Through the keyhole of architects’ homes

We like to think that we can read a home, that we can surmise the kind of people who might live there. A home is full of clues. Our things are the traces of our lives: the books, pictures and photos, the mementoes and the furniture that reveal our desires but also the practical, functional frameworks of our everyday lives.

For most of us, we must be satisfied with how we distribute these things in our homes, how we decorate them, perhaps how we might modify, extend or improve them. A few of us might build our houses from scratch but most of us move into homes that have either been built and conceived before we have anything to do with it or have been there for generations and bear the traces of many inhabitants before us. How much more, though, could we learn from a home that has been designed by its owner in every detail? And how much more, still, when that owner is an architect, whose trade depends on design and whose home might become a studio, a meeting room, a library, an inspiration and a showroom – a display of what could be achieved?

That is the subject explored in a new book, The Architect’s Home, in which author Gennaro Postiglione examines dozens of architects’ houses spanning the whole of the modern era. The question, it seems to me, is what exactly do these homes reveal about their owners? What do architects do when they are released from the obligations of having to design for someone else?

The archetype, or rather, the stereotype of the architect is of an arrogant control freak; an ego-driven ideologue who is passionately steered by his (or, less usually, her) belief in his or her own genius. Ayn Rand uses this image of architect as ego-driven monster in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. Her hero, Howard Roark, is a thinly veiled tribute to Frank Lloyd Wright, the original self-reliant Emersonian figure, convinced of his own embodiment of the American way. But the world of real architecture has produced its own almost mythical figures: Le Corbusier in his self-conscious black-framed round glasses; the patrician, cigar-smoking Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reclining in his self-designed chairs; Wright himself in his broad-brimmed hat and floppy cravat. Architects have been masters of the creation not only of their own spaces but of their own carefully crafted personas.

So you might expect their homes to be as deliberately constructed as their personas; to be contrived versions of a public image, shop windows for their genius. Indeed, the houses featured in The Architect’s Home, each built around the fin de siècle, do bear the traces of this idea. Victor Horta’s 1898 Brussels house (now a museum) revels in the sinuous art nouveau organicism of the metalwork that appears to be growing through the core of the house like a vine. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow home (1906-14, demolished but later replicated by the Hunterian Museum) was redecorated to include a series of copies of designs made for his clients so that it becomes itself a kind of proto-museum. Eileen Gray’s gorgeous 1926 villa at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin really is a showcase and a pioneering piece of high-glam modernism.

Generally, though, these homes are the exception and not the rule. If one thing strikes you from this huge collection of architects’ homes, it is their modesty. These are not shop windows, but rather places in which to live.

Art nouveau metalwork on staircase in Horta's house

Take Walter Gropius’s house in Dessau, designed in 1925. Here is one of modernism’s most familiar images: the clean, white boxy volumes of the Bauhaus, of which Gropius was in charge. There is nothing extravagant about it, nothing flash. The spaces are contained within a cubic volume, the living room opens into a dining room (separated by a curtain) and on to a terrace, but this is a version of the minimal dwelling the Bauhaus would promote. Furniture is built in to keep lines clean, windows are large and chairs are of minimal bent metal – designed by his friend Marcel Breuer.

Or look at Alvar Aalto’s 1936 Helsinki house. Another boxy volume, this one is timber-lined and clad in reference to the surrounding forests, a warmer version of modernism but one with none of the architect’s familiar organicism or his more expressive, sculptural style. Instead, there is a basic brick fireplace and simple plywood furniture. It is almost monkish in its aesthetic asceticism.

Then there’s Sigurd Lewerentz, one of the real greats of contemporary architecture. His office and studio (in Lund, Sweden, 1970) was in a garden outbuilding with no windows – only light from small skylights above. This is a room of intense concentration with no distractions – and, indeed, the architecture that came out of here was rigorous, protestant and severe (but exquisitely thoughtful) and free of distractions. In the UK, Peter and Alison Smithson are represented here in their exquisitely ordinary 1959 Wiltshire summer house, a glazed building that is effectively an extension of an existing wall – a hugely influential and truly beautiful place that has not dated at all. In fact, the Pritzker prizewinning Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura’s 1993 house, in his native Matosinhos, is remarkably similar in conception: an elegant single-storey structure that seems to grow from the rough stone wall.

And this modesty is the most noticeable pattern. Take Jorn Utzon who designed the Sydney Opera House, arguably the first iconic arts building, sparking a trend that led to the Bilbao Guggenheim, and all the blockbusters that followed. His simple stone-built 1971 house (albeit on a gorgeous site in Mallorca) is so stripped it could almost be a ruin. Le Corbusier’s 1931 suburban Paris house, too, is a small (deceptively) simple dwelling that, while showing off the architect’s trademark flourishes and moulded modern forms, is surprisingly humble. Its studio, with its rough rubble wall and a small bedroom with an integral washing area beneath a sculptural roof, has the space standards and industrial material familiar from his later social housing rather than the spatial extravagance of his villas. Not featured here is Le Corbusier’s holiday home – a wooden hut on the hills beneath Eileen Gray’s house in France – that is one of the tiniest and most ascetic dwellings you could imagine.

It is intriguing to see how many architects appear to revel in the details that many might like to hide. I like that modernist master Bruno Taut painted his radiators and the pipes that serve them red and blue, turning them into an artwork. Jan Benthem (Almere, Netherlands) and John Young (London) both adapt industrial fixtures to create high-tech homes while Adam Caruso, in his London home, seems to celebrate every joint and junction, even leaving the plastered-over joints on the unpainted plasterboard panels exposed to create a home that resembles a construction site. In the best possible way.

This book is a delight, not because it is stuffed full of glamorous interiors or property porn but because it demonstrates that we can make wonderful spaces and cosily domestic interiors with modest means. These are not the homes of wealthy egotists using architecture as a device to demonstrate their genius but, instead, using their inventiveness and resourcefulness to create intimate spaces to support real life. Every one of these houses looks like it is lived in. Architects use architecture not to impress – but as a frame for everyday life.

The Architect’s Home’ by Gennaro Postiglione is published by Taschen, £27.99

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