It is rare to come across a book that combines great architecture with beautifully executed interiors, particularly one that is capable of keeping you intrigued from the foreword to the final page. Karen McCartney, who is known for her approachable writing style, has brought together a book of houses that are very varied in style but which all deliver something special. All the houses go beyond what is conventionally considered 'good' architecture and inhabit a space that is only possible when an architect's vision marries perfectly with a site.
I want to come clean right from the start. This is a blog post on my wife’s new book. However, it’s not just any book, it is Superhouse, a wonderful journey through nineteen amazing houses from around the globe. As you might expect from a book with a title that includes the word ‘SUPER’, it is a thick tome with lovely production values. Richard Powers, the globetrotting architecture and interiors photographer who shot every image in the book worked with Karen on the project for over two years. Some of the houses date back to the 1970’s and 80’s, others have just been completed but the main reason for each one’s inclusion is that it fulfils a type of architectural trifecta - integration of the house with its surroundings, an interesting form and a totally resolved interior. It might be a small timber holiday house in the woods of Victoria, Australia or a low earthen house in the flat arid landscape of Morocco but it is the ability to go ‘beyond the everyday’ that made these particular houses worthy of inclusion. They had to be amazing, inspirational, innovative, and in most cases a combination of all of these things. This is expressed much more succinctly by Karen in the foreword of the book: "A superhouse is one that delivers a 360-degree completeness of form, its exterior and interior have a seamless execution and, above all else, it is awe-inspiring".
I was lucky enough to be involved in the project (albeit in a small way), styling three of the houses and interviewing one of the architects, Piero Lissoni, while I was attending the Milan Furniture Fair in 2013. This is why I have chosen to present these particular four houses in the post. The images I have selected are all by Richard Powers but none of them are in the actual book. Naturally during the layout process certain images work better than others to tell the story of the house, so many great images just don't make it onto the page.
Of the nineteen houses featured in Superhouse, four are located in Australia and one in New Zealand. The rest are spread across Europe and America. The book doesn't attempt to show the newest or the best but is instead a personally curated collection of extraordinary houses. I was involved in some of the early search for possible houses and can tell you that it isn't easy to find truly great houses with equally amazing interiors, even in this age of online access. Often it was the interior that let down an otherwise beautiful building but it also has to be said that there is no shortage of the type of well designed contemporary house that constantly fills magazines but a very limited number of truly great ones that make your heart beat faster.
The Virginia Kerridge designed house in the Hunter Valley, completed in 2012 is an example of one of the houses that I styled for the book. It incorporates an existing stone cottage that was once used by a bushranger as a hideout. The stonework of the original cottage was disassembled, numbered, restored and put back exactly as it was and the rest of the house designed to fit around it. It's siting, in a wide valley near a creek, means it has beautiful close and distant views from all sides. Set far enough back so as not to be threatened by flooding, the house has a Japanese quality despite the Australian setting and materials like corrugated iron and ironbark. The use of slatted wood work and sliding doors and windows that open and close down the house as required recalls the Japanese use of shoji screens. Despite the flatness of the site the house feels nestled into nature and totally connected to it.
Another house I experienced first hand was the Flinders House by Melbourne based architects, Wood Marsh. The extraordinary plan is in the shape of a butterfly wing. All curves, the house sits on top of a hill overlooking rolling hills and across to the tumultuous seas of the Bass Strait. Described by one of the architects, Randal Marsh, as like "a crustacean or whale bones washed up and deposited by the sea", the pale rendered building is designed to develop patina over time - lightening on the northern side and growing lichen to the south. The interior is quite a contrast with undulating black timber walls expressed with vertical battens.
John Wardle's Fairhaven house also features an interior treatment that relies heavily on timber but it goes much further. Overlooking the ocean, the house is sited close to windswept native vegetation and Wardle went to great lengths to design the house to maximise northern light and provide privacy while capturing a variety of views. The angular zinc clad exterior gives nothing of it's softer timber-lined interior away. It's a surprise to enter the front door and discover that all the irregular external volumes are mirrored internally but in wood - floors, walls and ceiling. An incredible feat of design and building skill, the house feels like an immaculately crafted puzzle.
The Monza Loft by Piero Lissoni of Lissoni Associati was once a theatre and the scale of the space is truly awe-inspiring. Lissoni restored the late nineteenth century building and kept the enormous main space much as it always had been. Bedrooms and bathrooms were created upstairs at either end while a giant glass atrium was placed at one end in front of what would have once been the stage. The introduction of light and greenery has entirely transformed the space. Original cast iron columns and a miraculous floating staircase are the only non-white elements in the structure.
The marriage of contemporary and vintage is a strong theme in the book, featuring in many of the houses. This broader understanding of what contemporary architecture can and should be is extremely refreshing. Rather than a collection of houses selected purely for shock value, an architects reputation or because it has never been published before, Superhouse brings a thoughtful approach to the selection process based on the ability of the project to deliver something extraordinary but fully integrated into it's locale.
The book has many more houses that astound and inspire than just the four I have shared here. None of them are conventional. One was designed to exist in the tree tops of a forest, another was built directly into rock beside a lake. There is a restored castle and a re-purposed silo as well as a contemporary house in Morocco made entirely of earth. Karen's many years as editor of interior magazines Marie Claire Lifestyle and Inside Out have enabled her and the book's designer, Evi O to reveal each project in a way that captures the spirit of each individual house with generosity and a wonderful eye for scale and mood.
One of the things that Karen wanted in Superhouse was an element of surprise as one chapter ends and another starts. Turning the page from Paul Morgan's organic Trunk House in the eucalypt forests of Victoria's central highlands to a Brutalist house in Säo Paolo, Brazil, by Paolo Mendes da Rocha, certainly delivers the unexpected. Richard Power's photography is sublime throughout, capturing intimate details and grand vistas to reveal the site as much as the structure that has been built on it. Travelling with him on three of the shoots we generally started in the early morning and on at least one occasion were still photographing exteriors in what appeared to me to be complete darkness. His dedication to capturing the houses can be seen on every page.