What should a house look like?



ONE – Style and wellbeing

As far as I’m concerned, a person can choose their house to look like anything they want. Any style, any colour, any character, anything from abstract to figurative. A-ny-thing-at-all.

That doesn’t mean I like every house I see. Some I find disturbing, or ugly, or just unrelatable. But that’s ok. It’s their house.

To me, it’s similar to clothes. Let people wear whatever they like. There is nothing I consider “appropriate,” regardless of the occasion. If people want to be naked, I’m ok with that too. Whenever and wherever.

Houses, however, often survive people. (Alas, there are less and less clothes that can last that long.) That’s why, to me, it’s ok if new dwellers change the looks of the house to suit their wishes.

Furthermore, I’m ok if people do that with buildings at any time, including the buildings I designed. Don’t like them (any more)? Change them. They are yours. I took a photo of what they looked like when first built. You live in them; you do with them what makes you happy.

Truth be told, people sometimes hurt their own wellbeing while in pursuit of happiness. Think of pretty shoes that cause blisters or lavish houses whose material use and AC requirements are causing loads of CO2 emissions that are like a climate boomerang heading for the head.

Aesthetic choices, I believe, can be good or bad for one’s wellbeing too. They co-create atmospheres and thus make you feel psychological balance or imbalance, pleasant or unpleasant sensations and moods.

Some of these psychological effects I believe to be universal. I can’t think of a way to be ok with designing a facade full of sharp spikes in any street at all because I think they would cause extremely unpleasant sensations to the people who pass along or live across. Even if the spikes are out of physical reach.

Most of the psychological effects, however, depend on personal traits, preferences, habits, expectations and past experiences. So what I would recommend is to seek balance, awareness and personal growth in life in general, rather than a particular architectural aesthetic. In the process, use aesthetics and styles to aid your wellbeing.

Also, choose an architect who can hear you and understand you, and use space, proportions, materials and aesthetics in a way that can help you find your balance. Open up to the architect and let them assist you, and seek to understand how this process works so that you can claim responsibility for your choices.

I like to think of myself as such a flexible and empathic architect, but that doesn’t mean that I’m the right choice for everyone. And I’m likely to try to convince people to make environmentally conscious choices even when it comes to aesthetics, which can trigger animosity in some people.

TWO – Style and prejudice

As far as I’m concerned, a person can choose their house to look like anything they want. That might get them in trouble, though.

With houses and with clothes, people are sensitive to what other people “wear.” They might think it’s vulgar, ugly, inappropriate, insulting, outdated or uneducated. They might interpret it to mean something even if to the other person it means something different or nothing at all.

Sometimes this meaning is connected to past trauma. Some styles can be related to the oppression by the aristocracy, or the bourgeoisie, or the communist regimes, or the neoliberal capitalism, and so on (the list is long). Animosity toward such a style can be connected to the elite’s loss of power too, and not just to being oppressed. Inclination toward such a style can be connected to wanting to identify with power or status that one never had.

As for me, I do my best to detach my experience of aesthetics from any such added notions, and feel a deeper level of influence they exert on me, just like I do my best to detach myself from any internalised identity, for example national or professional. I find it all distracting from my core essence and from the beauty and wellbeing I can create.

However, if you want to build a house in a certain social and cultural context, you should be ready to face disapproval, ridicule or anger if you make certain aesthetic choices. I take care to warn my clients of that possibility.

As for my own reputation, I’m not famous so I don’t have to worry about losing a lot. Plus, my dedication to adopting stylistic languages that suit the needs and wishes of my clients tends to produce a varied portfolio so there are always plenty of people who like and dislike my designs. And plenty of people who already disdain such an approach for its “lack of personal style”.

And yet, I’m not sure I would dare design something that would completely expose me to the ridicule of the vast majority of the architectural scene where I operate, unless there was a good underlying reason to go so directly against the tide.

If there was, my rebel side would probably relish at the opportunity, but I don’t consider that a balanced state of mind that would produce a design that really promotes wellbeing on that deeper level I say I cherish so much.

THREE – Style and regulations

As far as I’m concerned, a person can choose their house to look like anything they want. But we might not be making that decision.

Communities and societies have created various rules that govern the aesthetics of buildings, and not only the existing buildings that have a protected status, but also new buildings in certain areas.

For example, a municipality or nation might decide that the style of an area is a part of its cultural heritage value and set up rules about how new buildings must fit into this historic style.

To me, if the rules serve to preserve a very pleasant mood of the place, or a very coherent and particular mood even if it’s not pleasant, such rules can make sense. Preserving a setting simply as a historic record doesn’t mean much to me. There are photos, videos and 3d models and virtual tours that I consider better suited for that.

Who decides though? Who decides which area is worth protecting or which rules exactly should apply to the design of new buildings in such an area? Such rule making is often outsourced to experts: architects, art historians and conservationists. Or it is outsourced to politicians. Or, via politicians, to those seeking profit in demolishing the old and building the new.

In my architectural design work, if I feel the existing mood of an area is promoting wellbeing, I’ll talk to the client about it and try to preserve it even if there are no such regulations. If there are legally binding regulations, I’ll respect them even if I don’t agree with them, or abstain from the commission.

What is often missing is the voice of the people who actually live somewhere. They might want to preserve the existing mood and regulate the style of any new buildings even if it’s not preserved by existing regulations. I think that voice should be heard and have more bearing. Or they might want more freedom even if there are existing regulations. Again, their voice should be heard.

In my ideal world, people who live in an area are a community: They choose to live with each other and take care of each other and their social and natural environment. They make consent-based decisions that promote wellbeing.

A new house in the area is therefore not just a house. The house and the people in it are an addition to the community. The style of the house, seeing that it shapes the mood of the common spaces between houses, is, depending on the community, something between a personal matter and a communal matter.

Where do I think the balance should be? In my ideal community, people would co-live in common houses/buildings, unless they are in eco-friendly tiny houses, in which case the style of the common house would be a common decision, while the style of tiny houses would be an individual decision.

FOUR – Style and history

As far as I’m concerned, a person can choose their house to look like anything they want. And that includes any specific styles, even historic ones.

This attitude routinely gets one in trouble with many architects and art historians, but I’m really on the side of personal freedom when it comes to this, unless regulations or community decisions say otherwise.

The standard narrative goes like this: Architecture should be a reflection of the time when it was built. So let’s leave historic styles to the past (unless we have to make a replica) and design with contemporary aesthetics.

I, however, think that architecture is a reflection of the time when it was built, no matter what you build. There is no way to avoid that, and therefore no need to try hard to make it so.

Say you decide to build a historic-style building in 2020, as I’m writing this. Looking from the future, it will mean that in 2020 there was a small minority of people who built in a historic style. You can analyse why and how that happened for all you want, but it certainly reflects something about “the times”. So let it be.

Unless you don’t want to let it be, and this is where we come to the essence of the problem: When people insist they want you to build houses with the looks that are a reflection of the times, they actually have in mind a specific interpretation of the times and a specific kind of appropriate reflection for it, or at least what is inappropriate.

That is not a neutral reflection. It is a premeditated intention. Which is not a bad thing per se, but let’s call it what it is. Also, let’s not impose it on others. And let’s not create the illusion that there is a consensus about it.

The same thing applies to what is “contemporary.” From a neutral standpoint, contemporary is anything that happens now, or at the same time as our point of reference. It is not a specific style.

The fact that some architectural magazines or schools or groups are trying to create a consensus about what should be the preferred style of contemporary designers and investors doesn’t make it the contemporary style.

Even if you take all the buildings that are being built on this day (in a particular area) and manage to figure out the common denominator of their appearance, which is the closest you could get to defining what a neutral contemporary style (for that area) is, tomorrow you can add your completely different building to it. It will be a part of the new contemporary, as the contemporary of today becomes a part of history.

As for the matter of confusing people about when a house was built, if you do build a historic style building, make sure to put a little plaque on it with the year of completion. It will be a reflection of a time when people simultaneously had an awareness of history and a freedom to choose any style they liked in the present.

FIVE – Style and size

As far as I’m concerned, a person can choose their house to look like anything they want. But not how big it is.

For example, your house might put my house into permanent shade, making it unpleasant and expensive (due to more heating energy required) to live in it. Or it might put a shadow over what used to be a sunny playground. Or it might obstruct the flow of air, or make wind unpleasantly strong. Or it might be so big in relation to the other buildings or natural surroundings that it grabs all the attention and destroys the mood of the place. Not just visually. It might turn a nice relaxed street into a narrow funnel.

Your house might be too big even if it’s very small, if it’s in the wrong place. For example, it might take the place of what used to be a public park. Or what used to be a plot of land reserved for building a new school. Or what is a piece of fertile ground, perfect for growing food.

And even if it’s in the right place, and in a good relation with its immediate surroundings, your house might be too big because it takes up a huge amount of energy and resources to build, run, maintain and recycle, in comparison to the number of people who use the house. Just because you own a big plot of land, and just because you have enough money to build a big house, should you have the right to have a huge ecological footprint?

Where do we build, and where do we abstain from building? In the place where we do build, what is it that we should build? What materials and technologies should we use? Who should have the right to own a particular piece of land? And who should have the right to build what? These questions take precedence over how a single building should be built and what it should look like. Spatial and urban planning take precedence over architecture, or at least they should.

When they do take precedence, and when they are dedicated to ecological, social, economic and cultural aspects of sustainability, they can regenerate natural and social environments. And that can help make lives and spaces so pleasant that the style of a single building doesn’t matter that much in comparison.

In fact, I believe we would have less animosity about appearances if we had better social and spatial relationships and agreements. I even think we would be more open to aesthetic experiments and a stronger wish to create beauty for wellbeing.

Personally, I would limit private ownership wherever it goes against the public good, and I would limit the ecological footprint of communities, businesses and individuals, including that of buildings. Steel buildings would largely become a thing of the past. There would be far less brick and reinforced concrete buildings. Wood, hemp, straw, bamboo and earth would become more common. Say goodbye to imported marble.

I expect aesthetics would change as a consequence. But how they would change goes beyond our prejudice about the aesthetics of “green” or “natural” building, and opens up a world of creative possibilities.

SIX – Style and transformation

As far as I’m concerned, a person can choose their house to look like anything they want. But what is “their” house?

People often live and work in rented spaces. Should they be able to alter their appearance to create moods that suit them? I believe so. But there should be a clear and fair agreement about the extent of alterations, their permanence, and who pays for them.

This, of course, pertains above all to the interiors where people spend time, but I wouldn’t mind deals that affect the facade either. For example, inspired by Hundertwasser’s idea that everyone has the right to paint the facade surrounding their window as far as their arm can reach while holding a brush.

And since we already determined that many buildings co-shape the moods of public spaces, I would be as fine with an agreement that allows neighbours to paint the street facade as far up as their brushes can reach while standing on the pavement. Murals, graffiti, all fine by me.

There is, in fact, something very “alive” and playful in altering the physical environment as time goes by, just for the fun of self-expression, rather than trying to preserve its original state or an eternal appearance of being brand new.

That is, I believe, a part of being at home in a place, something that shouldn’t be reserved for owners, but for tenants and users as well.

When buildings are designed for unknown or temporary users, an effort can still be made to involve prospective users and neighbours (the community) in various aspects of the design process, including style and aesthetics.

At the same time, one can turn to science-based design, including how the style affects human behaviour and wellbeing. The biophilia hypothesis is currently one of the more popular approaches, proposing that nature-inspired forms and materials contribute to our wellbeing due to our long co-evolution with the rest of nature. I don’t know how well tested the hypothesis is, though.

Personally, if I could change something on my apartment building and the neighbouring ones, I would just add a lot of colour. But I’m already quite happy that they are not too big and not to close, and that they have a lot of windows and balconies so I can see people and they can see me. Most of the neighbourhood’s appeal, though, lies in the abundance of trees and meadows.

SEVEN – Style and me

As far as I’m concerned, a person can choose their house to look like anything they want. What would I choose for myself?

As I write this, I’m sitting in the home/studio I share with my wife, in a five-story apartment building with 2x15 apartments, in a very humane neighbourhood in Zagreb. It’s a planned socialist modernist neighbourhood from the late 1960s, with very similar and rather boring buildings outgrown by hundreds of trees and surrounded by many parks and playgrounds. If you walk through it, every now and then you’ll run into some older plots with family houses, which makes for a nice change. What I miss are public gazebos for being outside when it rains, and public vegetable gardens.

Together with the 60 or so people in our building, we’ve been thinking of applying for the (meager) state subsidies for the thermal insulation. I’d be happy if we did it, and I would use the opportunity to propose painting the facade in different colours, just as it used to be before the weather slowly turned them all into shades of grey. I wouldn’t mind people choosing different colours though, as long as it’s not monochromatic.

If we could find an investor though, and all agree on it, I’d propose making another story on top of the building, with a pitched roof that is much easier to maintain than the current flat roof. This would make it mandatory to install lifts, which we currently don’t have. The new story and the external lifts would really change the building and it would be fun to design such an addition.

In the meantime, I sometimes fantasize about everyone painting their balconies, and around their windows, in different colours, but I don’t think the idea would get much traction.

As for designing a house of our own, I’d actually like to live in a co-living project in close contact with nature the potential for turning into a bigger intentional community. I’ve been training to do that, both by living in community-like settings and by getting educated on regenerative and sustainable design (ecological + social + economic + cultural), participatory education and facilitation. So it seems like things are converging in that direction.

What would be the style of that co-living house? Of course, that would be decided by everyone who would live in it. But what would I prefer? Honestly, I couldn’t describe it visually at this point. I would like it to co-create a mood of simultaneous playfulness and relaxedness, and of being warm and earthy, but not heavy. I would like it to somehow belong to nature without hiding in it. I would like it to somehow support spending time outdoors, but also to intrigue you to come inside and discover it. I would like it to enable contact between inside and outside, but also to let you know you’ll be protected inside.

I would like that house to be the minimum required interface and blueprint for a full, comfortable and inspiring life in nature. And I would like it to bring smiles to people seeing it for the first time, even in a hundred years, and especially to children.