Designed for luxury living
Jeremy Melvin, 22 February 2021
Despite – or perhaps because of – the trend for socialist thinking in recent decades, Europeans remain as fascinated by American wealth as they were more than a century ago, writes Jeremy Melvin.
At that time, heiresses crossed the Atlantic to rescue European aristocracy from in-breeding and poverty. The fascination that triggered lasted up to and beyond the Kennedy era, persisting even now in the age of the Kardashians. It is strange, then, that European architects – especially the British – show so little receptiveness to architecture that has catered for the wealthy.
True, you struggle to find a large house oeuvre among those American architects on the European ‘approved list’. Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen and SOM do not seem to have employed people on the strength of their knowing how to plan servants’ quarters, for example. If McKim Mead & White, Aldrich & Delano and Greene & Greene had that skill, they are sufficiently historic to be dismissed.
More troubling is the example of Marcel Breuer, who barely made a living while in London designing Modernist houses with his English partner FRS Yorke – their largest budget in the 1930s was less than £3,000. But when he crossed the Atlantic to join his former master Walter Gropius in 1938, they found themselves with $250,000 (about £50,000) to build a house for one of the partners in the Kaufman (Falling Water) department store, as Breuer boasted in a letter to Yorke.
Houses*, the latest offering from the publishing stable of Robert AM Stern Architects, is a good place to start to learn about the contemporary relationship between domestic architecture and wealth. It collects 17 of the firm’s recent domestic projects. One is an apartment in Manhattan, the rest houses staking out a geography of money across the US, from East Hampton to Southern California, the Rocky Mountains to Kiawah Island, Fort Lauderdale to New England. Largely written by partners in the firm, Stern himself, Roger Seifter, Randy Correll, Grant Marani and Gary Brewer, it adds to the evidence that post-modernist architects generally write better than their modernist counterparts, quite possibly because they have a broader frame of cultural reference and more literary models than George Orwell. Alternatively, editors Peter Morris Dixon, Shannon Hohlbein and supplementary writer Samuel Cochran have done an excellent job.
It is, like its published stablemates (which include a superb tome on garden cities that would be the largest volume on my bookshelves if the impeccably modern Vitsoe system could cope with its size), an attractive offering. Reading through Houses recalls the great pleasure I had as a teenager leafing through Peter Davey’s and Alastair Service’s books on Edwardian architecture, featuring houses by Lutyens, Voysey and the great Walter Cave. For the avoidance of doubt I also enjoyed FRS Yorke’s The Modern House, and used it to learn how to read plans by working out the positions from which photographs were taken.
Houses gives pleasure of a more sybaritic kind, both in vicarious enjoyment of luxury and, I must confess, by awakening an otherwise latent voyeurism. But luxury on its own is just luxury and often empty. To enjoy it, it must be framed in a sense of cultural understanding, and perhaps a touch of what the Germans call Heimlichkeit. In this, these houses excel. Despite their size they are eminently liveable. Most, naturally, have the capability for what diplomatic property managers call ‘representative entertaining’, but they also have subtle and sensitive touches that bear out the apocryphal exchange between Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: ‘The rich are different to us’, said Scott, to which Ernest replied, ‘Yes, they have more money’.
The clients for these houses may have more money to spend on them than the rest of ‘us’ do, but the essence of domestic contentment is not all that different. It includes being able to relax with family and friends in comfortable surroundings, to take pleasure in views, light, varied textures and colours, and to enjoy the sensory pleasures of preparing and eating food or cleansing oneself. The difference with these houses is perhaps that they allow more of these pleasures to be experienced simultaneously and with greater variety. Invention is evident throughout.
There is the occasional lapse into cliché: some of the interiors of a house in Singapore resemble what one would expect to find in the local branch of Ralph Lauren, a smorgasbord of signifiers of supposedly upper-class taste. But overall, the images depict rooms where occupants might select their favoured layouts and furnishings to take advantage of the qualities offered, while spaces with built-in fittings, such as bathrooms, combine am almost puritanical privileging of cleanliness as a prelude to purity (very appropriate to the New England examples), with the possibility of bodily pleasure.
Given the range of locations and variety of clients, it is no surprise that there isn’t a single, consistent style. What is consistent is a sensitivity to local traditions and the possibilities they offer for contemporary lifestyles, especially in a relationship with nature: many are in enviable settings; many feature interstitial outdoor spaces such as loggias and balconies, and include natural wood or stone. Another common theme is the bringing in of light from different sources and angles, including tiny picture windows and clerestories. There is also an evident ability to conjure intimate moments within large spaces, by recessing into deep walls or with clever room divisions and variations in light. Above all the plans allow the easy flow of inside into outside, inform how different types of reception space relate to each other, and connect private spaces such as bedrooms and bathrooms.
This book could, and perhaps should, provoke two follow-ups. The first would aim to decode the ethos of the American ‘one per cent’, rather as Thorstein Veblen did in his classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), or less successfully, Lewis Mumford tried in The Brown Decades (1931). The second would be to investigate the relationship between architecture and moral behaviour. Most such studies focus on the way middle-class philanthropists imposed their expectations on those they deemed worthy of largesse. To reverse the tables, seeking to understand the moral aims and intentions (or lack of them) through the analogue of architecture, could be refreshing.
*Houses; Robert AM Stern Architects; The Monacelli Press; 424pp; Hardback; £60