In the Venn diagram of art, architecture and artists there is a very tiny overlapping segment that contains some of the weirdest and yet most original abodes. Houses as art. Places that someone has personally converted into something unique, invariably a labour of love for them. And yet these houses are quite unlike anything you will encounter anywhere else. They are literally one of a kind.
They are also very few in numbers, which is maybe a comment on how hard they are to create. Not having even considered the idea myself I can only guess at what barriers lie ahead once you have that idea, when you wake up one morning and think I know, I will convert my house into a unique sculpture, possibly over the next 20 years. Maybe you just run out of steam, the sheer willpower needed to see the project through proving too much. Maybe red tape and local objections bring your ambitions down to earth. Literally. After all, it would worry the neighbours when you first mention your plans.
And lastly, I should define what I mean by houses as art. I see some basic rules needed to fully qualify:
- They must be places you can live in, or at least stay in, so that excludes art made out to be a house;
- They must have been the absurd idea of one individual, seeking out some personal artistic quest;
- They must be unique, unlike any other structure you can find on this planet.
With that in mind, here is my rather short list of houses as art. I make some honourable mentions at the end of places that don’t qualify but are worthy of a reminder.
This blog piece was in fact inspired by this local landmark (local to me, that is). Actually I have managed to live and pass nearby this house throughout the duration of its 20 year conversion into a work of art without having ever been aware of it. So the discovery of such an amazing creation right under my nose really did set me off thinking about what creative and frankly strange things people do with their houses.
It is the work of Carrie Reichardt, whose house it is also, and it began as a way of dealing with the imprisonment of Luis Ramirez, a prisoner in Texas on death row who was then executed. The work spread from the back to the front of the house and, now finished, it is a sprawling mosaic that covers many subjects from her unhappiness at the treatment of people in the US penal system to Alice in Wonderland (Cheshire Cats), Hokusai, the Simpsons, Mayan gods, an octopus and lots of flying eyeballs. And much, much more. There’s a good article on the details in the artwork here.
Is there a more curious and ludicrous idea than this? And yet it was not only an idea that became a reality but it still stands today, 35 years after it first appeared in a suburban street in Oxford. It has seen off attempts by the council to have it removed on safety grounds and for lack of planning permission. I did like the concern that it might set a precedent, something that seems unlikely when you think about it.
There is some thought behind the seemingly unfathomable reason for embedding a shark in your roof. It apparently came from totally impotent and ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation with reference to the bombs dropped on Japan in WWII but also maybe inspired by the bombing raid on Libya carried out that same year, partly from a military base nearby.
Whatever the reason behind it, unsurprisingly it quickly became a local landmark (it’s a 25 foot shark in the roof of a terraced house – word got around quite fast even before social media). It has weathered councils, governments, the weather itself and even the risk of being converted back to a ‘normal’ house to be sold off. It has now been saved and can be rented on airbnb.
I first read about this magical construction over 30 years ago now, when I first fell into the deep end of the history of art and wanted to consume everything. I have still yet to visit, it being in a part of France I rarely pass through, and yet one day I will.
It was built single-handedly by a postman who, so the story goes, tripped over a stone on his round one day, picked it up and took it home and then kept doing that for over 30 years (nice coincidence on the timing there – I have thought about doing something, he bult a house). Gradually he built himself…well, a palace, in whatever style took his fancy.
It is hard to describe the finished result, although the work of Gaudí does spring to mind.
Talking of Gaudí. I debated whether to include him on this list or not. My temptation was to exclude him on the grounds of him being an architect by profession (so not an eccentric outsider to the world of buildings), and also being a cultural juggernaut that threatens to define an entire city. However he is a one-off, unique in his time and he created buildings that were simply like nothing else.
The most famous is the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia, but perhaps the best example would be the Casa Batlló. A renovation of a more classical building, it too has that unmistakable sense of other-worldliness. From the organic frontage to the mosaic tiling to the strange botanical chimneys on the roof, this is a house that had to go on the list.
This strange boat-as-house looms over the South Bank in London. You may have passed by and never even seen it, perched as it was high above the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Sadly it seems it came down a few years ago, possibly to find a new home but I can’t see it has one yet.
This ‘house’ was a temporary home you could rent for the night, a one-bed holiday home in the shape of a ship which in turn was based on the Roi des Belges which Joseph Conrad was the captain of on the Congo River, and which in turn inspired him to write Heart of Darkness. Oh, which in turn inspired the film Apocalypse Now. All of that sat quietly watching over us on the London skyline for many years.
Honourable Mention - House by Rachel Whiteread, London
This was excluded for the simple reason that it wasn’t actually a house, but an artwork of a house. It also no longer exists having been demolished not long after it came to be. As art it certainly divided opinion, from wonder and awards (she won The Turner Prize thanks to it) to derision and offence (a working-class terraced house converted into middle-class public art sculpture, to some), and ‘awards’ (she also won the Worst Artist of the Year at the same time, by the modest and understated outfit The K Foundation).
I have a soft spot for this piece, partly because I worked in a gallery around the corner at that time and have fond memories of my time there, but partly also because I quite like it when something exists only for a short time. Relying on memories and archives. We preserve too much. I also think it is an amazing piece, and wish I had seen it (I left the gallery shortly before it appeared).