Tag Archives: architecture

Oh Why Not?

David Harper

Another new-build; this one the manifestation of a German’s freaky dream; an up yours to white village architectural restrictions, building standards, and good taste. Even though it is outside the boundaries of the Sierra de Grazalema national park (not far from Algodonales, if you are interested in making an offer), it is a bold – defiant – deviation from the norm. In some respects it is quite inspiring; who says your house shouldn’t be hilarious? Who says, given a set of bricks and a concrete mixer, you can’t build your own bunker dwelling? Perched on a hillock and visible for miles, it is a gripping sight. Manolo and Molino were as keen to poke around as we were, and made soft, positive noises about the fact it was legal, had water, and the fact the pink roof could be raised to turn the one room into two. It seems the owner-builder-dreamer had run out of enthusiasm halfway through the construction of the terrace, or maybe taken a look at his project with fresh eyes and left to live in something square.

The one thing that this has going for it is the views, down over the lush valley of Bocaleones and across to Zahara. Intriguingly, he had elected to completely encircle his house with fast-growing trees to block it. What do you think? asked Manolo. ‘Ha ha ha,’ I said.

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Alsatian dog, Eiffel Tower

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Went to see a house just beyond the village of Venta del Carrizal, Jaen province.  Houses like this, designed to keep out the sun, are as cool as a castle. Wrestle the windows open, and the light (bright even on a rubbish day) pushes in making blinding squares on the tiled floors. Depending on the way the light bounces, the white walls are brilliant white, chalky white, grey, cream, black. They are designed primarily to be cool, but a minimalist couldn’t do a better job with light and shade.

Unusually (given my budget and journalist wage), it was too big. There were 14 or 16 rooms (none a kitchen or bathroom), the kind of house that a more practical person would immediately see potential in as a B&B. I did like it the way it was, cool and rambling with lots of interconnecting rooms, different stone staircases, and squares of light for pictures; all completely empty except for a china alsatian in a ruff and souvenir of the Eiffel Tower on a shelf above a fireplace. And if I’d bought it that’s how it would have stayed, bar three or four rooms, because I wouldn’t have the money to fill it. I’d have had one room alone for my Cabinet of Precious Things, another for computer leads, cables and gadgets I  don’t understand. Not that there’s anything wrong to have an empty house to play in (if you’re a ghost), but I’d have had to sell the car to get a bathroom fitted, and that would have left me stranded with a view of a road, and a village where I didn’t know anyone, in an area that was okay . . . absolutely fine, but a bit random.

That started me thinking: what’s more important? Having the right house or the right setting? Looking in or looking out? Having somewhere to be or having somewhere to go? They seem like fundamental questions but I have no idea.

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Palm Springs House-Hunting

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Palm Springs is desert modernism and desert modernism is the finest of all 2oth century architecture. In my opinion. The little city, lined with palms and backed by rocky mountains has more: pools, heat, bars with gardens and patios festooned with fairy lights, a history as the numero uno Hollywood playground, shows with leggy lovelies, interior design stores, restored vintage cars, dogs wearing kerchiefs and a big gay population, but the star attraction is the architecture.

Not only are the commercial buildings – the bank, the post office, the visitor centre / center  – eye-poppingly lovely, but there are dozens of houses dotted around the boulder-strewn hills, designed by such inspirational modernist greats as Richard Neutra, John Lautner, E. Stewart Williams, William F. Cody. And a few more worth oggling, conveniently located on the flat grid of central blocks, like the Frank Sinatra Residence.

A photo of the Kaufmann House is on the cover of a book that I’ve been looking at off and on for a decade. It was one of Richard Neutra’s final USA houses, designed in 1946. (easy to find at 470 W Vista Chino Rd). I may be getting confused here, but I think Barry Manilow was once an owner which means I’ll have to recalibrate my thinking about the naff crooner. Another one fairly easy to spot is the also-very-famous Edris House by E. Stewart Williams. Both houses are privately owned which means viewing on a self-drive tour means lurking reverentially at some distance, feeling shifty.

Good luck spotting the Steve McQueen, William Holding and Bob Hope Residences which are on the tour map, but also on a private road with various clear off signs and one saying You are being photographed – a pretty effective deterrent when you don’t like your picture being taken. But you can get a glimpse of the Bob Hope Lautner property from the parking lot just before you turn back to Palm Springs central in despair for a margarita.

I’m in Vegas just finishing off a quick video of a self-guided architecture tour which I’ll upload as soon as possible, but, without wanting to spoil the conclusion, book a place on a guided tour unless your navigational skills are excellent and your nature very calm and patient. Fact is that much of what makes the private houses so attractive to the people that own them, aside from clean, sleek lines, is that the public face is often nothing much more than a low wall; all the inside-outside, walls of glass and design features are revealed on the inside. If you have the cash you can rent a retro retreat, or stay in a mid-century modernist hotel. (I stayed at the Royal Sun Inn which isn’t one of the Special Ones, but is cheap, friendly and has a pool.)

Pick up a map of mid-century modern landmarks or book a tour at the Palm Springs Official Visitor Center, which was once the Tramway Gas Station designed by Albert Frey and Robson Chambers. I’m going back for Modernism Week that starts February 14 1913.

Details can be found at Visit Palm Springs and Modernism Week

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Tiny Texas Houses

Obviously once I find Somewheresville, I’m going to need something to live in. The industrial spaces and trashed duplexes being bought for pennies / cents and lovingly restored in Detroit are tempting, mainly because the people involved in reviving the city are so inspiring. The wooden cottages in Hillsborough, North Carolina are pretty as a picture, with enough quirks and antiquity to make them odd and interesting, creaky and atmospheric. And I do like a porch. And the tropical colours, raised elevation and ornate flourishes, verandas and columns of New Orleans Shotgun houses . . . well, ooh la la. However, none are exactly where I would have them. Hence the fascination with mobile / modular / pod / prefab housing. Our route across the USA has been designed to take us to the workshops of as many of the leading practitioners as possible. The stay in Luling wasn’t just to sniff the oil and meet Thomas, as interesting as that was, but to pay a visit to Tiny Texas Houses and meet the founder and owner, Brad Kittel.

I can’t do justice to Brad’s philosophy, justification, ideas and influence – or his tiny gem-like houses in the space of a blog post, but I’ll be writing and uploading lots of footage on both Tiny Texas Houses and mobile, container and reclaimed houses in general (offline but posting online) at a later point. This is a rough taster. Suffice to say I called in unannounced in the hope of a 30-minute chat and left 8 hours later (partly because the car refused to start) which Brad would say was divine intervention and the Hertz rental people would say was the ignition.

The biggest house in Texas is 42,000 sq. feet. Brad is taking things the other way, hoping to “create the antithesis of what America has become to the rest of the world, which is the epitome of excess”. The houses are architectural gems, and mobile; desirable as off-grid retreats but also, increasingly, as primary dwellings for the growing number of Americans keen to divest themselves of stuff. Aside from providing a different sort of housing option, the houses are made from material that would otherwise be in landfills, and re-investing energy and materials – and encouraging others to do the same – is core to Brad’s mission. As he says:

“Our custom Tiny Texas Houses have been designed and built with 99% Pure Salvage. That means that everything from the doors, floors, windows, lumber, porch posts, glass, door hardware, interior walls and even the siding has been saved and re-used to create houses that we hope will last for a century or more. Our small homes built with salvaged vintage materials demonstrate that it is possible to reduce our carbon footprint, simplify our lives, and live in a healthy house that is energy efficient as well as beautiful. Each Tiny Texas House is a unique piece of House Art that will last for the rest of the owner’s lives and for generations to come.”  (See tinytexashouses.com for more inspiring info).

Brad lived all over before coming to South Texas, but there’s something about this hot, dry place with its big skies that either draws or creates people with anything-is-possible big ideas.

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