Architect's houses by Stephen Crafti, Murdoch Books

I’ve just read the latest book by prolific architecture writer Stephen Crafti, Architects’ Houses, which looks at twenty houses – ranging from diminutive to grandiose – where architects design for architects. The interesting angle here is that these houses were conceived without the input of an independent client; the owners are both architect and client. (1)

The “architects own house” has a special place in architectural folklore, both in the popular and professional realms. Famous examples include houses by Frank Gehry, Charles and Ray Eames and Philip Johnson’s controversial “glass house”.

For the architect, a house of one’s own is the opportunity to create architecture that’s unconstrained by the requirements of a second party. It presents the prospect of creating the perfect design; a building of pure architectural expression.

More prosaically, an attention-grabbing design can help market a small practice. At the very least, the rest of the world expects the architects own house to be something pretty special; a building that signals both competence and imagination.

Architects’ Houses is a big and lavish book in traditional “coffee table” format. So the decision to limit it to 20 architects provides plenty of room for both images and text. This isn’t your customary piece of table furniture, though; it differs from standard picture books in a couple of ways.

One is that it’s very much a writer’s book, not a run-of-the-mill picture book. There’s no shortage of sumptuous images by Gorta Yuuki – around 15 for each house – but it’s not a book you merely “look” at.

It’s a book you also “read”. Stephen Crafti has written around 2,000 words on each house. In many popular design books the images come first and the words are often basic, even casual. That’s not the case here; the images serve the words, not the other way around. (2)

Another way it differs is the author’s clear purpose; which is to explain the architect’s journey – the process of design – from instigation to completion. He explains why each architect embarked on his or her grand venture; why he or she took particular design decisions – big and small – rather than others; and what constraints he or she had to work around.

Melbourne architect Kerstin Thompson tells how her decision to have only one bathroom in her house justified furnishing it with a particularly lavish marble. Architect John Henry’s partner chooses to live in the couple’s city apartment at certain times of the year because the house he designed – reminiscent of Robin Boyd’s Featherston house in Ivanhoe – is too cold at some times of the year and too hot at others.

This isn’t, of course, the sort of detached, critical analysis you might expect from a film or book reviewer or even a car tester; that rarely happens in architectural criticism.

That’s partly because writers need the cooperation of architects to get images and information. Also, getting the resources required to assess the performance of a building are considerable and way beyond the scope of today’s publishing industry. It doesn’t help that architects can be a litigious lot.

There’s probably not much of a market for critical architectural writing anyway. Searching, judgemental and sometimes necessarily negative assessments of buildings are the sorts of exercises that should be done by universities but sadly – and frankly shamefully – they rarely do them.

That’s understandably not the purpose of this book; what the author has done is persuade these twenty architects to explain to a second party what they were trying to achieve and how they went about it. That’s an important and useful contribution to architectural discussion because it’s not as common as it should be; despite the name, even Grand Designs focuses mostly on “the build”, not the design stage.

Reading the book prompts the inevitable question of what architects can achieve if they’re left to their own devices. What, in other words, is the “client-free dividend”?

In one or perhaps even two of these buildings, the architect has an aesthetic vision that I doubt they could persuade many clients to embrace. But one of the interesting things about this group is most of the buildings, in terms of their appearance, could’ve been designed for real clients.

There’s plenty of visual innovation and excitement, but the focus is mostly on creating livable environments, not making “out there” aesthetic statements. These architects all seem to have used the freedom to concentrate on translating into built form their ideas about how a house should work; the key dividend from being both designer and client is an intensely personal design.

The sense I get from these twenty houses is much more one of refinement and sophistication than of showing off. Design decisions are rational. One architect explains logically why the kitchen is barely bigger than a McMansion’s broom cupboard; one why a twenty first century family home, almost unthinkably, only has one bathroom; and another why the car “hot desks” with the dining room.

Most of the them live with other people so they’re not entirely unconstrained. I expect though that their partners mostly share the vision; if you’re going to live with an architect you’ll probably give them a lot of leeway in the practice of what is, after all, their profession. Anyway, many partners in this group are either artists in their own right or in creative professions.

Whether these twenty are typical of how the profession as a whole would approach the task of designing their own home is impossible to say, but if they are then it’s a sign that things are going well with Australian domestic architecture. The focus is on good design; on optimising how well a house works within the many constraints that apply to urban house building.

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  1. The architects are Dominic Alvaro, Rob Brown & Caroline Casey, Sue Carr, Clare Cousins, John Denton, Philip Goad, Simon Hanson, Drew Heath, John Henry, Stephen Jolson, David Luck, McBride Charles Ryan, Randal Marsh, Sam Marshall & Liane Rossler, Ian Moore, Rachel Nolan, Richard Peters & Heidi Dokulil, Dennis Rabinowitz, Kerstin Thompson, Brian Zulaikha.
  2. In fact you have to go to the acknowledgements to find the name of the photographer, Gorta Yuuki.