Crime Scene

Longtime purveyors of the finest online property porn, The Modern House has now launched an exquisite new book for generation rent to pore over. We caught up with founders Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill to get the lowdown on Ornament is Crime.

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Let's face it, who hasn't whiled away an hour or three at The Modern House, perusing the exquisitely designed dwellings in preparation for that so far elusive lottery win?  Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill are the pair responsible for enabling this habit through their hugely successful estate agency and have just put together a new book showcasing some of the best Modernist houses both old and new – and a very lovely thing it is too. We caught up with them to find out more…

How did the idea for the book first come about? What were the most challenging aspects of putting it together?
MG: Phaidon felt that it was the right time to reappraise Modernism, and they approached us about putting a book together. The primary challenge was deciding which projects to include; initially we were going to encompass large-scale apartment blocks as well, but in the end we narrowed the scope to one-off houses.

The book is full of beautiful houses built for rich people with impeccable taste. What were the criteria for buildings to be included?
MG: Armed with a tower of Post-it notes, we spent a huge amount of time marking off our favourite projects in the books and journals in our office, as well as visiting libraries and carrying out online research. Once we had a longlist, we whittled it down to the best examples of the Modernist style, and this was then condensed further based upon which images were available to use. We wanted to make sure that the main protagonists were included, and that we had a very broad geographical spread – some of the buildings we found in remote locations surprised even us. Not all of the houses are grandiose projects built for wealthy clients; some are very modest structures built from simple materials.

Showing everything in black and white means that it’s hard to see on first glance which are contemporary and which are from decades earlier. Do you think it highlights the fact that not much has changed with this particular style of architecture? Is there any danger of it becoming a cliché
MG: By showing the projects in a non-hierarchical way and in black and white, the aim is to demonstrate how the primary characteristics of Modernism have survived remarkably unscathed: flat roofs, windows in horizontal bands, cubic or cylindrical forms, and painted render. If you asked someone to draw picture of their ideal modern dwelling, it would probably look something like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, all these years later. That’s because the principles of Modernism have a timeless appeal – truth to materials, an emphasis on maximising natural light, and embracing the landscape.  

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Marcel Breuer: Starkey House, Duluth, Minnesota, USA, 1955. Picture credit: © Ezra Stoller/ Esto

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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois, USA, 1951. Picture credit: Alan Weintraub/Arcaid

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Adolf Loos: Villa Müller, Prague, Czech Republic, 1930. Picture credit: Vaclav Sedy

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Shigeru Ban: Curtain Wall House, Tokyo, Japan, 1995. Picture credit: Photo © Hiroyuki Hirai

The accompanying quotes are from a very eclectic range of sources. Do the music quotes reflect your personal record collections? And do you reckon that this might be the first time that Metallica has been paired with Modernist Architecture?
AH: The quotes were put together by myself and by the team at Phaidon so they reflect not only my music collection but the collection of people at Phaidon too! I think it’s really nice that there are allusions to other artforms other than architecture – music, art, literature – to add texture to the book. Architecture can be quite insular and self-absorbed so it’s nice to break those confines a little bit and bring in other relevant references.

Your introduction suggests that ’for many it seems, ornament is more of a crime than ever’. Do you both subscribe to this, or can there be a place for ‘ornament’ while still adhering to a Modernist sensibility?
MG: The title of the book is inspired by Adolf Loos’ publication ‘Ornament is Crime’, which bombastically denounced the twirly-whirly forms of Art Nouveau and ushered in a spirit of architectural solidity and reduction. This is obviously the extreme end of the spectrum, and many of the most successful Modernists were surprisingly decorative. Le Corbusier’s buildings have a playfulness about them, in the use of colour and the way that light is sucked in through abstract openings. Erno Goldfinger’s house on Willow Road in Hampstead, which is open to the public, is full of found objects and personal collections.

If you could live in any of the buildings featured, which would you choose?
MG: I have a soft spot for the Case Study Movement, so it might be Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House up in the hills of Los Angeles. It was photographed by Julius Shulman and became the poster boy of modern LA. Modernism makes sense in that kind of climate.

AH: Personally, I love the house that Richard Rogers designed for his parents in Wimbledon. We were involved with selling the house a few years back and every time I went, I didn’t want to leave. It’s such a liberating space to be in and so audaciously simple in its design.

Grab your copy of Ornament is Crime here.

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Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet: Maison de Verre, Paris, France, 1932. Picture credit: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

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Arne Jacobsen: Rothenborg House, Klampenborg, Denmark, 1931. PIcture credit: Richard Powers

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Le Corbusier: Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, 1929. Picture credit: Fondation Le Corbusier

Ornament is Crime: Modernist Architecture
By Matt Gibberd & Albert Hill
Published by Phaidon (£29.95)