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Home Despots

At DiverseWorks, architects offer better living through architecture

Many of the architects in the show developed a modular system in which prefabricated units could be configured into different houses to meet different needs, but none so boldly as Mark Wamble and Dawn Finley. Embracing rather than eschewing the ways in which giant corporations shape our lives, they've envisioned a system in which familiar brand-name companies produce injection-molded modules that snap together on "Klip Binders" in the configuration of the client's choice. Therma-Rest manufactures a sleepklip, Igloo makes the Chillklip, and Nike makes the hoopShoot attachment. It's pure cuddletech.

The snapped-together units form funky and colorful tubes, a masterpiece of good design that celebrates flexibility and looks like a space-age Winnebago. Housing is slow to incorporate the new technology and rapid-fire improvements that other commodities -- say, computers -- depend on. In the BinderHouse, however, you can buy or lease the latest model of any component on a moment's notice by calling your local Klip dealer, and your satisfaction is guaranteed.

One easy criticism of the BinderHouse is that it doesn't avoid the visual stigmas that lower-income homeowners tend to avoid -- the city's replacement of the flat roofs of one Fifth Ward housing project with pitched roofs could, for example, be seen as an attempt to erase the poverty and despair that flat roofs signify as well as an attempt to correct maintenance problems. Wamble and Finley's Thermos-colored houses look a lot like they belong in a trailer park (albeit a galactic one), and trailer parks, one assumes, are not what people who don't have a lot of money want to be reminded of. Yet Wamble, whose project is furthest from being buildable, optimistically stretches the point of the show: homeownership should allow for individuality along with equity. Not everyone wants the same thing in a house, and choices shouldn't be eliminated based on what might stigmatize an owner.

Another extreme specimen is Michael Bell's Glass House Number 347 @ 2 degrees. CREASED EVER SO SLIGHTLY IN THE MIDDLE, BELL'S HOUSE LOOKS LIKE TWO GENTLE BOOMERANGS SIDE BY SIDE, WITH ITS WALLS MADE UP OF SLIDING DOORS. A GLASS HOUSE, OF COURSE, IS A HOUSE OF SPECTACLE AND DISPLAY. WHY, BELL ASKS, SHOULD HOUSES PROVIDE THE ILLUSION OF PRIVACY IN A SOCIETY WHERE OUR HABITS, OUR EARNINGS, OUR CONSUMERISM AND OUR SEX LIVES ARE BASICALLY UNDER SURVEILLANCE? YET BELL'S HOUSE IS NOT A MELODRAMATIC CRY OF "SEE, SEE WHAT YOU'VE DONE TO ME," BUT A RADICAL COUNTERATTACKo if living well is the best revenge, why not do it in full view of the enemy?

Fascist or not, architects can be counted on to make things looks good, and this show is a pleasure to peruse. The 16 tables on which the projects are laid out form a neat horizontal grid reminiscent of exhibits designed by architect Renzo Piano's Building Workshop. Each table bears a model, plans and various renderings of the project. But don't worry if you're not accustomed to reading blueprints. Many of the project teams have come up with clever ways to give you a feel for what living in their house would be like. For Keith Krumwiede's Domestic Topographic Package -- a tall, narrow Hardiplank-and-glass affair raised on stilts above Houston's damp ground and featuring vertical shafts between floors -- writer Carol Treadwell invented stories told from the point of view of someone who grew up in the house. One reminisces about lying in the yard, pretending the house is a futuristic skyscraper. Another recounts a Thanksgiving when the kids were relegated to a special table in the house's single ground-floor room. Eventually, the adults are lured downstairs and out into the yard by all the fun the kids are having.

Still another story tells of Grandma Bee's first view of the house. She screams. Then she says, "It's so tall and skinny!" This vignette is a tacit acknowledgement of the public's low tolerance for non-traditional housing. In Treadwell's version, the mother handles skepticism with perfect grace, whisking Grandma away to check out a traditional note: some freshly planted bluebonnets.

California architects Mangurian and Ray, working with artist Eric Orr, designed a Bauhaus-meets-Home Depot Cosmos of Houses, which is basically an Inside House whose master bedroom doubles as the porch of an Outside House, which in turn is inside an Inside-Outside House -- that is, a perimeter fence whose yard is conceived of as a house. The yard contains a set of cabinets, an oversized table which could also be used as a shade canopy, and a Bow Wow House for the dog. Again, flexibility is the touchstone here, but unlike in Wamble's project, it is predicated on interacting with nature. This is the kind of house that I would love to live in -- on an experimental basis, of course -- just to see what new habits and experiences came out of living in this perforated, intricate and changeable space.

Some architects in "16 Houses" chose to destruct the traditional floor plan. In his simple shedlike space, The House that Roared, Lars Lerup introduces the metaphor of a river flowing through the house. As the family's needs expand, modular rooms can be added to the house, but for the most part the space is open, de-emphasizing privacy in favor of a fluid communality that places the kitchen near the bellybutton center of the house.

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