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Favourite books: Context and client are welcome constraints

Murray Kerr’s return to Houses for Sale raises some interesting questions about the value of collaboration

Among other things we design houses and during a recent pitch for a project the potential client asked what sort of house I’d design if ‘unencumbered’ by a client. I didn’t give the most satisfactory answer so I decided to return to Houses for Sale, a book I bought some years ago from my mother-in-law’s second-hand bookshop.

Of all the questions I am asked when people discover I am an architect, the most common is ‘would you like to design your own home’, but I have to say it is not my most burning ambition.

In Houses for Sale, eight internationally renowned architects were asked to design a prototype house without specific site or client and only a notional budget to work to. Houses for Sale contains their drawings and an essay about each house along with an introductory essay by B J Archer. publication was a collaborative project between Corcoran gallery in Los Angeles and Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, who set the design brief. The purpose of the project was to set architecture in a fine art setting where the drawings and models of the houses were for sale at an exhibition in the galleries; the idea being that potential clients might buy a house, or perhaps one of the images, thereby turning the architect’s process/technical drawings into art. Can architecture be art?

I know that as an office we’d be creatively diminished without the input of our clients.

We’re designing quite a few houses at the moment and the idea of creating a house without a client leaves me flat, the most interesting part of working as an architect is the chemistry that comes from working with the client.

I know that as an office we’d be creatively diminished without the input of our clients.

When I was a child, I used to get stuck for things to draw not because I couldn’t think of anything, but because there were too many options; I need constraints to fight against. I found university difficult for the same reason, because while you were meant to be working to a brief, I always felt that you could twist it to suit your purpose. So I always struggled with that as a constraint. I, and the office, still need the individual structure that a client gives a project in order to create something good, and I relish the personal relationship with a client and what emerges from it.

This book left me feeling that the participating architects were lost too, although it’s interesting to see what ideas they latched on to.

The participating architects included Peter Eisenman, César Pelli, Arata Isozaki and Emilio Ambasz and are all, apart from Cedric Price, influences that disappeared from my life about two decades ago. Almost all of them conceived their houses on a slightly sloping site, to give themselves more scope, I think, to play spatial games. Interestingly, Isozaki, despite having a completely blank space to work with, decided that one of the founding principles of his project was that the house must look like a house. Cedric Price’s is mostly piers, platforms and things that can move – as you’d expect, a kind of anti-design.  Eisenman’s El Even Odd is an academic play on architectural drawing that leaves me cold. Pelli’s is the most interesting of the ideas, I think, with the house organised around a central gallery with functional spaces arranged separately off this connecting space and brings to mind John Hejduk’s wall house, another designed without a client.

So what am I saying here, I suppose, is that the qualities of a project drawn out of collaboration are crucial. Frank Lloyd Wright looked for ‘intelligent co-operation’ from his clients and wanted to use that to do new things.  In relation to Houses for Sale, while some of the ideas are of interest, I think they only really become valuable as propositions when you can sell them to a client and bring them to reality.

And to answer the burning question, no we didn’t win that commission. But we’ll win the next one.

Murray Kerr is founder of Denizen Works

Houses for Sale by Ambasz, Eisenman, Gregotti, Isozaki, Moore, Pelli, Price, Ungers. Rizzoli, 1980