House Building Architectural Design
THE homes great architects build for themselves are often embarrassments. Sometimes this is because they remain eternally unfinished, like never-ending workshops for testing out techniques and materials, as with Frank Gehry’s home in Los Angeles. Or else, as with Das Canoas, the home that Oscar Niemeyer designed for himself in Rio de Janeiro, they embarrass for another reason. So intimate is the relationship between the natural world and the building, the domestic spaces and the public, that Niemeyer’s public work seems inhumane by contrast.
The homes that architects build for their parents, on the other hand, are usually of a different order. Perhaps this is because parents are willing to indulge their children on matters of time and money, allowing them to produce their most expressive and thoughtful work. This is evident in Wimbledon House, designed by Richard Rogers for his parents in the late 1960s (pictured above). According to Philip Gumuchdjian, who has overseen a recent refurbishment, “[Mr Rogers’s] mother Nino was a true modernist who inspired him.” Drawing on the pioneering architecture that Mr Rogers had seen in California, as well as his mother’s own work as a potter—she made beautiful, pared-back ceramic pieces—the house is almost a single form, a piece of dramatic sculptural simplicity. The one piece of furniture in the main room is a raised kitchen counter upon which Nino displayed her art.
There is often generational timing at work, too. An aspiring architect studies for seven to eight years before working in a larger practice to gain experience: this means that architects are usually ready to design their first project alone just as their parents are retiring and looking to downsize. That is a perfect-sized job for a budding designer. In Mr Rogers’s case, his parents weren’t hugely wealthy, so he had to be inventive. He opted for fold-down bunk beds for the grandchildren and used window units typically found in mobile homes. Creating for a client he knew better than any other, Mr Rogers fashioned a masterpiece in which garden and house are one complete vision.
Indeed, houses designed for parents have been incredibly significant in the evolution of architecture. The house that Bob Venturi designed for his newly-widowed mother signalled, in effect, the advent of post-modernism (see below). For Vanna Venturi, although she gave her son six years to get the plans right, the end result was to be an unpretentious home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. With the aid of Denise Scott Brown, his wife and partner, Mr Venturi reconciled an unprepossessing site with a wealth of architectural history. The exterior features a grand urban elevation at the front and a rustic rear, making a nod to—of all places—Michelangelo’s Porta Pia in Rome.
The project gave Mr Venturi space to invent his own architectural language and wrestle free from the influence of Louis Kahn, the great modernist for whom he had worked. Kahn made his name using cutting-edge construction techniques on low-rise buildings, often in brick and with simple, solid geometries. The Vanna Venturi house instead played with scale and tropes of historic architecture such as split pediments and pitched roofing. The experience encouraged Mr Venturi to write his manifesto, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” (1966), in which he argues against Kahn’s theory of form.
The Villa Le Lac is another important manifesto project, this time for modernism. Completed by Le Corbusier in 1925, this delightful home on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva is the first time we see the Swiss architect introduce the tenets that would become integral to his revolutionary approach to architecture. A key element is the “free plan”—in which the interior is conceived of as a single space—divided only by movable partitions. It is also the first time we see Le Corbusier using his signature panoramic windows, and placing a sundeck on the roof. The building was the earliest in a group of Le Corbusier designs placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List last year.
Although the architect used Villa Le Lac to support his thesis that houses are “machines for living in” and should be both innovative and pragmatic, it is still a touching expression of Le Corbusier’s devotion to his parents. Inside, he carves out a special space from which his mother could carry on her piano teaching and outside, the small cloistered garden offers snatches of views across the lake. All of its elements seem to have been designed to delight his mother: it serves as a powerful counterpoint to the argument that Le Corbusier’s architecture was soulless.
Many houses that architects build for their parents are bravura coming-of-age designs: they show designers proving themselves to those that have indulged an earlier ambition. But as well as being carefully crafted and thoughtful works, these houses have served as important foundations on which to build bold and ambitious careers.