What Is A Good House?

3 Famous Modern Houses

I was inspired by the thought-provoking comments I received on last week’s post about good architecture — so now let’s zero in on what make’s a good house. I liked Jay’s observation that for many great architectural monuments “We instinctively honor the conviction of the builder.” The same holds true for houses — in some cases this might be the homeowner or the architect or the builder, or all three.  Here are three great modern houses that are at the top of my list of designs worth visiting and studying. I’d like to hear yours.

Some houses are important simply for the ideas they express.

Villa Savoye of 1929 by Le Corbusier at Poissy near Paris, is the most influential modern house in the world (photo by Omar through Creative Commons). It  became the symbol of Machine Age modernism: “the machine in the garden” and the “machine for living. ” It is remarkable  for the rational clarity of its concept and form — automobiles stored on the ground floor, open living area and “yard” on second and third, a cube that is both open and closed  — and also for the not necessarily rational idea of placing a roof garden on a house that is itself set in a forested park. See how one of the window bands is actually an open wall and frames views into and out of the courtyard on the second floor. In other words there was no need for the house to rise up like a cruise ship with a roof garden in the wilderness of this particular setting — the garden was already there. But Le Corbusier wanted to make this commission a prototype for all houses, especially urban ones, and it brilliantly illustrated his  intellectual idea. He was lucky to find clients who would build it — and very quickly, when rain started pouring through the roof and down walls, they did not themselves feel so lucky to be living in  a prototype,  and eventually sued for damages.

Fallingwater of 1936 at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, by Frank Lloyd Wright, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year (photo courtesy Fallingwater, Pennsylvania Conservancy).

It was the architect’s response to the European modernism of folks like le Corbusier: Wright rooted his very International Style-looking horizontal planes in the bedrock of the waterfall, like an architectural version of “Take That, You Greenhorns!” His client, department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann wanted something special and he got it. The house is the ultimate essay in contradiction. Unlike the Villa Savoye, it doesn’t stand apart from its setting, but literally splashes in it. If, as Wright is reputed to have said, he just shook the design out of his sleeve – like a sort of architectural playing card — then this was the ace of space. It is cerebral in its use of the cantilever and at the same time

robustly rustic and visceral in the way it becomes its own sort of ledge-leaping waterfall right beside the real thing and even  incorporates stones from the site into its design — see the boulders shown beside the fireplace on the plan. The house got a bit damp at times, but that didn’t seem to matter very much, since it was a vacation retreat. It may well be Wright’s most extreme house and makes the visitor marvel at the nature of architecture and the architecture of nature. When I visited I felt I was on an architectural ride.

Casa Luis Barragan of 1948, by Luis Barragan, in Mexico City, is an urban mystery tour. Barragan was Mexico’s most influential modern architect and his own house showcases abstract sculptural forms and deft interplays of light and shadow (photos courtesy Casa Luis Barragan).

The vast square window creates two rooms: one outside, the other inside. The house becomes a series of interlocking cabinets and cubes,

some almost secret. Above is the living room on the inside of that big window.

Simple sculptural stairs draw the eye and the imagination, leading one to wonder where they lead. It is the house as personal puzzle box; indeed, you have the feeling that the overlapping spaces allowed for occasional eavesdropping. It is impossible to sense the whole — the design unravels like a bolt of cloth; a textured narrative of space and time.

So can your house or mine have any of these qualities? Certainly, though perhaps not in such extreme forms. But as I explore the plans in our large Houseplans inventory I am always looking for  some aspect or feature — usually related to the age-old definition of architecture as commodity, firmness, and delight — to rise above the rest. Let me know your own favorite house designs, famous or otherwise — I have listed a range of House Museums on the website — and I’ll try to keep a running list for the blog.

5 responses to “What Is A Good House?

  1. I’ve lived mostly in apartments the 40 years of my adult life, and I find myself occasionally designing floor plans for “the perfect house.” What I have found is that my idea of perfection is perpetually changing. At 59, I mostly want a compact living space, well planned storage, fabulous energy efficiency, an east window in the sleeping area (to wake up with the sun), complete accessibility ( to accommodate guests with mobility problems and also to prepare for the possibility that I might need a place with accessibility). Oh, and beauty with no yard to mow, and everything else low maintenance. Perfect is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. For a magnificent experience of Fallingwater, short of going there, see this incredible computer animation.

  3. Thanks for a great blog and website – I am hooked. The houses designed by Stella Carosso are remarkable. The floor plans are small but hold my interest and I marvel at how livable/modern they all seem while giving a nod to the past with their exterior treatment. No attached garages, but not a problem in a mild climate like Seattle.

  4. Fallingwater is and amazing piece of work. I’ve been there a number of times and even had the opportunity to swim in the plunge pool. One of the overlooked reasons Wright sited the house on top of the waterfall is so the building could face south. This would allow him to bring sunlight into the building. Great post, thanks.

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