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects have created the Touch House. First exhibited at a housing fair, the 2,000-square-foot house hasn't been yet been widely marketed, which seems a shame.

Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann designed the SU-SI House in the mid-'90s, for his sister Suzy. A couple of years ago, the 1,400-square-foot house was constructed—or rather, assembled—on a rural site in Sullivan County, New York, for about $300,000, for a Manhattan photographer and his family.

Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of the Los Angeles firm, designs "factory-made modules shipped ready to occupy." The architects, known for design/build work, both manufacture the modules and supervise construction. So far one house has been built, in Palm Springs—near Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, which the firm restored—and a few more are underway.


Some mostly recent books on houses, some posh, some not.

The Green House
Authors Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne argue that green design is not just ecologically responsible but also high style— "camera ready." They make a good case, using projects like Georg Driendl's Solar Tube, in Vienna, Brian MacKay-Lyons's Howard House, in Nova Scotia, and Lahz Nimmo's Casuarina Beach House, in northern New South Wales.

Prefab Modern
A well illustrated and gracefully written survey by Jill Herbers showcasing some designers who are making prefab both affordable and stylish. Besides the projects listed elsewhere on this site, these include Adam Kalkin, Jennifer Siegal, Michelle Kaufmann, and Resolution: 4 Architecture

The Very Small Home
The subtitle says it: "Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space." Author Azby Brown has compiled a collection of houses most of which are so diminutive they'd fit into the master bath of a McMansion. These include Tadao Ando's austere 4 x 4 House, just 243 s.f., and Architecture Lab's White Box House, a comparatively roomy 559 s.f.

David Adjaye Houses
A handsome monograph featuring a dozen of the houses that have made Adjaye a rising star of London architecture. These include Elektra House and Dirty House, plus the residences he's designed for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili. More


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