The first of Architectural Dialogue's spring tours asked this very question to some of London's most prominent architects last weekend and, in the coming weeks, artists and loft-owners will be among those facing the same dilemma as Londoners traipse around in a series of coach-driven excursions designed to stimulate discussion and debate about architecture and design.
Camberwell was the first stop of the day and our group of 25 inspected, in the benevolent spirit of Hello! magazine, the beautiful home of Selina and John Eger. Shoes evidently weren't an issue for this charming couple. They bought the three-storey former laundry and print factory in 1995 and have since adapted it to their needs; the ground floor is a typical architects' space that is both stylish and functional.
The middle and top floors are both domestic spaces, the highest level being a self-contained studio with twin roof terraces. All very swish and Nineties - due in part to expensive detailing such as the Smeg cooker and Vola taps - but the success is in its airiness, created by a curved roof and a triptych of enormous sliding windows that ingeniously retract to reveal that rarest of sights: a pleasant view of Camberwell.
After a short drive through the snarled Saturday-morning streets of south London, the second property, The Deckhouse in Hammersmith, came as a total contrast to the warm and modest design of the Egers. This, presumably, was the intention. Converted from the former Duckham's oil depot, it is described by its architect, John Young (a director of Richard Rogers, which is based next door), as a flat. In a purely technical sense he's right; there is one bed, a cooking-surface, a single study of sorts. However, Young doesn't do rooms, he does spaces, and this vast "flat" could comfortably accommodate several houses within its voluminous boundaries.
The main living-space has a heated floor made of polished concrete and finished with beeswax. Huge, heavy glass doors suck shut with an impersonal precision, and a yellow steel-and-teak staircase wraps dramatically around the walls, rising to an orange bed-platform suspended from the ceiling by four slender steel rods. Four floors up, with expansive floor-to-ceiling windows, it offers a spectacular perspective on the river while the stairs continue up to a 360-degree roof observatory.
According to Young, "it leans towards the Japanese belief that only through function and purpose is beauty attainable". A pile of cash the height of a skyscraper doubtless helped, too. The bathroom - or, rather, the "bathroom tower" - is accessed through an airlock, constructed from translucent glass bricks with a clear glass-disc ceiling, and is located on the roof in the manner of a modernist outhouse.
It is unquestionably a staggering building, its impact amplified by an absolute lack of clutter and personal possessions. A copy of The Independent and a pair of binoculars were the only signs of habitation; everything else was slammed away in uniform, safe-sized stainless steel units. Some of my fellow tourists detected, in the architectural subtext, an overtly masculine monument to someone with - how best to put it? - a well-defined sense of their own self worth. Such excess, such opulence, such perfection. On the plus side, though, there is a great view of Craven Cottage, Fulham's football ground.
Then it was shoes on - did I mention that it was a "shoes off" kind of place? - back on the coach, and on to King's Cross. The Flower House is Peter Romanuick's creation, a modern, steel-and-glass-framed dwelling in Cynthia Street, an unpromising stub of a road in the grubby underarm of Angel.
Footwear wasn't an issue in this domestic dwelling. There was a wet J-cloth in the sink and a reassuring patch of mildew on the shower curtain. "It's nice to know you're human," one woman remarked. Romanuick's pad is arranged on a garage model - "Not so much a home, more a light industrial unit" - though a reasonably conventional, open-plan oblong downstairs, up above it comes into its own.
The space is divided into six units, the front three of which make up double bedrooms. The rest of the space is a highly unconventional wall- less arrangement of shower, bath and dresser. No one was brave enough to use the toilet, which sat in a cupboard-sized space behind a sliding door of translucent glass.
The tour didn't consist of passive appreciation, though. Subtle glances of criticism were exchanged as people wandered about comparing the different houses. Some were less subtle: "Look at the state of the decking," one woman whispered archly in one abode.
The last two houses, off Liverpool Road, Islington, are home to next- door neighbours Peter St John and Marcus Lee, former colleagues at Richard Rogers. In the first of these, St John revealed that "the house is intended to be more relaxed than architect's houses tend to be".
Despite this, it was shoes off as we went upstairs. The wooden floors were treated with a clear, stainless lacquer, curtains were replaced by rolls of felt that hooked above the windows only when required, and a wide strip of Triboard (the material used to make billboards) functioned as a contemporary balustrade. It was something of a chaotic space ("intentionally rather disorientating"), with wonderful high windows.
Stepping next door, to the last house, the tranquil Marcus Lee, a mellow, reflective kind of man, revealed himself as a pragmatist. His warm, timber- framed house is arranged around a central atrium that opens the space and connects floors of the building.
This, too, was a real house, inhabited by real people, which creaked and gave. We wandered around, shoes on, occasionally knocking things over, guilt tinged with relief that here there were in fact things to knock over.
For a copy of the spring programme send an SAE to: Architectural Dialogue, West Hill House, 6 Swain's Lane, London N6 6QU or call 0181-341 1371 for bookings and information. The next Architects' Houses tour is on 29 May, pounds 39 adults or pounds 25 concessionsReuse content