The 'Open House' Concept - Discussing The Advantages & Disadvantages

“Men live in old houses and they have not yet thought of building houses adapted to themselves. The lair has been dear to their hearts since all time. To such a degree and so strongly that they have established the cult of the home.” Le Corbusier. In-text: (Le Corbusier and Etchells 1946)

The words of Le Corbusier ring true when considering the impact of the ‘Open House’ concept in architecture. Is ‘Open House’ architecture good for architecture or are the disadvantages of such ‘style’ too great to allow the principles of ‘Open House’ concept to continue. In todays world one might think the latter is the correct stance but delving further into the history of ‘Open House’ architecture we can take a more detailed look at the principles that uphold it and show why the modern interpretation of ‘Open House’ architecture seems to have lost the translation of where the intention of this ‘Style’ was to take architecture.

‘Open House’ architecture stems back some 100 years to the beginning of the ‘machine age’ and was championed by many notable architects of the era including Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe & other great architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact Wright often referred to as the greatest architect of all time once stated

            “Where is the plan? In the steel and glass buildings I have designed, there are no walls, only wall screens. The method of the cantilever in concrete and steel yields best to suspend screens or shells in place of outer walls, all may be shop fabricated.” Frank Lloyd Wright, In-text: (Wright and Gutheim 1941)

Images 1. Case Study House #18 – Craig Ellwood (Architect)

Images 2. Case Study House #8 – Charles & Ray Eames (Architect)

Images 3. Kaufmann House – Richard Neutra (Architect)

Images 4. Case Study House #21 – Pierre Koenig (Architect)

Throughout the past 100 years there have been many great examples of ‘Open House’ architecture from the Barcelona Pavilion & Farnsworth House to the Stahl House. Each has played its role on defining modern architecture and the ‘Open House’ concept. In my opinion the greatest era of the ‘Open House’ concept was during the mid century boom of modernist architecture and it was through the Case Study Housing Program that we saw some of the greatest ‘Open House’ concept architecture. We will use the Stahl House as the basis for our discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of the ‘Open House’ concept.

The Stahl House, which was built in 1960, is likely the most important of the “Open House” concept homes. Designed by Pierre Koenig as part of the Case Study House program it combines the needs of a home for the client with the creativity and flexibility that the “open house” concept gives the architect to work with. An icon of the Mid Century Modernism movement the Stahl House uses all the elements of the ‘Pilotis’ theory noted by Le Corbusier many decades before hand and pushes it to the extreme with large expanses of curtain wall glass facing the internal courtyard pool area of the home an wrapping it around the entire courtyard perimeter to the main living area and beyond giving the clients uninterrupted views of downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Case Study House #22 - Stahl House - Built: 1960

1636 Woods Drive, Los Angeles California.

Architect: Pierre Koenig 

Image 5. Case Study House #22 - Stahl House Photo By Julius Shulman

“The house is supposed to fit in with the environment and relate to it. You don’t see the house when you’re in it, you see the view and you’re living with the environment, the outside.” Pierre Koenig, In-text: (Jackson and Gössel 2007)

This statement by Koenig when describing the Stahl House is the prime example of why the ‘Open House’ Concept in architecture is most important. The sheer open nature of the home and light filled nature of the internal areas allow for good internal natural lighting opportunities and natural ventilation opportunities. The orientation of the home whilst open onto the views below is screened from the road.

Architecturally speaking the ‘Pilotis’ theory and steel framed structure allowed for a quick and easy construction process and for the eaves of the home to extend well beyond the limits of the external frame providing protection from the weather whilst still allowing the home to have open and uninterrupted views.

Whilst the Stahl House clearly demonstrates the advantages available in the ‘Open House’ concept there are disadvantages to this design process. Some of the more notable disadvantages are thermal loss and lack of privacy from the amount of glazing provided to the home. The thermal loss issue would be of concern through the cold winter periods and warm summer periods, however with modern building materials these issues could be negated through use of quality glazing components and high thermal building materials.

In essence had this home been built using todays modern thermally efficient materials the issues surround it with regards to heat gain/heat loss would be greatly reduced. The installation of block out blinds would also aid not only in thermal loss reductions but assist with any potential privacy issues the current home displays, however that being said the idea behind the home was to have 270d glazing to take in the views.

Using the Stahl House as an example we are able to see that the ‘Open House’ concept allows for a building that can move with the times and is no longer limited by the materials, which bind it to the land. It gives the architect and client freedom to arrange the home how they deem it necessary and to allow a more logical response to the site on which the home sits. The openness of the plan and style of structure allowed Pierre Koenig to create curtained glass walls, which assisted in bringing the inside out and the outside in.

This principle is the same used by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe in the Barcelona Pavilion and also the Farnsworth house. It was these two structures that shaped the theories of Mies response to ‘Open House’ concept architecture and in an interview given a few years after the construction of the Farnsworth house he was noted as stating

            “Nature, too, shall live its own life. We must be aware not to disrupt it with the colour of our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses and human beings together into a higher unity” Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe. In-text: (Zimmerman 2006)

by this Mies attempted to show that architecture is to include all parties involved. The structure and the site on which it sits as well as the owner and the way in which they use the home and the land in conjunction with each other. If not for the ‘Open House’ concept this theory would not hold true and the architecture we treat, as standard today would not have evolved how it has. People would still continue to live in room-by-room structures that do not respect the site on which they sit and refuse to allow the clients the ability to live in harmony with nature.

Whilst it can be said that in the modern era of the ‘Open Concept’ there is a greater opportunity for poor outcomes based on a lack of forethought to the project from parties involved, it should be noted that given the right approach to a clients needs, the site and the correct attitude from the architect or designer responsible for the project a positive and unique ‘Open House’ plan is possible as has been shown to be the case over the past century.

The positives of ‘Open House’ design outweigh those issues that cause problems and that those problems can in some way or another be overcome by appropriate design response to the issue at hand, the site, the clients needs and most of all the architects abilities to interpret and resolve the issues of design as they arise. The use of the ‘Open House’ concept through the mid century years and in particular in the Case Study House program shows what can be achieved when architecture at its highest level is pursued in its purest and most minimalistic form. Together with the materials available today the ‘Open House’ concept based on the theories of the Mid Century Modernist and Case Study Program is seeing somewhat of a resurgence in current architecture.