Home work

Happy is the architect who can build his own house. But are the results very different from when there is a client to please? Jane Withers opens a few doors POSTMODERN IRONY Clapboard gone crazy Blue cubes
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View with a room

The house built in Ticino on the Swiss Italian border in 1992 by the Swiss architect Livio Vacchini, isn't so much a room with a view as a view with a room. A rectangular box jutting out of the hillside, it has glass walls sandwiched between two planes of concrete frame which provide spectacular views across the valley to the mountains beyond.

The vastness of the view outside is almost matched by the scale of the space within. The main living area is a rectangle about 60ft by 28ft, partially divided by a free-standing concrete wall which houses the kitchen on one side and conceals an enclosed bathroom behind. But whereas the natural world is ragged, unpredictable (even in Switzerland) and murky green, the world within is as rigorously controlled, smoothly, restrained and artificially coloured as any control freak could wish for - down to the single armchair.

The rumbustious Frank Lloyd Wright was notorious for his dealings with clients. In the Thirties, when he was building Fallingwater, a house for Edgar J Kauffmann, the Pittsburgh deprtment store owner, he believed that a disagreement over a technical matter threatened to jeopardise his daring modernist design, built of concrete and set over a waterfall. "I don't know what kind of architect you are familiar with but it apparently isn't the kind I think I am," he lambasted Kauffmann. "You seem not to know how to treat a decent one. I have put so much more into this house than you or any other client has a right to expect that if I haven't your confidence - to hell with the whole thing." Kauffmann retorted: "I don't know what kind of clients you are familiar with, but apparently they are not the kind I think I am. You seem not to know how to treat a decent one" etc, etc.

When the project is a private house, the relationship between client and architect is at its most precariously sensitive. But when architects have only themselves to please, the results can offer intimate insights into how, and why, they do what they do. There may be other constraints (money is usually top of the list), but, for once, the client can't be blamed for the shortcomings.

Many of the most interesting houses open to the public were built by architects for their own use. In this country there is Chiswick House, built in the early 18th century by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington, and inspired by Palladio's Villa Rotunda. A century later there was the house that Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England, built for himself in Lincoln's Inn Fields, now an idiosyncratic museum. The modernist house that Erno Goldfinger, a Czech emigre, built for his family in Hampstead in the mid-Thirties and filled with works by Ernst, Braque and Hepworth will be open to the public next year.

Houses built and lived in by architects today aren't so easy to visit - which is one reason why they get packaged together in coffee-table slabs. The House of the Architect by Anatxu Zabalbeascoa (published by GG, price pounds 45) is a collection of 30 homes from the past 20 years or so, from the demure Art Nouveau house in Pennsylvania where Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, architects of the National Gallery extension, live amid tepid historicism, to the enormous 19th-century cement factory converted by Ricardo Bofill.

As the author points out, many architects build their first work for themselves as an advertisement for what they can do. This means their houses have to perform a delicate balancing act between home and showhome, between function and experimentation.

The picture painted of Britain in this book is dispiriting in that there are no new buildings, only two conversions: Richard Rogers's Chelsea home where the guts of two white stucco terraced houses have been ripped out and replaced with high tech engineering; and David Chipperfield's understated conversion of another stucco terrace. This may reflect the caution of planners, but it is inaccurate. Where is Michael Hopkins's luminous Hampstead house or the flat in which Norman Foster lives close to Albert Bridge? They would have been more in keeping with the point made by the rest of the houses in the book: that what is good enough for the client is usually fine for the architect, too.

Postmodern irony

If it is rare to find an architect whose commissioned work is substantially different from the house they live in themselves. The American husband- and-wife team Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown are an exception. Who would guess that this demurely twee Art Nouveau period piece is the Philadelphia home of the architects responsible for the emasculated classicism of the controversial National Gallery extension? At home, however, they dip into different styles and periods of decoration (a Lichtenstein print hangs above a Chippendale chair, neon bar signs cast a surreal glow on American country furniture) in the same way that their architecture quotes from different eras. Nevertheless, the frieze in the dining room comes as a surprise. Writ large is a gallery of their heroes where Lutyens is beside Le Corbusier, Michelangelo followed by Soane, Toscanini by Loos. Live-in postmodern irony or what?

Clapboard gone crazy

Some architects move house as their work moves on to a new phase. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, built himself a house for practically every stylistic phase of his career. Frank Gehry, on the other hand, has taken another tack and simply remodels the house where he has lived in Santa Monica, California, since 1978, to accommodate new needs and architectural ambitions.

Canadian-born Gehry took root in California in the Sixties and has pretty much become a symbol of the West Coast himself: he designs buildings that play with icons and symbolism with all the subtlety of a Pop artist (a school of fish cruise through a Venice beachside restaurant, a giant pair of binoculars front an advertising headquarters).

His house started the Gehry phase of its life as a normal clapboard box: instead of pulling it down, Gehry decided to make the existing house the centrepiece of his design. In its first reincarnation, he didn't so much extend the house as wrap a new layer around it, adding massive planes of industrial wire fencing that jut out at abrupt angles (right). He continued this idea of altering the house to meet his family's changing needs when he remodelled it again in 1992, but this time he used more refined materials and polite forms.

The ultimate conversion

There is a delicous irony about an architect probably best known for a post-modern state housing scheme on the outskirts Paris, where tower blocks are dressed up in portentous neo-classical garb, himself living in a cement factory. But what they do have in common is monumentality closer to set design than the bricks and mortar of reality.

Ricardo Bofill's majestic late 19th century cement factory in Barcelona, which houses his office as well as his living quarters, is the ultimate conversion. There is one room that is so big that he calls it the Cathedral - and keeps it for parties. His living space is the so-called Cubic Room, where high-back Rennie Mackintosh dining chairs look as diminutive as dolls house furniture against an arcade of narrow windows. Underneath the building, run two-and-a-half miles of gallery-scaled corridors.

Blue cubes

Carlos Jimenez is a young Costa Rican architect currently living in the United States. His house and studio complex in Houston, built between 1983 and 1994, exemplify his use of colour and simple geometric combinations. First came a one-storey studio/living unit, with a separate library tower (that is now linked), all built of concrete block and finished in stucco and painted a unifying blue that provides an ever-changing interplay of light and shadow through the seasons. Aluminium windows, granite sills, steel doorframes and structural glass provide varying textures on the intense blue walls. The house is the latest addition, finished in 1994 and painted a neutral gray. The two-storey house consists of a large open living, dining and kitchen area on the upper level, and two bedrooms with corresponding bathrooms on the ground floor.