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Offbeat Travel: 10 Iconic Houses that Break all the Rules
By Morris M,
Urban Ghosts Media, 23 November 2015.

Like many things, the evolution of architecture is less a gentle curve and more a line that takes sudden leaps forwards. Some of the most iconic buildings ever constructed came about by throwing the rule book out the window and starting from near-scratch…with impressive results. Here are 10 unique and iconic houses that you can visit today.

1. Villa Savoye (France)

Image: Valueyou

This is it. The iconic house that started it all. Built by Le Corbusier in 1929, the Villa Savoye tore up the rulebook for what constituted a house. A white box on stilts designed to let in as much light as possible, it was less a home than a “machine for living.” Sharply-angled ramps, open rooms, walls of glass and curved white staircases all indicated this was a product of the machine age. Nature could take a hike.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the villa. It essentially pioneered the International Style that would go on to dominate half the globe, and laid down the principals of what we expect from modern architecture. At the time, though, it was considered a bit of a failure. The roof leaked constantly, and the Savoye family were so displeased with their new home that they routinely threatened to stop paying for its construction.

Then came World War Two and things got even worse. First the Germans then the Americans occupied the building, damaging it badly both times. When the war was over, the Savoyes refused to move back in, and it was left to go to ruin. It is only thanks to an intervention by the French state in 1965 that local authorities didn’t demolish it. Today, it’s designated an historical monument.

2. Villa Tugendhat (Brno, Czech Republic)

Image: Daniel Fiser

Built between 1929 and 1930 by famed architect Mies van der Rohe, the UNESCO-listed Villa Tugendhat in Brno was once one of the most-expensive homes ever made. Coming in at a cool five million Czech crowns, it cost as much as 30 small family houses. But this was money spent with a reason. For its time, the Villa was so cutting-edge that many aspects of it had simply never been attempted before.

The frame was made of steel and created by engineers in Germany so Mies could do away with supporting walls. In their place, he inserted wide-open spaces and giant glass windows that made the ceiling look like it was floating. The walls he did retain were made from onyx and panelled with the wood of rare exotic trees. To top it all off, Mies then automated everything, so a push of a button could send the heavy glass windows vanishing into the floor. This may not sound like much now, but at the time it was practically witchcraft.

Even the furniture was designed and placed by Mies himself, to exacting standards. This rigidity combined with the unusual layout led many to conclude the house was impossible to live in. In the event, Fritz and Grete Tugendhat didn’t get much chance to try. In 1938 they were forced to flee the oncoming Nazi storm, abandoning their beloved home. The iconic house became a Nazi office, then a barn, then was finally returned to its former glories by the state.

3. The Farnsworth House (Illinois, USA)


Twenty years after the Villa Tugendhat was completed, Mies van der Rohe created the second iconic house of his career. We really mean ‘iconic’. The Farnsworth House is so well-known that Lego have even produced kits of it.

The reason for this is probably the building’s simplicity. Standing in the middle of nowhere, the house looks utterly unreal. Comprised of a long, single room surrounded by glass and a simple, two-level patio, it seems to blend into the world around it, becoming practically invisible. This was intentional. Mies wanted the sleek, streamlined, modern house to feel like it was part of nature - somewhere that let the world in rather than kept it out. When describing his plans, he romantically referred to it as a house of “almost nothing.”

Unlike some on this list, the Farnsworth House was never neglected in its lifetime. Although the owner, Edith Farnsworth, fell out with Mies over the design, she continued to live there until 1971. Today, it’s owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which opens it up to visitors every year.

4. The Glass House (Connecticut, USA)

Image: Staib

If the Farnsworth House was an attempt to build an iconic house that was near-invisible, the Glass House was this idea taken to its (il)logical conclusion. Conceived after but built before Mies’s version (architect Philip Johnson had seen a model of the Farnsworth House in 1947), the Glass House seems less like something that’s invisible, and more like something that doesn’t even exist.

The building takes minimalism to absurd lengths. The metal frame is completely surrounded by glass, with only a roof and floor to prove it’s not some sort of mirage. One curved interior brick wall is just about the only solid thing in the whole building, hiding the one space even Johnson wouldn’t want people looking in on - his bathroom. With no curtains or anything else to block the view, the Glass House seems to permanently open right onto the charming New England landscape.

Although Mies designed his version first, the Glass House was the first time anyone had actually built something so minimal as a serious home. It totally changed what a house could be…even if most of us probably value our privacy too much to actually want to live there.

5. Rietveld Schröderhuis (Utrecht, Netherlands)


Have you ever looked at one of those abstract paintings that consist of nothing but brightly-coloured rectangles and found yourself wondering what it would look like as a house? Look no further than the UNESCO-listed Rietveld Schröder House in the Netherlands. Built even before the Villa Savoye, it represents a brief cul-de-sac in the history of architecture - but one that manages to look fantastic even to this day.

Designed by  Gerrit Rietveld in 1924 for the eccentric Truus Schröder, the house was meant from the start to be foremost an experiment. Spaces would lead into one another. There would be no distinction between inside and out. Walls would be capable of being shifted at a moment’s notice, allowing rooms to change purpose, shape and size as time went on. The whole thing would be as symmetrical and modern as possible.

The result is an iconic house literally like no other. Neither Rietveld nor anyone else ever bothered to make a home in this style again. Its strangely-coloured walls and shifting interiors remain a unique expression of an architectural style - quite an impressive feat, when you consider even the Villa Savoye has an “evil” double in Australia.

6. Jurkovič House (Brno, Czech Republic)

Image: palickap

Most towns can’t even manage one iconic house. Brno has two. Some 25 years before the Villa Tugendhat was even a faint glint in Mies van der Rohe’s eye, Slovakian architect Dušan Jurkovič was building his style-bending Jurkovič  House.

A mash-up of the nascent modernist movement, Vienna Secessionism (itself an offshoot of art nouveau) and the folk-art style of Jurkovič’s native Slovakia, the house basically defies description. Imposing, cutesy, fairy tale-like, haunting, grand and overdone in equal measure, it represents better than any other building where central Europe stood at this particular point in time - one foot firmly in the past, the other looking forward to an immediate future of mechanisation and bloodshed.

Unlike the Villa Tugendhat, it’s now slightly difficult to get a feeling of what this house really was to Jurkovič. Originally built in 1906, it spent the first decades of its life in the middle of nowhere. Then in the 1920s, Brno suddenly expanded and the house went from a quiet country retreat to an oddball building sat on a suburban street. Without a doubt, the change robbed some of the house’s precious magic.

7. Fallingwater (Pennsylvania, USA)


The first thing that strikes you about Frank Lloyd-Wright’s iconic house ‘Fallingwater’ is how new it looks. Not 21st century new - the style and location seem more like something from, say, a Sean Connery Bond film than a Daniel Craig outing. Then you look at the date and realize it was put together during the Great Depression.

Built between 1936 and 1939, Fallingwater is simply phenomenal for its time. A mere six years after Mies van der Rohe how wowed Brno by installing heavy, automated windows in his Villa Tugendhat, Lloyd-Wright was casually sticking a house on top of a 30ft waterfall. It wasn’t easy. Construction was plagued by difficulties, which exploded into arguments, which culminated in Lloyd-Wright threatening several times to quit. The costs ballooned. From a budget of US$35,000, the plans expanded to consume US$155,000. In today’s money, that’s like discovering your dream home has accidentally gone over budget by US$2 million.

To top it all off, the constant presence of running water meant the finished house was extremely prone to mould and mildew. Yet it would be foolish to call it anything but an icon.

8. Haus Schminke (Germany)

Image: Peter Emrich

Built around the same time as the Villa Tugendhat and Villa Savoy, Germany’s Haus Schminke has often seemed like the ugly stepsister of the trio. But this is a deeply unfair way of looking at things. With its graceful, curved edges, flowing interiors and ship-like portholes, the Haus Schminke is just as powerfully forward-facing as its more-famous brethren.

The work of Hans Scharoun, the iconic house was created for Fritz Schminke, a man who - of all things - made his living as a noodle tycoon. Schminke’s brief was remarkably straightfoward. All he asked for was “a modern house for two parents, four children and one or two occasional guests.” The rest came from the mind of Hans Scharoun.

The result was something both fancy and simple, austere and garish in equal measure. White walls curl and loop round one another, while interiors are a mix of snazzy and the desperately plain. Interestingly, its ship-like stylings would be replicated enthusiastically in Brno, where the generally more-influential Villa Tugendhat was half-ignored.

9. House NA (Tokyo, Japan)


Not all offbeat and iconic houses were created in the past. We’re going to use the last two entries on this list to highlight some recent designs that we think are pretty interesting (feel free to disagree or offer alternatives below). First up is House NA in Tokyo. Constructed in 2011, it does away with conventions such as walls and doors and instead presents a living space that’s one hundred percent open.

House NA is meant to resemble scaffolding. Where the Glass House only seems like it’s always open to the elements, this one genuinely is. Most floors have nothing between them and the air, and the few that do have only huge sheets of glass to offer safety, but no privacy. Living there would be like sitting out in the open, constantly, with no curtains or objects to hide behind from prying eyes.

If all this sounds unliveable, that’s because it probably is. As far as we can tell, House NA was built as proof of concept and to drum up publicity, rather than to be used as an actual home. Still, the idea is striking, and truly shows how far daring and offbeat housing ideas can go today.

10. Keret House (Warsaw, Poland)


It’s three storeys high, but barely five metres long. At its widest point it is 122 centimetres, at its thinnest it’s a mere 72. It’s squashed into a narrow space between two buildings in Warsaw. It’s the Keret House by Jakub Szczesny, and it’s currently the narrowest home in the entire world.

Conceived as an art installation, the Keret House - like House NA - was never meant to be lived in long-term. Unlike House NA, though, people have lived there. Szczesny opened it up to travelling writers, who can bunk down in its thin interiors for a few nights and get some work done whilst staying in the Polish capital. The ‘art installation’ label also has a practical function: the house doesn’t meet Polish building codes and would probably be demolished if designated a residence.

Made of translucent glass and painted white, the iconic house manages to seem bright despite being wedged into an alleyway. Although it’s undoubtedly interesting, it’s lifespan is limited: it’s currently listed as being scheduled for demolition in 2016.

Top image: A miniature replica of the Fallingwater, an iconic house in Pennsylvania. Credit: Raunaq Gupta/Wikimedia Commons.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]