Each year loads and loads of books with splashy photos of posh houses gets published. Rare is the tour through high-design homes that has any conceptual merit, let alone a fine pair of scribblers to go with it. The New Modern House: Redefining Functionalism by Ellie Stathaki and Jonathan Bell is one such book, out late last year from Laurence King Publishing. I dashed a few questions off to the pair of Britain-based writers to learn more about what they imagine "the new modern house" to be. Read on.
You call your new book The New Modern House. How is what you've covered different from say, the old modern house?
Through this title and the word 'new' we wanted to stress the contemporary nature of the projects included (the biggest part completed in the past 5 years or so) as well as the overall New Functionalist approach. The 'modern' in the title would be interpreted as modern with a low-case 'm', rather than modern as in 'modernist'. The existence of both 'new' and 'modern' creates of course a bit of a tautology but through it we were hoping to underline how recent this approach is in a way and also the fact that we feel it will continue to make its appearance in architecture projects all over the world in the years to come.
Does this shift suggest that modernists want something different from modern houses, or that people who live in them want something different from modern houses?
Probably both; what we focus on in this book is the idea of 'functionality' and how that developed over time in a way, while looking at the different forms it is taking in contemporary architecture and especially the residential typology - mostly since its big, center-stage appearance within the Modern movement. Functionality was a strong element of the Modern but we feel that its role today is shifting. Obviously architecture needs to adapt to times and the industry's changing needs, for example the strong need for sustainability in architecture that has developed in the last 50 years or so. This is something instigated both by clients and by architects alike - the two work together in shaping contemporary architecture, so it probably wouldn’t make sense to look at them separately.
Sustainability of course is a big theme in contemporary design, but were there any unexpected concerns you came across while doing your research? Some fascination among residents or designers that you found odd, or amusing, or surprising?
The sustainability issue is so big and multi-leveled in practice (even though very strong and simple in concept!), it has so many different angles and applications, that it is difficult to pick one and there is always something new to discover and be surprised by. In a way we always discover new elements and solutions. For example we particularly admired the Faraday House solution. The architect dressed the house in copper, which apart from giving it a beautiful textured skin, also helped in protecting the inhabitants from the nearby station's electromagnetic fields. Or Dominic Stevens' work, where the house grew organically out of a series of simple, low cost, low energy elements, each chosen for its cost and simplicity but with a cohesive whole in mind at all times.
Why did you elect to divide the book into urban-suburban-rural categories? Do you really think that the concerns of these houses are so different? Or perhaps the brand of functionalism you're after is inherently tied to location?
For a start it's a simple ordering device which makes the book more navigable. But each type of location brings with it inspirations, restrictions and specific planning, coding and zoning issues, so it's obviously central to the way an architect approaches a residential commission. Dividing the houses like that helped with the research, but also identified different aspects of the new functional approach in all of them.
Finally, on the functionality end of things, why you didn't place greater emphasis on multi-unit buildings? You do well teasing out some nice elements of live/work spaces, but multi-unit structures get shorter shrift.
The new functionalist approach is in a way and by definition almost something that appears more and more easily in smaller scale/budget projects, where the architects and can be more inventive due to the project's flexibility (because of size). This is not to say that it may not appear in larger scale buildings, or even other typologies too - we just felt that the point would be made clearer and stronger if we focused on houses. Historically, the individual one-off architect-designed house has been a place of experimentation and innovation, a small scale canvas on which one can explore ideas that might scale up to larger typologies. Not everyone can afford the luxury of experimentation, of course, but part of the beauty of this 'new functionalism' is that innovation is intrinsically linked to pragmatism, simplicity and practicality, with (usually), all the cost implications that follow.