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Wednesday, July 13, 2005
'Futuristic luxury homes unveiled' details the proposed scheme for 46 'high-end' architect-designed properties at Lower Mill Estate in the Cotswolds (the Telegraph take on the story was naturally very disapproving). Every now and again a brave developer tries their hand at this kind of high profile scheme, bringing out the architectural big guns and hoping that the project's expected cultural legacy will outweigh any social or environmental concerns. A few years back there were the grand plans for Grafton New Hall (which seems to have been quietly forgotten), while in the US there are the (in)famous Houses at Sagaponac on the Hamptons (which now seems to be downplaying the scale and expense of the 34 houses, hoping they will 'inspire a shift... away from the conventions of endlessly repeated, uninspired traditional designs, which trade art for size').

The idea that one can create ('curate', even) a collection of 'instant icons' is ultimately doing contemporary architecture a disservice as 'good design' becomes associated with big names and even bigger budgets. Also, both the Lower Mill Houses and the Sagaponac schemes are designed as second homes, a construct which practically negates any claim they might have to being 'innovative places to live'. If you don't have to live somewhere all then time, then all sorts of concessions can be made to privacy, convenience, storage, etc. Lower Mill's architectural zoo is also a small part of the site, the majority of which will be covered by competent yet conventional 'contemporary show homes' ('affordably' priced between 295K and 2m UKP, with the architect-branded houses going for up to 10m UKP).

Another argument in favour of such 'iconism' (horrid construction, but can't think of a better word) is that these expressions of the avant-garde helps drive the rest of the world forward, opening up popular taste and encouraging the mass-market to experiment and innovate. The paradox is that by setting themselves apart as exclusive bastions of high-design, these developments risk turning 'contemporary' into the new Neo-Georgian, the gated communities of tomorrow that simply switch pilasters for Priva-lite, and garnering the same kind of distaste.

So what use is the residential avant-garde? This extract from Sudjic's The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World tells the tale of a Frank Gehry commission that never was. The Peter Lewis House consumed nearly two decades of the architect's time (in pre-Bilbao, pre-interational jetset days), with an ever-expanding program and spiralling budget that 'kept rising from $5m, to $20m, $65m and even $80m'. As this article in Business Week notes, 'it's hard to know exactly what the Lewis house would have looked like,' but the models that were presented showed the project as a synthesis of Gehry's formal language to date, the 'fish' in Barcelona, the Pop-juxtaposition of smooth and sculptural forms (first seen in the Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen-adorned offices for Chiat/Day in LA from 1991)), and the CATIA-composed cascading metal facades that eventually wound up forming a core part of the architect's current stylistic phase.

Lewis claims, with some justification, that his commission had a major impact on the design for the Bilbao Guggenheim. Although he might feel the need to justify the cultural contribution made by the 'several million dollars' of fees he paid to Gehry, this claim is far from wishful thinking. Gehry has acknowledged how elements of the residential design made it into the conference room of the DG Bank in Berlin, for example, and those hefty fees effectively made Lewis the architect's patron during a lean period. More importantly, their relationship also resulted in the Peter B.Lewis Building at the Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio (2002), so the Lewis House, for all its modernist McMansion pretensions ('a 10-car gallery... storage for his art collection... space for a director... a curator... a library... escape tunnels', etc.) was a giant sketch, a way for Gehry to hone and resolve an aesthetic that has subsequently become famous the world over.

Nonetheless, Sudjic's book is ultimately down on the Lewis House, deeming it the manifestations of a control-freak personality, stating that 'this is the world as I want it. This is the perfect room to run a state, a business empire, a city, a family.' In his Times review of The Edifice Complex (entitled 'Are architects venal, vacuous and ego-driven?'), Jonathan Meades (linked via Veritas et Venustas) describes the book as 'a work of damning apostasy', concluding that the rich and powerful's desire for a built legacy will continue to appeal to architects' vanity over their better judgement. The new 'iconic estates' do little more than allow the privileged to buy into the ongoing illusion of modern architecture as power and taste.

*

Other things. Town planning: How Boston got messed up (via Sachs), a hugely depressing collection of before-and-after images of the effects of Urban Renewal on the city of Boston, focusing on City Hall Plaza. The City Hall is an undeniably imposing building, designed by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles, but will forever be tainted by its association with the Boston Redevelopment Agency's clearances policy. Many photos at the Boston History Society's site. From the original Cyburbia link: 'The people in the community never knew what hit them. All of a sudden, they found themselves living in the suburbs. Where there kids had played yuppies now walked their dogs. When they went back to see the place where their childhood home had stood, they couldn't find it. The very streets had disappeared.'

More disappearing streets at The Great Cleveland Flood, a fantasy gallery / The Devil's Web Gallery, sexploitation posters (via Sachs, via Screenhead) / Stunned, a weblog / The spectacularly obtuse blog / three really rather beautiful photos of Anthony Gormley's new installation, Another Place, at Chromasia. A recent Guardian profile of the artist.

The Model 914 PC Bot from White Box Robotics. These appear to be mobile cases for high-end PCs, and little more / loud sizzling: the Einstuerzende Neuekuechen is an online cook book created by fans of Einsturzende Neubauten / on the new poem from Sappho, by Texts and Pretexts / New York Dog magazine. My guess is that this isn't real, but apologies if it is.

Regntid, 'A place where it rains, but not on you', your own personal (malfunctioning) rain cloud (via plasticbag). Reminds us of Rob McKenna (taken from this stunningly detailed Wikipedia page entitled Minor characters from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), a 'Rain God who is cherished by the clouds'. His sad and soggy story appears in Chapter 2 of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

A telling comment on London's multi-culturalism. Related, I wasn't there, I was nowhere near is a good perspective on the tube bombs from little.red.boat: 'If you were nowhere near, and you're ok, marvel in that fact. Not in the fact that if you had left the house two hours earlier and taken a completely non-sensical route, it might have been you, or if you happened to be somewhere you were never likely to be, it could have been you.'