Building your own home is an unachievable dream for most of us. Even among architects, it’s rarer than you might think. Many prefer to live in older properties, because it helps them switch off from their day job. Some are too busy to spend their spare time working on a labour of love, while others are put off by the cost of land.
Then there is the psychological pressure that comes from building what is, in effect, a self-portrait. If the house goes wrong, the architect could suffer from a crisis of confidence and end up resenting their own work. But the freedom of not having to work to a client’s brief can also propel the architect to greater heights, letting them experiment with new ideas without being beholden to another person’s vision.
In his book “Architects’ Houses” (Thames & Hudson), Michael Webb, an architect who in the 1960s was one of the founders of Archigram, a radical collective, takes readers on a tour of 30 houses that architects have built for themselves over the past decade. They range from rural estates to urban boltholes, seasonal getaways to busy family homes, and add up to an inventory of contemporary forms, styles, materials and construction techniques. It is fascinating to see how these architects apply their professional philosophy to their domestic lives.
La Voile, Cap Ferrat, France (Norman Foster)
When Norman Foster decided to build a holiday home in the south of France, he discovered that regulations made it quite hard to build anything. After decades of ugly and environmentally damaging over-development in the region, the French government had effectively frozen all building and demolition. Foster eventually bought one of the only buildings up for sale, an unappealing five-storey tower from the 1950s on a steep slope, and set about completely transforming it from within.
He decided to orientate his design around the house’s best feature: a view of the Côte d’Azur. “It was the most extreme exercise in ingenuity,” says Foster, “to create what we did. Any sane person looking at the house would have said, ‘you are absolutely mad!’” Named after the French word for sail, Villa la Voille hugs its hillside setting while jutting out towards the Mediterranean, which each room is aligned to face. It might look modest from the outside, but the interior has a grandiosity reminiscent of Foster’s larger-scale projects, with a 30ft-tall, four-storey central living space that resembles the stacked levels of a ship.
House of the Poem of the Right Angle, Vilches, Chile (Smiljan Radić)
Smiljan Radíc, a Chilean architect, is renowned for his oblique forms and use of natural materials. His own house, in an oak grove near the Atlos de Lircay nature reserve, is no exception. Inspired by a lithograph from Le Corbusier’s publication “Poem of the Right Angle” (1947-53), it’s an unorthodox structure with funnel-like protrusions emerging from the roof, through which you can see the tree canopy.
Due to the remote setting, no large machinery could be used in construction, so Radíc commissioned local workers to handcraft it from concrete, giving a rough-hewn, almost organic feel. There are few outward-facing windows, but instead an internal courtyard featuring several oak trees, whose forms are echoed inside by a twirling wooden sculpture. “We wanted,” explains Radíc, “a refuge more than a home, a place for contemplation rather than viewing the landscape.” Inside, wooden walls and recessed areas make the house feel like a shelter from the outside world.
Tower House, Ulster County, New York State (Peter and Thomas Gluck)
In 1961 Peter Gluck, an architect based in New York, bought an early-19th-century farmhouse on the edge of the Catskill Mountains and made it his country home. Since then, Gluck and his son have constructed a series of structures in the grounds, including a guest house and a library.
The most recent addition is the Tower House, a T-shaped residence for visiting family members. It contains three bedrooms and three wet rooms stacked in a vertical tower, which supports a horizontal block for shared living space. “It would be hard,” says Thomas Gluck, “to sell a client on the idea of putting the living room atop a switchback staircase.” Green, back-painted glass lets the house blend into the verdant surrounding palette during the day, while at night LED lamps on the main staircase could be mistaken for fireflies.
Villa S, Bergen, Norway (Todd Saunders)
Looking to build a house for his growing family, Todd Saunders, an architect who was born in Canada and lives in Norway, thought he had found the perfect location: a former park in a garden suburb in Bergen that had been designed in the 1930s by Leif Grung, a modernist architect. Over the years, the park had deteriorated into a local dumping ground. After buying the plot, Saunders discovered that the land was extremely boggy. “I took a 3m of rebar,” he recounts, “pushed it into the earth, and it disappeared.” He then had to dig out the whole plot and replace it with rock.
This drawn-out process gave him time to fine-tune the design to meet his family’s wants and needs. He settled on a plan centred around a raised horizontal block, supported on two smaller ground-floor units. The raised area contains most of the living space (bedrooms, bathrooms, open-plan living and dining areas), minimising the building’s footprint and the amount of time spend rushing up and down stairs. Beneath this space, there are covered outdoor areas for enjoying the outdoors in the wet Nowegian climate, as well as swings hanging from the building for Saunders’ children. Above the main block, there is a library – the one indulgence Saunders and his wife allowed themselves – and a roof terrace. The villa is made from a steel frame and clad in blackened timber to match the vernacular style and the neighbouring trees.
Baan Naam, Venice, California (Kulapat Yantrasast)
In Thailand, a “baan naam” is a home built over water, traditionally from light wood and raised on stilts to survive the monsoon season. Kulapat Yantrasast, a Thai architect and the founder of wHY Architecture, drew on this precedent when he built his own home, in Venice Beach, over a swimming pool.
The two-storey house is entered through expansive glass doors that give a view onto the city. Inside, an austere white and grey palette is a backdrop to architectural models, artworks and ornaments. For Yantrasast, who often hosts events and workshops at home, the house strikes a balance between openness and privacy. It’s built in concrete, unsurprisingly given that Yantrasast used to work for Tadao Ando, a Japanese architect who is obsessed with the material. “I realised,” he says, “that almost every house in Los Angeles has a flimsy wood frame. I wanted a surface that was integral with the structure, and concrete was the material I was most familiar with. Something with a sense of gravitas and materiality.”
Architects’ Houses by Michael Webb (Thames & Hudson) out now