What makes a house stand out from its neighbours? A fresh coat of paint on the front door? A perfectly manicured garden? Unusual shutters and siding? Experimental architecture?

On the Threshold: The Changing Face of Housing is an exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum that explores the importance of residential exteriors in defining not only individual homes but also entire communities. As Walter Benjamin, the German literary critic, wrote in his 1920s book One Way Street: “Buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into innumerable, simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stages and boxes.”

Take Living Room House in Geln­hausen, Germany, designed by architects Seifert Stoeckmann Formalhaut. It is all white on the outside with square windows, creating a chequerboard effect. But its interaction with its environment goes beyond aesthetics. One section of the façade moves forward – the room behind it keeps its walls but loses its ceiling, like a drawer being pulled out of a patterned chest – and the boundary between inside and out is lost.

Chimney Pot Park, a 349-house scheme by Urban Splash and Shedkm in Langworthy, Manchester, England, toys with the same themes on a much larger scale. Although it receives scant attention in the V&A show – just a 6ins-by-9ins ­computer-generated picture of two homes in cross-section – it’s worth straining your neck to see them. Ground-level bedrooms and first-floor living spaces reverse the terraced house model but even more interesting are the raised garden patios that cover the houses’ car parks. The buildings back on to each other so the outside spaces are semi-private, separated by low potted shrubbery.

Another featured building, Keeling House in Bethnal Green, London, emphasises the way in which inside-outside borders must sometimes shift. Originally designed by Lasdun, Redhouse and Softley in 1957, the building had lifts that opened right on to the pavement. But as the city grew and streets became more dangerous, tenants decided they wanted another level of inside space. Munkenbeck and Marshall added a full lobby in 2000.

Unusual materials can also colour the way a development or house is perceived by outsiders. The Peabody Trust Housing in Silvertown, London, by Niall McLaughlin Architects is a case in point. Three buildings, with 12 flats, are clad in metal oxide-infused glass in iridescent horizontal stripes of greens, yellows, pinks and oranges. They sparkle like a chintzy New Year’s party favours but also pay homage to the region’s chemical-heavy manufacturing history. “By designing dwellings that project a distinctive face to the outside world, architects can utilise the residential shell to develop a new idea of ‘home’,” the notes accompanying the pictures explain.

The changeable nature of the louvres and grilles of the cladding for the proposed Kroyers Plads development in Copenhagen harbour will constantly vary its appearance, playing with the contrast between the broad horizons of the sea and the enclosed volumes of adjacent buildings.

The exteriors of the the homes in the Waterwijk neighbourhood of The Hague, Netherlands, also provide also provide visual interest in which residents can take pride. All the units are placed almost haphazardly on their plots and covered in plastic, wood, zinc, terracotta, cement or polyurethane. Bright blue, orange or silver colours contrast with black and each building has a unique identity.

As the title of this exhibition suggests, residential thresholds – entrances and exits – are also key elements in the intersection of public and private, both a barrier against and a window to the outside world. Thus the show includes nearly a dozen photographs of individual terraces, communal front yards, shared walkways leading to flats and recessed doors that allow for added privacy. Collectively it’s a rather eclectic collage but one quirky, charming picture stands out.

A digital image and model of the Norfolk Park Housing in Sheffield, to be completed by Matthew Lloyd Architects in 2007, shows a row of whimsical curving doorway overhangs on a row of houses with multi-coloured façades. The buildings invite attention; in fact they look like cartoon faces with dramatic ski-slope noses. But there is a practical consideration too, protecting residents and visitors from the elements just before they come inside.

Only one section of On The Threshold ventures into building cavities, focusing on creative shared spaces, including communal kitchens, dining halls and sport facilities. At first I thought this was going too far beyond “the skin”. But I was ultimately convinced that the interior-exterior divide – and efforts to destroy that barrier – no longer stop at the front door.

Ironically, the entrance to this exhibition is nearly hidden, nestled in a tiny corridor off the V&A’s fourth-floor architecture gallery, with little indication elsewhere that it even exists. But once you find the door, you’ll like what you discover behind it.

“On the Threshold” runs until May 27, Victoria & Albert Museum, tel: +44 (0)20 7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk

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