There is a horror movie called House (1986) that’s the most eloquent description of the odd relationship we have with our homes. It features a Vietnam vet turned horror author with writers block who inherits his aunts house after she has hung herself in it. Gradually, he finds himself battling with the house. Monsters burst out of the closet at midnight, doors lead into different dimensions, a mounted fish and various garden tools come to life. It shows that homes are only half real estate the rest is in our head.
We’re all at war with our homes, just not quite as dramatically. The light bulb that keeps blowing, the tap that won’t stop dripping, the cupboard that’s not quite big enough. All these mundane details expose the uncomfortable fit between the house and the lives lived within it. Stairs become shelves, beds become tables, sinks become dustbins, gardens become strewn with discarded furniture. Homes spiral away from what they were meant to be.
Meanwhile, architects wage their own kind of war on the house. Reinventing it as anything but the traditional pitched roofed icon: a pod, a parasite, a Mobius strip. For architects houses are a kind of yardstick against which they can measure themselves. A house is a kind of set piece which demonstrates what makes them different from everyone else and show just how radical they are.
For artists, the house is just as fascinating an object but in an entirely opposite way. Not through reinventing the form, but investigating the idea. Perhaps there is something that architects might learn about housing by looking at this kind of work. Something that might help them overcome their ridiculously optimistic utopian sentiments and actually engage with the world around them.
Which is why I’m walking around the replica version of his parent’s semi-detached house that Michael Landy built inside Tate Britain. It’s everything an architect wouldn’t do with a house because it’s so ordinary – an ordinary house shape made out of ordinary materials, with ordinary additions (an ordinary satellite dish, ordinary net curtains). Except that it is quite extraordinary. As though picked up in Essex by a hurricane and dumped like Dorothy’s house in the cultural fantasy land of the Tate’s Duveen Galleries. Juxtaposed with the neo-classical interior, forming narrow alleys between stock brick walls and Victorian grandeur.
Looking at an ordinary house in the rarefied atmosphere of an art gallery makes you look in a different way. Standing, stroking my chin looking at a section of brickwork with rainwater downpipe in a way that would alert neighbourhood watch. Maybe because it’s in the sculpture galleries, I’m kind of expecting sculptural things to happen, looking at a bay window with the expectation of the sensation of looking at Rodin’s The Kiss (1901-04). I’m starting to hallucinate sculptural marks where in any other context they’d be bodged construction – the traces of the paintbrush in the glossed window frames, the feeding of a wire through a ventilation brick, the thumbprint in a lump of Blu-Tac holding the doorbell in place. Imagine Anthony Caro up a ladder fixing the guttering and Anish Kapoor spraying on pebbledash in a spiritual way. Ironically, this sculpture of a house is a lot less sculptural than the houses as sculpture that contemporary architects crave.
The attention to detail shown in Landy’s house is a satanic version of an architect’s obsession. Open a monograph on a contemporary architect and you’ll see close up photographs freezing the moment that materials meet, shot with all the romance of Robert Doisneaus Kiss by the Hotel de Ville (1950) crossed with the pornographic view of one thing slotting into another. Landys recreations of decay, age and imperfection twist the concept of detailing. Through the detail, architecture reaches for authenticity with truth to materials and honesty of construction. Semi-detached (2004) has a different order of truth. Not the architects professional truth, but a warm human honesty.
All these details show the passing of time over the house. In this sense it is in the tradition of the picturesque. Ruskin differentiated between high and low picturesque. Low picturesque wallowed in aesthetic sentimentality. High picturesque identified with the pain and suffering experienced in the landscape. High picturesque was in effect a beautiful type of political and social critique. Here it is in blistered paintwork, dodgy wiring and bolted on satellite dish.
The picturesque landscape was populated with pseudo-ruined follies and symbols of mythical pasts that evoked a sense of deep sincere nostalgia. Landys house might part of a new kind of picturesque, one that mythologises the very recent past. A doorbell held together with Blue-Tac rather than a ruined temple.
This modern picturesque might also include George Shaws views into the beautiful boringness of post-war new towns. It suggests parks full of carefully burnt out Vauxhall Novas, water features based around semi-submerged shopping trolleys, a manicured wasteland with charmingly graffitied substations and topiary Kebab shops designed by the love child of Capability Brown and Corinne Day.
Other artists have shoved houses into galleries. Elizabeth Wright built a fragment of a bungalow at Londons The Showroom in 1996. The bungalow was based on a 1940s design by the Stepney Reconstruction Group. It represented the kind of home that local residents preferred to the blocks of flats proposed in the County of London Plan.
Sometimes it’s not about the complexity of politics but the sheer weirdness of putting something in the wrong place. Mathieu Merciers Pavillon (2003) is a life-size fibreglass caricature of a house that looks like it’s freshly popped into existence. It’s kind of banal and kind of lovely at the same time, mimicking the oddness of Polly Pocket dolls houses at a grand scale.
Putting a house inside a gallery is one way to shift meaning. Putting a gallery around a house is another. At the Bunny Lane House, Adam Kalkin built an industrial shed around a small, two-storey house in New Jersey. It might be architecture in the name of art, or perhaps the other way around. Whichever, the original house changes in all kinds of ways. The porch becomes an extension of the lounge, the roof and drainage, which once made the house habitable, become decorative. It explores the Modernist interest in the relationship between the interior and the exterior from an alternative angle.
This kind of addition to a readymade recalls the Smithsons Solar Pavilion 1961-2). They purchased a small house, knocked almost everything down, keeping the chimney. They then built what looks like the 34th and 35th floors of a Soviet ministry around it. The building articulates the sentimental trail of smoke from a cottage chimney, using at as icon of houseiness against the abstration of the new addition. It suggests the warmth of the hearth on a cold winters day, Alison and Peter toasting marshmallows in a New Brutalist idyll. Identifying the fireplace and the chimney as the raw infrastructural heart of a home the thing that historically made homes warm enough to be habitable. A kind of ye olde servicing doing for northern Europe what airconditioning does for Florida. The chimney-as-infrastructure is at the heart of Michael Sailstorfers ’3 Ster mit Ausblick’ (2002). It is a film of a cabin being broken down and burnt piece by piece in its own stove till there is nothing left but the glowing chimney against the dusk sky. Its an auto-cannibalistic accelerated ruin where the building consumes itself. Like an aircrash survivor forced to chew off their own arm to escape, it suggests the terrible potential of even the simplest of homes.
The house-in-the wrong-place has a heritage that is not art or architecture, but everyday surrealism. The centrepiece of Londons Ideal Home show, organised annually by the Daily Mail, fare the full size homes built by volume housebuilding companies. In design for leisure it’s an old fashioned trick to build something that’s supposed to be outside inside. You can see it in the pan tile canopies over the bar in Italian restaurants. And if you ever fly out of the UK you’ll more than likely get a chance for a swift airside pint at the Shakespeare pub. These are a franchise of fully functioning full size pub replicas slotted into clean aluminium-clad departure lounges. You can sit outside as the sign sways in the light breeze of the air-conditioning. These replica buildings might have the intention of being entertainment but they also do all of the things that high art replicas do too.
The question is ‘Why do so many contemporary architects spend their time rejecting everything that we know about houses?’. These other approaches show that through exploring the familiar that one can really get under the skin of houses. After all, every house is a haunted house, even ones that haven’t yet been built.
first published in contemporary