THE homes great architects build for themselves are often embarrassments. Sometimes this is because they remain eternally unfinished, like never-ending workshops for testing out techniques and materials, as with Frank Gehry’s home in Los Angeles. Or else, as with Das Canoas, the home that Oscar Niemeyer designed for himself in Rio de Janeiro, they embarrass for another reason. So intimate is the relationship between the natural world and the building, the domestic spaces and the public, that Niemeyer’s public work seems inhumane by contrast.
The homes that architects build for their parents, on the other hand, are usually of a different order. Perhaps this is because parents are willing to indulge their children on matters of time and money, allowing them to produce their most expressive and thoughtful work. This is evident in Wimbledon House, designed by Richard Rogers for his parents in the late 1960s (pictured above). According to Philip Gumuchdjian, who has overseen a recent refurbishment, “[Mr Rogers’s] mother Nino was a true modernist who inspired him.” Drawing on the pioneering architecture that Mr Rogers had seen in California, as well as his mother’s own work as a potter—she made beautiful, pared-back ceramic pieces—the house is almost a single form, a piece of dramatic sculptural simplicity. The one piece of furniture in the main room is a raised kitchen counter upon which Nino displayed her art.
Indeed, houses designed for parents have been incredibly significant in the evolution of architecture. The house that Bob Venturi designed for his newly-widowed mother signalled, in effect, the advent of post-modernism (see below). For Vanna Venturi, although she gave her son six years to get the plans right, the end result was to be an unpretentious home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. With the aid of Denise Scott Brown, his wife and partner, Mr Venturi reconciled an unprepossessing site with a wealth of architectural history. The exterior features a grand urban elevation at the front and a rustic rear, making a nod to—of all places—Michelangelo’s Porta Pia in Rome.
The project gave Mr Venturi space to invent his own architectural language and wrestle free from the influence of Louis Kahn, the great modernist for whom he had worked. Kahn made his name using cutting-edge construction techniques on low-rise buildings, often in brick and with simple, solid geometries. The Vanna Venturi house instead played with scale and tropes of historic architecture such as split pediments and pitched roofing. The experience encouraged Mr Venturi to write his manifesto, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” (1966), in which he argues against Kahn’s theory of form. When architects design for mum and dad