PRINT March 1981

Pastiche/Prototype/Purity: “Houses for Sale”

“HOUSES FOR SALE,” A SHOW put on by the Castelli Gallery in New York and the Corcoran Gallery in Los Angeles, proposed “a reversal of the process” by which a house is usually commissioned: the architect became a Prometheus unbound from the rock of a set site and freed of the vulture client. And yet his freedom was somewhat nominal: his design had to be practical, buildable. Many of the architects assumed further constraints—nearly all based the house on the family, and most presumed a high style for the client. The houses are indeed for sale.

To discuss the presence of architectural forms in the art gallery is not my concern here. However, one objection to “Houses for Sale” must be made: it presented the projects as “avant-garde architecture,” as “important works,” that is, bound for art history’s paradise. This is a heady inducement to the potential buyer—he gets a house, an object of art, and perhaps a piece of history to boot.

It also raises the stakes for the architects. Each is freed (forced?) to inquire into the nature of the house now—into the nature of architecture now—in order to conceive a prototypical house. Thus the projects are also theoretical positions, manifestoes perhaps, texts for sure. And here it is important to note that all the architects are writers or professors . . . advocates. International, they form no school, nor do they represent any one ethos (though none is properly “modernist”). Each project is highly individual.

Arata Isozaki’s House of Nine Squares is an elegant piece of classicizing: here, the modern house is informed by both Japanese and Renaissance traditions. Isozaki sets two criteria for the-house-as-architecture: that it have a simple order of spaces and a shape that signals “house form.”1 Here, the simple order is a square divided by 16 columns into nine lesser squares. Such an order, says Isozaki, is “primitive,” at once a universal symbol (in mandala drawings) and an historical form (in the Palladian villa and in the Kokonotsu-madori, a Japanese house form) Universal and historical? This disturbs me. Does Isozaki want to set apart an historical example of architecture as prototypical?

Mandala aside, the house looks much like a Renaissance villa made into a modern home. Isozaki call for a vaulted roof (the signal for “house form”), a large vestibule and a piano nobile on the second floor (a cruciform imposed on a square). He evokes also a “kind of peristyle” (strictly, the row of columns that surrounds a temple). The strategy, it seems, is to hide the modern home, with its conventional spaces, within a Renaissance villa (with reference to Rome and Greece) under the pretext of a prototypical house. The elegance of the design seems to dismiss its contradictions as trifling.

There is another house for the man who would be king, or Italian Renaissance prince: Charles Moore’s Hexastyle Texas Style. Like Isozaki, he alludes to the Italian villa, (specifically the Villa Giulia) but not as a prototype. The allusions are unabashed, witty: he kids more than caters to the potential client’s presumptions. So the contradictions here are open—Moore delights in them and so oddly defuses them. America is heterogeneity, he seems to say; its architecture should be, too. (Perhaps this is related to the Robert Venturi school of architecture, in which architectural elements are also cultural signs.) God knows what the ethical line is here; maybe it is the old populist story (a happy enough conceit that would “Pop” our many cultures together). In any case, the house celebrates the America that mimics Europe; the America, that is, that makes over Europe. Interestingly, Moore relates the design to those New Orleans “delicacies” that are at once foreign and native. For this is an architecture of pastiche: it finds tradition in its own lack of it, i.e., it begs, borrows, steals.

Hexastyle Texas Style. Is this hex-a-style, to so exploit styles as to empty them? There are two traditions here, says Moore, “. . . the ranch house and the Renaissance model, with occasional surprise inventions that would have to be described as ‘modern.’” Note how reluctantly he says “modern,” and how he boosts the ranch house to the status of tradition. Note the mix of folksy and pretentious, of marginal and art-historical (e.g., of “corrugated aluminum” and “Ionic entablature”). This is indeed not modernist architecture.

In layout the house is conventional: the historical signs are masks. Moore is the first to admit it: it makes him a virtuoso, one who can make the mundane melodramatic and the modern historical. This may not be good taste; perhaps it is campy taste. But as such, it still obeys taste’s elitist laws. To hex a style—as blasphemers know of faith—is only to reaffirm it: hexastyle becomes a style, too.

Oswald Mathias Ungers does not turn to history for a prototype of the house (though he does look at 19th-century glass structures as a technical source). Rather, he conceives of it primordially, as a shelter, as a system within the system of nature, as a “micro-climate zone.” The return to a “pre-historical” house does have a contemporary incentive in the energy crisis. Indeed, energy efficiency is the very crux of Unger’s design, not just a consideration; he makes an architectural virtue out of an apparent historical necessity.

House Within a House is actually three houses: an inner stone house (the “warm zone”: the winter house); a glass house (a screen in summer, a bare frame in winter: the summer house); and a garden house (the “macro-zone”: a periphery of trees and hedges). The paradigm is the oldest in architecture: the body. But here it is the body-as-mechanism, not the body-as-scale. Ungers refers to the house as a “skin.” It “breathes,” i.e., contracts in the winter and expands in the summer, both “horizontally,” from inner to outer zones, and “vertically,” from interior to roof.

Ideologically, this is troublesome. Prompted by the energy crisis Ungers sees climate as a determinant of form. The project is pseudo-anthropological. This may translate into nostalgia for a social man that somehow lives “naturally.” As a functional structure it seems problematic, too. As it works with factors like climate and season, it exaggerates them, and so comes to work against them. The design becomes defensive, not empathic i.e., insides are set against the outside. There is the social aspect, too: its many barriers make the house look like a guarded estate.

One problem is that the body is no image of freedom. (Contrast the Price project: it, too, is premised on flexibility but its paradigm is the toy, an architectural toy to be played with, reordered.) Ungers seeks to make architectural form out of natural givens; a romantic notion is elaborated into a rather severe design—the paradox is telling.

Vittorio Gregotti is leery of the house as a social form. Careful not to give it privileged status, he sees it as “. . . a very special form of human habitat” that “ . . . expresses in a particularly primitive manner the notion of stability . . . [and] continuity. . . .” Like Price, he would rethink these requisites. But he does not return to any historical model: Gregotti would be a rediscoverer of architecture, not of architectural examples. Like Eisenman’s, his is an inquiry into the discipline.

Note how he locates his Una Casa: “The construction of a house follows an order related to the earth, to nature, to the site, then by extension to the group—the social unit—and finally to the individual as a part of that order.” This is hardly a humanist program: the body-as-measure is not here, and the individual-as-creator is secondary. Given such an order, “the models for the house are very few.” Unlike many “post-modernists,” Gregotti is well aware that culture has its own law, akin to that of physics: not everything is possible in any one period.

Our work as architects is to make these models re-emerge when we design a house. In our time this is not possible in a simple, direct way. A complex approach is necessary, oblique and subtle, so that the most basic ideas of the house may be rendered without sacrificing the layers of meaning that are not apparent on the conscious level.

It is an intelligent program—free as the best poetry is free but, like that poetry, subject to reductive interpretation. Gregotti takes the wall as the form constructive of both building and architecture: one wall “to limit,” a parallel one “to enclose,” then another pair “to anchor the whole to a space that establishes a separation between the external world . . . and the internal world. . . .” The latter—that of the individual—is left open, “. . . only to be defined by time and use.” Yet a space so structured, by four continuous walls, can only be empty, not truly open. Despite the fine program, Una Casa does seem somewhat institutional.

The project’s plans are exquisite, yet Gregotti presents them as inadequate. Architecture, he seems to say, is not merely design; no more than it is mere building. It is a text and as such it calls for a reader who will produce it as an experience. This does not mean that architecture (and art in general) is not autonomous, only that it is not closed as a discipline: it is an experience among others, “. . . an experience which only can be lived.”

Architecture as a text, as a project to be re-formed as needs and desires change, is an ideal of sorts for Gregotti. So, too, for Cesar Pelli and Cedric Price.

Like Gregotti, Pelli sees architecture in terms of “imperatives.” His, though, are humanist: a “search” for the unique and for the archetypal. Thus his Long Gallery House. Its elements, says Pelli, are archetypal—the long gallery is a stoa (literally porch: the portico in Greek architecture) and the rooms are squares and hexagons. And the final form, chosen by the owner, is unique. The idea of a long gallery as the “dominant space within a composition of spaces” is not a new one for Pelli: a project for the 1976 Venice Biennale occasioned such a design. The gallery space is “everything that the rooms are not”: it is open, public, “functionally unspecific.” From entrance to vista to passageway, from center space to open porch to colonnade. “It changes in character as one proceeds . . . .” It operates, then, like an anagram. “Think of this design strategy as the combination of room-pieces on a neutral site-table. . . .”

Like Gregotti and Price, Pelli would open the house to a “wide range of formal compositions.” And yet the form given here is not very open (e.g., the rooms seem like dead ends). It does not live up to the concept—as is true of the others, save Eisenman’s—where design is the concept.

The Long Gallery House: to Pelli it is a way to unite “two opposite spiritual needs”: “the need to be a unique individual” and “the need to be a part of a collective norm.” Given Pelli’s museum work, gallery is a strong clue, and it may be that the museum gallery is a model, for the museum is a collective (institution) that does incorporate the individual (artist). In a way, this is in the tradition of the great estate (Morgan’s, Frick’s) that becomes a museum, the salon as a setting for painting. Here, we have a house based on the gallery: a display-house that also displays. The perfect house, perhaps, for a collector.

Price’s Platforms, Pavilions, Pylons, and Plants is truly open to re-form; indeed it incites it. Though the project is within the provenance of the house, it is critical of its conventions. To Price a home is a seductive imposition. It too often promises security only to ignore life’s flux. So, too, it confirms our bad habits—why should a given function demand a set space, and vice versa? Such “traditional delineation” is “dangerously restrictive” and Price asks us to rethink it. Indeed, we are to rethink the association of house and family, too. The project is but a “provision of a physically protected matrix for a voluntary group of people . . . a house but not necessarily a home.” A provision: Price offers only the concept, the elements (pavilions) and one design. The owner is free to re-form it—indeed, he must, if he is to own it properly.

“A series of pavilions, platforms, and pylons, all self-structured, are arranged around the site, sometimes individually and sometimes interlinked.” More than Pelli’s, the design is anagrammatic, there to be transposed: or, rather, toylike, there to be played with. Price calls it a “twenty-four hour living toy.” This seems juvenile (or at least ’60s-ish—shades of plug-in architecture and geodesic domes) and it is, in an important way—he would make architecture’s rationality responsive to individual will and whim. In a sense, Price is the architectural apostle of the pleasure of the text: “Architecture as a device for extending human delight. . . .”

Emilio Ambasz’s Arcadian Berm House seems the least house-like, and the least architecture-like. The presentation is elegant: only a few lines mark the early empty site. Two berms (mounds) with solar panels form one border; the house edge forms another; and in the center is a courtyard that leads to the house proper, which is at or below grade.

Like a set from Close Encounters, the “house” looks extra-terrestrial but is grounded, literally. The project seems strangely atopian (as though it exists, properly, nowhere), whereas in fact it is specifically sited— indeed, it looks rather like an earthwork (a “marked site”). Earthworks may be seen as opposed to “architecture” and “landscape” (as Rosalind Krauss has said). Here, Ambasz makes the relation reciprocal: the Arcadian House, it seems, would reconcile architecture and landscape.

In earthworks these terms are in quotation marks; i.e., they are seen as cultural forms. With Ambasz the impulse is less critical than romantic: the landscape becomes “architectural,” nature is made human. Now this does seem Arcadian, proper to a first place where no differences exist. However, here they are not erased; they are only blurred. As Ambasz is perspicacious enough to note: “The traditional vision of Arcadia is that of a humanistic garden. America’s Arcadia has turned into a man-made nature, a forest of artificial trees and mental shadows.” In other words, our Arcadia is a debased one, a suburban ideal.

Does Ambasz desire a “pure” one? “Europe’s eternal quest,” he says, “remains Utopia, the myth of the end. America’s returning myth is Arcadia, the eternal beginning.” Such romanticism imbues the project: it speaks an ideology of the Return. And yet we are asked, in the essay by Michael Sorkin, to see it as revolutionary. Ambasz is a “reinventor” who, like the metaphysician, “hunts first principles” and would return architecture to “building’s state of nature.” First principles, state of nature, the Arcadian House . . . Does this mean the bourgeois home, a conventional house (with the usual spaces), hidden in a bizarre site? Isn’t that what this is?

It seems radical, perhaps because it uses traditional forms unusually. The courtyard, for example. Traditionally, it is an introductory form, here, it is in the middle. Aristocratic (and thus used nostalgically), it commands a space, announces an estate. Here it does this, but unseen, it functions as a site-marker, a form indicative of power. Architecturally, then, the design imitates the assumed social position of the owner. It has all the attention of an estate with none of the exposure—the “bourgeois” aspect of life is properly hidden.

Underground, the house does away with the verticality so basic to building, and out goes the body-as-measure. Address is thus unsure: at ground level we cannot really see the house; underground in the house proper, human scale does return, but then we are unseen—the house encloses us, strips us of other reference. Only above ground—i.e., in the aerial view—can the project be read. It is as if it were made for superhumans. I said the concept is romantic but it is more—it is hubristic, concerned as much to mark the landscape as to define a space for a house. It stands, not as an architectural figure in a field, but as the field. To own this house is to lay claim. In a sense, it arrogates, for the owner, the public right of the artist to mark, measure, or otherwise encode.

The Underground: from the days of Dostoyevsky it has meant political resistance, social exclusion. Nevertheless, the above-ground transvalues it, makes it romantic or radical-chic. Really, it is romantic now to think that there is a space apart from society, for everyone in today’s society is a subject, is subjected, is seen. Everyone, that is, except the truly powerful (unlike the faces in People, they detest publicity). In a sense, in the Arcadian Berm House the right to privacy, a foundation of our law (as inscribed in the house), becomes the privilege of not-being-seen.

“. . . Ambasz,” writes Sorkin, “seeks to revolutionize architectural relations, not social relations. He rejects political solutions as too simplistic . . . too far from himself preeminently as a poet. . . .” The first is true: he does seem to dismiss the social significance here. And so is the second, but then he is no poet: poets would have revolutions reverberate. Are these excuses for a conservative architecture? “Taste is his secret, his method, his appeal.” Yes, but whose taste? The Arcadian house, a first house . . . but for whom? Arcadia bespeaks innocent splendor; it’s a good name for an estate.

Whereas Ambasz returns to “first principles” in terms of a misbegotten Arcadia, Peter Eisenman does so in terms of architecture as a discipline. His is an inquiry into its forms of representation, which he literally extrapolates into a design. This is radical architecturally and, almost by afterthought, socially: in Eisenman’s term, it “dislocates” the conventional house and the social relations encoded there.

House El Even Odd is an intransigent program, so self-reflexive that it exists as its own representation. That there is nothing but representation is a “truth” basic to both psychoanalysis and Marxism. Here, it is as if Eisenman makes it a “truth” of architecture, too. Drawings, plans, projections, models—all these do not lead to the house, only to be effaced by it; they are the house, and vice versa. “A model of this house appears to be simultaneously a three-dimensional object, an axonometric projection [a 2-D representation of the design at a 45-degree angle], and a plan.” Eisenman does not begin with a notion of a house—rather, he lets the modes of representation create it (primarily by axonometric transformations). Architecture thus generates “its own” house.

This revises our notion of the architect’s practice and upsets our misconception of architecture-as-only-building. The house as such is not the absolute referent; building is not the privileged form. “Architecture” is thus suspended: its process is not linear; each phase does not efface the prior one—all exist equally in the project. It is thus its own textbook, a true display-house. Like an anatomy that creates a body, this is an “auto-architecture”: it represents (recapitulates) itself in order to become its own representation—one that is its reality.

In effect, such an architecture recoups what building excludes, but not just randomly. Whereas many architects now exhibit architectural forms as art, Eisenman resolves them into architecture, an architecture that, by its autonomy (by its futility?), is also art. (How it would be as a habitat is another matter: that is a reference elsewhere and so is dismissed.)

Alone among the group, Eisenman is no humanist. He interprets the proposal for a “prototypical house” as a license to rethink architecture. There is no nostalgia for a return to an historical or Arcadian form. Truly to renew “architectural relations” is also to renew “social relations”—or at least to “dislocate” them. This is a house based on architecture only, and Eisenman is aware of the severe restrictions. In a sense, it is a negative architecture, one “concerned with the limits of the discipline of architecture.”

As its own representation, House El Even Odd is pure, it refers to nothing else. It is as siteless as modern sculpture, and yet, too, is set into the ground. But here, Eisenman does not “return” architectural form to pseudo-natural form; rather, he treats the site (or as Eisenman calls it, the earth-mass) as an architectural volume. Such an “ambiguity” opens up architecture even as it suspends it, and “dislocates” our notion of it and of the house.

Hal Foster



1. All quotations are from the architects’ texts (with the exception of the essay on Emilio Ambasz’s Arcadian Berm House, which is by Michael Sorkin) published in Houses for Sale, ed. by B.J. Archer (New York: Rizzoli, 1980).