The private house, emblem of the American dream, may be in for
some big changes if recent designs by star architects are any
Examples of high-end houses are currently on display in an
exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The 26 designs offer
glimpses into how the wealthy live. But do these dream houses have
anything to do with reality?
Comparing ideas from the most elevated corner of the architectural
universe, represented in the exhibition, with opinions from a
sampling of down-to-earth architects yields some new ideas.
A legitimate question is whether houses built by signature
architects are, as Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and
design at the museum, asserts, "a collective bellwether of the
current state of architecture and a harbinger of its future
Architectural historian Witold Rybczynski, professor of urbanism
at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is skeptical about
the influence of high-end houses on lowbrow residences. "Few
innovations pioneered by high-profile architects actually trickle
down to the mainstream," he says. "Some of Frank Lloyd Wright's
innovations, like the masonry fireplace and carport, have filtered
down. But it's rare that signature architects influence mass-market
Architecture is unique among the arts in that it is both a fine
and applied art. So the question becomes, Which museum-worthy
innovations from this show might apply to ordinary houses?
The shape of things to come
The main motif emerging from the latest design theories at the
Museum of Modern Art is that the home is no longer a secluded refuge
but an interface with the outside world. "The idea of the house as a
permeable environment is one of the most drastic changes over the
last 100 years," says Mr. Riley.
Homes hooked up to the Internet incorporate almost as much media
as mortar. As Riley says, "Instead of the old idea of home sweet
home as a place of serenity, the home is now literally a receiver and
transmitter of information. The walls of a house are no longer
necessarily boundaries between inside and outside," he continues,
"but 'smart skins' that are part of an interactive environment."
Interviews with architects across the country reveal a wide
difference of opinion. "If I were 25 years old and shopping for a
house," Mr. Rybczynski says, "I would be leery of buying a weird
house based on recent technology. Especially since the Internet
changes every year. To use what it is today as the basis for the
biggest investment of your life would be highly irrational."
Yet infiltration by digital technology does seem to be a growing
trend. Even non-museum-quality new homes bristle with electronic
Tom Wilson, who specializes in residential design in Houston and
Dallas, described a recent home for a client who requested four
split-screen televisions mounted on wall brackets, all tuned to both
the client's office and financial-news channels. "They come on
simultaneously in every room - from the bedroom, bathroom, and study,
to the kitchen - to get him up, through breakfast, and out the door
in constant contact with the media," Mr. Wilson says.
New homes do not go as far as a visionary project called Digital
House, designed by two Iranian-born sisters, Gisue Hariri and Mojgan
Hariri. Walls not only talk in this house of the next millennium.
They are also liquid-crystal display screens that project sound,
text, and images. Need a recipe? A virtual chef pops up over
kitchen counters to help you whip up a perfect Duck la Clockwork
This technology is not feasible at present, and some architects
are not even sure cybertecture is a desirable goal.
'We're not turning into pod people'
Anne Tate, assistant professor of architecture at the Rhode Island
School of Design in Providence, R. …