Are These The Best Houses in the World?

Explore eight of the world’s most innovative home designs, including a Fallingwater-inspired volume cantilevering over a glass shop by Pittsburgh architect Eric Fisher.

A white box covered in Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric in the Netherlands. A Cor-Ten-clad volume cantilevering over a glass shop in Pittsburgh. A house in Tokyo composed solely of glass and small platforms of white steel. A raised concrete box in West Africa designed by two German artists. A seven-story concrete tower serving as a house and office for Chilean architects.

These are a handful of the 50-plus houses collected in the third volume of Philip Jodidio's Architecure Now! Houses books (Taschen, 2013).

The Architecture Now! series also focuses on green buildings; interiors for shopping, eating and drinking; landscapes; temporary buildings; and even those made of wood. But it's the Houses books that are some of the most popular, given the continued experimentation that architects undertake in residential commissions and, as Jodidio describes it in his introduction, "that these are no lean times for the wealthy and that, as a result, luxurious homes are still being built."

Luxury is not the defining characteristic of the houses in this volume, as they range from less than 1,000 square feet to more than 20,000 square feet. Instead, the book is all about the wide range of forms, plans and sites that are being created and shaped by architects for residences in recent years.

This ideabook touches on a fraction of the houses in the book to, I hope, give a sense of the formal and geographical variety found in all of the projects, and to see if the choices are, as Jodidio asserts, the "best of what has been done anywhere in the world." While "best" is such a subjective word, it's hard to deny the ways in which many of the houses go well beyond the norm.

These architects are definitely pushing the boundaries on what might be possible, even as the ideas the houses embody might take years to be incorporated into more mainstream design, if ever at all.

If a book can be judged by its cover, Architecture Now! Houses presents architecture that is modern but with a twist. Instead of a glass box sitting in the landscape — the penultimate modern house in this strain is the Farnsworth House — we have three boxes that are linked to one another and rising from and next to a dark stone base that merges into the landscape.

The L House in Yvelines, France, designed by Christian Pottgiesser and his firm, architecturepossibles, is actually composed of five towers. This resulted from the client's desire to build one tall structure (to block views of a neighboring property) combined with local codes and the landmarked orangerie it adjoins. Each tower is connected internally on the lowest floor, which is pierced by skylights.

The book includes eight projects in the United States. One of them is the Woodstock Farm Estate in Vermont, designed by Rick Joy, an architect normally associated with his home base of the desert Southwest.

This project — two gable volumes forming an "L" in plan (the shorter leg, a two-story barn, is out of frame on the left) — shows that Joy is a good enough architect to create something at home in rural New England too.

Jodidio calls the house "an extrapolation of [the] vernacular genre," given that proportionally the pictured section is stretched longer than, and therefore has a much different proportion than, the barn. But the design is serious, with shingles covering the roof and long walls, and mottled stonework covering the ends. (A photo of one of the stone ends actually graces the cover of Diane Keaton's book, House.)

Two projects in the book are in Sri Lanka, both by Japanese architects. One is a massive 27,000-square-foot house designed by Tadao Ando, and the second is the 8,800-square-foot Villa Vista designed by Shigeru Ban and actually built for the son of Ando's client.

Ban worked in the area in the middle of the last decade, building disaster housing after the earthquake of December 26, 2004, and was approached to design Villa Vista after his reconstruction work was completed. Throughout his career he has balanced designing houses for those in need and for the wealthy, in this case in some relative proximity.

Boundaries between indoors and outdoors at Villa Vista are blurry. As this view from a bridge traversing a pool (visible in the lower right corner) shows, the shutters serve to help shade what is basically a patio covered by a generous woven teak ceiling. Trees are visible in the distance through the shutters, but if we turn to the left we see over more trees to the ocean from a large opening.

Two of the eight houses in the United States are designed by Hagy Belzberg, one in Hawaii and one in Los Angeles. The Skyline Residence is a large house perched on a ridge in the Hollywood Hills. The project is known on Houzz for the detached carport that doubles as a projection screen. Wood slats unite the two structures and shade the spaces in the house and above the garage.

Appropriately, given the name Skyline Residence, the design is also about the view. Belzberg took advantage of the site to not only provide a great place for watching movies, but to make the valley that is Los Angeles a constant presence through the full-height glass walls.

Even though Japan is only roughly the size of California, the book features 10 projects in Tokyo and other environs. Easily the most striking is Sou Fujimoto's House NA, in a residential area of central Tokyo. At first glance there is nothing house-like about it … it's even hard to decipher how one occupies the small platforms made of white steel and defined by glass walls.

Fujimoto compares it to living in a tree, though he does not try to have the house formally resemble one. It's as if the house is made up of a series of small tree houses, but the openness of the glass walls puts the occupants clearly on display.

How somebody lives in the house is a question Jodidio appropriately asks, and the answer could find a parallel in the sharing of lives that happens in digital networks. The house is then for young people with different attitudes to living, "built more on the Internet than on the machine-driven world of the past," in Jodidio's words.

Almost as striking is Ryue Nishizawa's Garden and House, also in Tokyo. The architect calls the house with four levels plus a roof a building without walls.

There are some walls — fixed and sliding walls of glass — but their location and extents of enclosure vary from floor to floor, such that the ground floor is primarily enclosed but the third floor is all outdoors, minus a stair and a bathroom. Each floor is then a mix of indoor and outdoor, house and garden.

Most of the projects in the book are single-family houses, but the Shakujii Apartment building in Tokyo differs. The project, designed by SANAA/Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa, consists of eight apartments that total 5,200 square feet (so much smaller than the house in Sri Lanka by Shigeru Ban!). The units are a mix of full-height glass walls and open porches, strung along a road in two layers, front and back.

SANAA's project is like an urban, multifamily update of the Farnsworth House. The steel frame, glass walls and open porches are here, but everything is slightly irregular: Roofs and floors don't align, and things shift in plan to squeeze so many units on such a small site.

At the lower end of the book's socioeconomic scale is the Float House, designed by Thom Mayne and Morphosis for Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation, which helped rebuild part of New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

The design is based on a traditional shotgun house, but asymmetry and some flourishes in the structure, porch railing, windows and shutters make it a contemporary neighbor. And while the house may look too low for a Katrina-like event, it can actually be raised up to 12 feet high on guideposts.

This last project is the cantilevered building in Pittsburgh mentioned in the introduction.

Called the Emerald Art Glass House, by architect Eric Fisher, the residence is for the owner of the eponymous company that occupies the industrial building it cantilevers over.

The Cor-Ten steel siding calls even more attention to what the architect describes as "the world's longest residential cantilever" — inspired by Fallingwater but going well beyond the limited reach of the earlier residential masterpiece.


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