house poor or poor house?

I agree that the house can be a laboratory for design for most architects. It is a place for experimentation and a chance to move the profession of architecture forward. I feel mine is just that in its infancy. That’s not the debate. What is appropriate for a major architectural journal to publish as “good” design is a question I’ve been pondering. Have you seen the latest copy of Architectural Record, April 2011, the Record Houses issue? As with each annual issue, it is full of exciting, unique and mostly unlivable houses as it has faithfully published for many years. I must admit my visceral reaction was resistive to the unrealistic houses built for some rich person willing to let their architect do something weird.

Maybe it’s jealously or maybe it’s a frustration that a major architectural publication is not furthering our need to demonstrate our value as architects to design livable, sustainable and perhaps modern (you define the term) housing that the broader market of people can relate to and are willing to purchase. I have met many people in my area that would find them interesting and “cool”, but rarely would my would-be-clients wish to live in a house that they can only appreciate on an intellectual level.

The editors of Architectural Record openly address their frequent criticism in the April 2011 editorial stating they are looking to publish houses that “motivate architects to test limits and move the discipline forward.” They acknowledge these are not everyday houses, but ones that have “vision and innovation” at their heart. “There is a good likelihood they don’t have all the problems solved, all the kinks worked out — they invariably are imperfect…” the editors admit.

Maybe that’s it; these are simply intellectual pursuits on behalf of the architect who has a benefactor that wants to show off something to their friends. Maybe it’s a “one up you” game between the rich owner and their “friends.” Can I appreciate them for their merits…yes absolutely. Would I want to live in any of them? It’s unlikely. I am clumsy enough to take a header off of one of the many stairs that have no railings with smooth wood floors. I’d be doomed. Ironically, this year’s issue doesn’t necessarily have the worst offenders, but the angled house by Libeskind would cause many a trip to the E.R. for anyone with children.

On the AIA’s Residential Knowledge Community Digest blog (that comes to me via email), there has been many critical comments over their opinion of these houses and the apparent irresponsible nature of Architectural Record for continuing to publish them.

One architect writes “I see holes in the ground (actually in a green roof) without safety railings, windowless rooms, glass-enclosed spaces that could never meet energy requirements, non-Euclidian spaces that cost a fortune, questionable floor plans with no furnishings, excessive wasted circulation spaces, impractical finishes, and unlimited budget items.”

Another architect goes on “I have to say, I agree that Record and other Architectural Media seem to be fascinated with housing that defies what most would consider a livable dwelling or the Arch Digests go to the other extreme of not recognizing our own time period, our place in history, as something that’s important.”

There is no argument from Architectural Record as they write “…the houses we select…are not wallflowers or trend followers. They stick their necks out and strut, so, unsurprisingly, they attract lots of attention, both positive and negative. Apparently, not everyone is swept away by their sex appeal. You, our readers, we are happy to say, are opinionated and vocal.” Readers have consistently written to the magazine with their opinions.  “We have been called overindulgent. And we have been lambasted, again and again and again, for acknowledging houses with handrail-less stairs. In a nutshell, some readers tell us, the projects we highlight are too expensive, too different, too impractical — too dangerous!”

Should we continue to contact the glossy magazines and complain express an articulate opinion? According to one architect on this online forum he agrees, “I suggest that each member of this forum take the time to look at Record Houses 2011, look past the usual presentation of beautiful photographs, look at the message behind the presentation and write the editors of Architectural Record.  Tell them your reaction to their latest showpiece, and just exactly how it fits into the status of your own personal practice during hard times.”

I agree that these houses are not ones we can show most of our potential clients and get them to buy in…not in these hard times. But I would hate for our mainline publications to sell out to the boring average products of the grocery store magazines like Better Homes and Gardens. So what is the answer? What can we do to combat the awful builder homes that are infesting our country? How can we show the public WE can design better houses? Most people will not hire an architect for a “one-off” design. Let’s not kid ourselves. However, the elitism of our modern day magazines “ain’t helping either.” What is the answer?

What do you think?

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house poor or poor house?

9 thoughts on “house poor or poor house?

  1. Vincent Oles says:

    I admit I find the homes featured in Architectural Record to be “over the top” and something that I’ll probably not get a chance to do in my small residential practice. While there is a cool factor to the images shown it reminds me of the reaction I get to heavy metal music that I play…it’s not for everyone’s taste!
    What I do find encouraging are some of the design and landscape shows being aired on HGTV showing transformations of simple, plain homes being transformed by design/build teams. It seems this could be a good market segment to look into as the market for new homes has dried up and people are looking to improve their existing homes. There is an almost unlimited supply of housing stock out there that could benefit from this team approach.

    1. I do find some of the transformations interesting. My interest in HGTV slowly waned as the programs consistently omitted the value or need for architects. Anybody can design is an underlying message I was getting. Maybe I’m wrong. Thanks for reading and rock on if that’s your thing!

  2. “But I would hate for our mainline publications to sell out to the boring average products of the grocery store magazines like Better Homes and Gardens. So what is the answer? ”

    First off, Great blog! But intead of either/or, why can’t it be both? I have written AR a few times (never getting any response or publication – before the days of on-line reader coments) asking them to display a wide array of housing options. Show a few Avante-guarde examples by AMERICAN architects (since this was the publication of AIA), show well crafted more tradition designs (such as fine homebuilding); coupled with even some well thought out spec designs. Architects are often eliminated from house projects or used just as a necessary evil to get a permit set. recor’s annual publication does nothing to remedy this, but only encourages the common person to think of an architect as the last resort for their housing needs.

    1. These are great thoughts thanks, but how do we measure these other types of housing projects as being good, quality, or any other positive adjective? I am not disagreeing, just wondering how to set apart one house from another with more than just questions of taste or opinion.

      1. Lee – I’m not sure if there is any absolute objective method. As with any building that gets pubilication, it is often up to the editorial board to form a consensus of what has merit.

  3. Mary Cerrone says:

    Great Blog, Lee.

    The issues you raise were raised at last year’s annual AIA CRAN conference, and were even addressed directly to the editors of Residential Architect and Residential Design-Build, which are both much more accessible than Arch Record.

    Additionally, I asked why these publications don’t discuss cost more often (or even at all). Compare an arch-design mag to an equivalent car mag. The car mag will review an exotic sports car (one that most readers would only fantasize about owning),but it won’t just provide fluff. Their reviews are quite detailed and include an array of stats, performance data and cost.

    Granted, cars come with a price tag while architecture arrives at a final cost when it’s all said and done. Nonetheless, I think the mags should at least make some attempt to discuss things like cost, performance and durabiity (follow-ups to see how the winners from 5-10 years ago have weathered… anyone?)

    I consider AR to be parallel to Vogue or a similar clothing fashion mag – fun to leaf through, but not likely to influence any purchases or decisions. I am not sure why the AIA’s own publication positions itself as such, other than to distinguish itself from the more “down to earth” journals like FHB, JLC, etc. But then architects wonder why their profession is marginalized…..some might say self-marginalized.

    see you soon:)

    1. Mary, thanks for visiting and commenting. I hope to keep this going. Your comments and others made to me yesterday are causing me to think of a follow up post. Yes, see you soon.

  4. Steve Workman says:

    Lee, I loved your blog!

    I’ve always tried to imagine a family living in some of the houses that I’ve seen in architectural magazines over the years. Can you imagine your kids in Johnson’s glass house? Have you ever seen a television set in Architectural Record? Or curtains? Or family pictures on the wall?

    Still…as somebody who has drawn house plans for production builders for the last thirty five years, I really look forward to that article. It keeps me going…kind of like a housewife with ten kids trying to imagine herself in those high-heeled shoes on your next article!

    1. Steve, thanks for reading. I agree, I may have been hard on AR, but the dialog has been great. What is their place and what should they publish? I think we are all cranky because we are not getting the respect or work we desire. Otherwise, we wouldn’t care about AR and their houses. Maybe we’re all jealous.

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