In the October issue of Homebuilding & Renovating magazine Charlie’s column explains how to approach the art of contemporary design.
If you wanted to build a modern home very much of its time, what would you do? Architectural designer and TV expert Charlie Luxton explains how to approach the art of the contemporary.
Will the 2015 home please stand up? Looking back at the early modernist masterpiece houses is a humbling experience. What is striking is that these early 20th-century buildings – 100 years old or so – still appear amazingly modern and relevant. Open plan living was coming into trend in the 1910s houses of Adolf Loos, and Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright were perfecting organic architecture and machines for living in the 1920s. Mies van der Rohe had sliding walls of glass and stripped minimalism in the ’30s. The Eames House of the ’40s was embracing mass-production and had already moved beyond modernist bombast and dogmatic aesthetics.
Surveying this pantheon of buildings, it is easy to wonder exactly what has moved on in the last 60 years — and that perhaps designers have all been doing cover versions ever since. However, there are issues and ideas being tackled by housing in 2015 that make them very specific to now. A number of trends can be seen in home design today that show where we are advancing and challenging the masters of the past.
Place and context have become an increasingly important concept in modern housing. The big criticism of much 20th-century house design is that it ignores local building styles and the important narrative roles houses play in the feel of a town or village. Limited availability of materials traditionally meant there was a unity of appearance to housing, often dominated by a local stone or brick. Modern transportation broke that relationship and the result has not always been positive. Buildings are not like cars, chairs or almost any other product. They do not move and therefore need to relate to their surroundings in a permanent and unique way. The best 2015 homes have a much stronger relationship to their surroundings through their materials, details and style. This contemporary vernacular is not about mimicking or copying (much as the planners want us to) but bringing together the specific character of a place and its buildings with those of your new home. There are so many wonderful design ideas to reference in the vernacular buildings of the UK, that starting from scratch with no reference to them seems so last century.
Another major failing of much contemporary architecture is that it doesn’t allow for the realities of time and ageing. Seemingly conceived in an idealised reality where time, weathering and decay don’t occur, the white rendered box (and its like) never look so good with green algae stains or if a beautiful white smooth plaster interior gets a boot scuff. It’s the illusion of perfection and while many buildings look fantastic in the publicity shoots, they age badly. Ageing is inevitable and good buildings should, like wine, add a new layer of beauty through it. Natural, traditional and interesting materials like brick, clay tiles, timber shingles, stone, wood or metal can not only tie a building into its location but can age beautifully too. The 2015 home understands this and embraces it.
Careful with Glass
For much of the 20th century, walls of glass were a real statement of modernity; expensive and hard to achieve. In the 21st century the folding sliding door is ubiquitous — a stock response to maximise a view or create a connection outside. The reality, both then and now, is that too much glass can result in overheating in summer and the opposite in winter. While this can be overcome through good design and modern technology the truth is that a wall of glass often lessens the impact of a view, whereas a carefully composed window frames it and heightens its effect. Acres of glazing do little for acoustics or creating a sense of place, often resulting in echoey washed-out rooms that have no soul. The 2015 house is sparing with its glass, preferring quality of view and performance of window over quantity. This includes glass balustrades — so last century….
Perhaps the main thing to have changed since the wonder of early modernism and defines good architecture today is its impact, or lack of it, on our beseiged environment. Superficially, at least, house design may appear to have not advanced much in the last 100 years, but functionally instead; how well insulated, sealed, ventilated and serviced they are has changed fundamentally. Many of these 20th-century masterpieces were awful to live in – too cold, too hot, too draughty and a nightmare to maintain – and it’s taken the intervening years for technology to catch up and make them comfortable and affordable to heat. Increasingly, automation and integration of systems are key to further reducing energy consumption, achieving more with less. Low energy consumption, embodied energy, internal air quality and responsible sourcing of materials are central to the 2015 house.
The Emergence of Fun
The modern home has for many years been a very serious place where people who drive German cars and eat muesli live in grey crisply ironed clothes.
The white rendered, glass walled, tight arsed, shiny hard house has had its day. The 2015 house has wit, humour and idiosyncrasy. It can parody itself, be quirky, irrational and fun. It references and responds to both its site and surrounding buildings. It cares for the planet, ages gracefully yet maintains the ambition and lessons of the modernist masters. Every building, no matter what the budget, is an opportunity to make the world a little better and the crop of 2015 shouldn’t waste it.