The way we'll live

High-tech architects create futuristic home designs for their wealthy clients. But will the rest of us feel at home with them?

The private house, emblem of the American dream, may be in for some big changes if recent designs by star architects are any indication.

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 direction."

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 housing."

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."

True?

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 wiring.

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 Orange.

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.I., is skeptical. "The more time people spend in the virtual world, the more it increases their need for a physical, visceral, tangible environment. We need the antidote of real textures, of sound echoing in a real room," Ms. Tate says. "We're not," she says, "turning into pod people."

Danelle Guthrie, of the Los Angeles architectural firm Guthrie + Buresh, whose work is included in the exhibition, agrees. "It's not so much the buttons they can push," that motivate clients, she says. "Actually, the people who are more electronically savvy want more traditional spaces. They want the warm and fuzzy."

Bernard Tschumi, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture in New York is one of the most technologically adept architects and a star of the museum show. Even he admits, "Electronic innovations don't necessarily catalyze original architectural forms."

For example, Microsoft billionaire William Gates's $53 million mansion contains the most sophisticated digital gadgetry inside a traditional wooden lodge. Walt Disney Co. head Michael Eisner's home in Beverly Hills, Calif., has the latest media bells and whistles, but it is housed in a Spanish-colonial shell.

Multi-tasking space

Everyone agrees on one spinoff from pioneering architects that has entered the mainstream: free-flowing interior space. It used to be that walls divided interiors into separate cells. Now "the idea of open space has finally percolated into the culture," Rybczynski says.

Suburban homes constructed by commercial builders are designed with a "great room" combining kitchen, eating area, and family room at its heart.

It's not just a suburban phenomenon. The growing popularity of urban lofts with open interiors - "a mega form of the old one-room studio" - is a trend documented in the Museum of Modern Art show and verified by other architects.

"Our clients have puzzles in their lives," says architect Chris Genik, of the Santa Monica, Calif., firm Daly Genik. (The company's Slot Box House is mentioned in the exhibition catalog.) Many families today are blended or multigenerational. Frequently both husband and wife work erratic schedules. "Clients have weird, recombinant lifestyles, requiring multivalent architectural solutions," according to Mr. Genik.

One way to accommodate the mutating family is built-in flexibility. "The hallmark of these houses is a transformable interior," says Riley, the curator. Or, as Atlanta architect Mack Scogin describes his loftlike home, featured in the show: "no rooms, just situations."

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas's design for a three-story house in Bordeaux, France, is so transformable, it includes a 10-square-foot room that levitates or descends on an elevator platform. The house was built for a client confined to a wheelchair, who stipulated, "I do not want a simple house. I want a complex house, because the house will define my world." As Koolhaas writes in the catalog, the movement of the elevator continuously changes the architecture of the house.

Inspired by pop culture

The paradigm of flowing space may reflect the influence of films and television shows set in New York, according to Gabriel Feld, chairman of architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. "In the way that a certain standard kitchen came from 'I Love Lucy,' the idea of a loft," he says, "comes from media images like 'Dharma and Greg,' " a design-heavy sitcom.

The virtue of wide-open interiors is that they "allow for a variety of situations. The uses tend to change," Mr. Feld says. In a California house built by Daly Genik for use by diverse family members, the configurations of rooms shift through sliding walls. Residents can "calibrate the amount of individual space on a need basis," Genik says. Nothing is set in stone. Mobile walls retract or rumble into place like rolling stones.

Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., disagrees with this concept. "I don't want to appear the stodgiest person on the planet in respect to the open spaces of modernity," he says, "but a room with a door producing privacy meets an awful lot of needs that the open plan does not.

"A loft is great for single people and couples, but when they have children, it's not possible," Tate says. "Children and parents need a place to go to close the door. It's important for kids' development and for teenagers' social life. Sound insulation is necessary for family harmony."

Working at home

Another indisputable trend is the increasing number of Americans working at home and the effect on home design. "It's just exploding," Riley says, noting that 6 million Americans worked at home in 1993, compared with 20 million now. "We're learning to put our lives back together, living and working under one roof to enhance our whole life," he says.

To prevent work from dominating family life, houses have become more complicated architecturally. "We need a variety of spaces for both separation and coming together."

Danelle Guthrie's own house that she designed with her husband, Tom Buresh, combines workplace and home. The house, called WorkHouse, has a common stairwell that both links and separates activity zones.

"Before, when we had an office off the property," Guthrie says, "it was a constant conflict when our child was ill or on vacation. Now, even with our work schedule so variable, our son can spend time at home because we're there. We wanted more flexibility for both family and work demands."

The layout of homes by high-end architects today is as transformable as a Rubik's Cube. Whether these radical models will change the shape of mass-market homes is unclear. We may be on the ground floor of a revolution in home design, but the final forms are still under construction.

'The Un-Private House' at the Museum of Modern Art

"The Un-Private House" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York examines 26 homes built or designed in the last 10 years by international architects. Works by well-known architects such as Rem Koolhaas, the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron, and Bernard Tschumi are on display until Oct. 5.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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