A house is for life, not just for Christmas. That’s what Deborah Sarnoff and Robert Gotkin must have been thinking when they bought Robert Venturi’s 1969 Lieb House, an asbestos-shingled box emblazoned with a Pop Art number 9 beside the door. The house was earmarked for demolition when the couple acquired it for a dollar in 2009. They spent another $100,000 having it peeled off its site in New Jersey and shipped up the East River on the back of a barge, to its new resting place in Glen Cove, NY. The whole caper was recorded for posterity by Venturi’s son, Jim, in the film Saving Lieb House.
Not all houses have been bestowed with such benefaction. But maybe there’s another way in which architecture can help fend off the wrecking ball: what if the design of a house allows it to grow and change in conjunction with the needs of its occupants? The UK’s Lifetime Homes Standards encourage precisely such a principle, setting out a list of guidelines that have been adopted into the building regulations. The focus is on design features that make the home flexible enough to meet whatever comes along in life: a teenager with a broken leg, a grandfather with a serious illness, or parents dealing with an unwieldy Bugaboo.
This ideology fits with a long-lived tradition in modern architecture of adaptability and flexibility. The most groundbreaking example is Gerrit Rietveld’s seminal De Stijl–style house in a suburb of Utrecht. It was built in 1924 for Mrs Schröder, a widowed socialite with three children. Upstairs is a single dynamic living space that has the option of being left open or subdivided by a system of sliding and revolving panels. When entirely closed, the floor accommodates three bedrooms, a bathroom and a living room.
In the 1960s, the architecture of adaptability became bigger, more daring and more experimental. Archigram, a collective of architects, sought to fight the increasing sterility of modernism by designing hypothetical projects, fantastically drawn, inspired by the future. They imagined architecture as part of a solution for world problems. Buildings were giant transformers – they could walk, swim, float and join together. They were both independent and parasitic.
While these ideas remained firmly on the page, they came to influence the architecture of the home. Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo is the world’s most direct relation, in concept and aesthetic. It comprises 140 prefabricated, self-contained modules plugged into a concrete core using high-tension bolts. Designed to attract the bachelor salaryman, the capsules could be connected and combined to create larger spaces or completely replaced as required.
More recently, this idea resonates in container cities across the world. Shipping containers have been reinvented and stacked on top of each other like Warholian baked-bean cans to create affordable home/office communities. The first example, Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s Docklands, was completed in 2001 and provided 12 work studios over three storeys. Much like Lego, it can always be added to, and a fourth layer of containers was craned into position two years later. The same principle is now being applied to schools, community centres, and even a new ecological urban spa in San Francisco.
Now architects are creating homes that adapt to rising sea levels. The cedar-clad Floating House by MOS Architects on Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada, is currently the most beautiful. The water levels vary enormously throughout the seasons, so the house sits on a structure of steel pontoons that allow it to fluctuate along with the lake. Morphosis designed the similar Float House – made from polystyrene foam coated in glass fibre-reinforced concrete – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation.
Taking a rather different transformative power to fight a turbulent future, KWK Promes’ Safe House in Warsaw has the ability to provide astonishing security. Constructed as a cuboid concrete monolith in Stealth Bomber grey, the building has two modes – open and closed. In defence position, huge movable walls operated by electric engines close into the property’s window and door openings, a roll-down gate barricades the south elevation and a drawbridge is wound up to create an island fortress.
Sliding House in Suffolk, by dRMM, was conceived out of joy and ingenuity rather than paranoia. Comprising three distinct parts – a house, garage and annexe – it has an enveloping structure on recessed railway tracks that can be peeled back or rolled over the building, like an architectural contraceptive, to provide differing combinations of enclosure and open-air living.
A similar sense of extendibility has been applied to the Living Room House in the chocolate-box German town of Gelnhause, designed by the architects Formalhaut. It is shaped like a child’s drawing of a house, with a steeply pitched roof, but that’s where the tradition ends. The house is clad with powder-coated aluminium and perforated with no less than 52 windows in a chequerboard pattern. Its main attraction is the bedroom, which is housed in a sliding drawer that can be pulled out over the street for alfresco sleeping.
modern contemporary architecture. It has a hovering platform that can be moved vertically through the various levels of the building on a piston, from the kitchen on the lower level all the way to the bedroom on the highest floor. Perhaps the ultimate expression of the Lifetime Homes idea, it was built for a client who was paralysed from the waist down following a serious car accident. “I want a complex house because the house will define my world,” he said. Whereas a building on one floor would have been the logical solution, Koolhaas chose instead to highlight the verticality of his design. Breezing past his wine collection and his books on a hydraulic magic carpet, the client had incomparable access to the things he loved. His adaptable house didn’t just help with his life. It enhanced it.