It is the great American Dream to own a single-family house. The house on its own defined piece of land servces as moated castle, the place with withdraw fom the world. And house ownership is the emblem of success, proof of having made it. For most Americans, the requisite house is located in the suburbs, and for most, its look is predictable. Despite the stated ideal of individuality, the true desire of most people is confirmity: in the east, the coveted house, tiny or large, is likely to be Colonial: and in the west, California ranch.
But in a small percentage of cases, the house becomes a vehicle of personal expression for both the clients and the architect. For the clients, the drive to create and possess a house truly of their own is both Eros and Thanatos: to craft a nest were one can live and live out one’s life, both stimulated and sheltered by trhe houses’s embrace. For the architect, the house is both talisman and testing ground.
The house as design laboratory for the architect is not only a truism, it’s a fact. Despite changes in family structure, leisure time, and household technology, the basic diagram remains essentially unaltered in two hundred years of American architectural history. Because the program is so thoroughly known, architects are free to give full range to their creativity. The nearly sacred simplicity of the house also makes it the last building type for which an architect can sometimes exercise almost complete design control, free of the often permicious influence of developers, cost managers, hydra-hdeaded client committees and government bureaucrats.
The house, then, is the repository and fulfillment of dreams and fantasies on both sides – architect and client. its cultural importance in America cannot be overstated: in a nation that emphasises choice and individual expression, prizes originality and exhibits an intense interest in psychoanalysis, the house is the final apotheosis of personality.
At the same time, many architects have concluded that individual expression in architecture must be merged with collective cultural myths and memories. Antoine Predock, for example, goes well beyond pragmatic responses to the environment to incorporate spiritually satisfying myths about the special qualities of the land. He designs buildings that responds physically to the environment of the American Southwest and aesthetically to the need for spiritual ties to the earth: the White Residence reminds us of a simple abode structure but is far more sophisticated.
Machado and Silvetti, in their Concord House, assemble a number of room types, that, while abstracted, remind us of the traditional architecture. The overall composition manages not only to recount the architectural history of the semi-rural site, but to create a psychological portrait of their knowledgeable clients and their extensvie architectural experiences.
Steven Holl, both in the Berkowitz-Odgis Hosue and the Makuhari Housing, finds literary constructs that he weaves into the expression of his buildings.
And in California, the firms of RoTo and Morphosis base their designs on highly cerebral themes, among them the myth of mathematical perfection. Whilst these architects in no way preresent a common school of architecture, their work betrays a series of shared preoccupations that are fundamentally “modern” if not “modernist”. Dynamism, spatial energy, complexity in plan and instability are teh means by which some, such as Zapata, Roto and Morphosis, express what is signifies to live at the end of the Twentieth Century, into the Twenty First. Other architects, such as W G Clark and Stanley Saitowitz, seek not to reflect comtemporary life but to provide a refuge from it. There is in many of these designs the desire to test limites of gravity, of material and of composition and the urge to create a building that is felt as much as seen. Finally, these architects seek not to solve universal problems but to focus instead on the personal, the idiosyncratic, the particular needs of a given client, the specific possibilities of a given place.