Contemporary design goes global

¬†Any fan of postmodern residential architecture can tell you that while America is a relative newcomer among nations, ours is not a contemporary design landscape. In a culture that often celebrates the new and youthful, we are curiously mired in traditional home styles — Colonial, Craftsman, Brick Tudor, Victorian and Mediterranean, among others.

Some urban centers feature a relative smattering of clearly contemporary homes, but more often it’s the tried-and-true styles and features of our older European heritage that dominate, even in such culturally dynamic cities as San Francisco and New York. The shift toward postmodernism can be seen, certainly, but it seems never to have gotten much traction in the American neighborhood.

Obviously, if your vision of a “dream home” involves cubes and other strong geometric forms, minimalist detailing, lots of steel or aluminum, and large expanses of glass, those quaint streets of brick quoins and gingerbread trim are not going to do much for you. Thankfully, other parts of the planet are occupied by folks who share your penchant for things postmodern, and you don’t have to go globe-trotting to see what they’re up to.

Ana Canizares’ “150 Best House Ideas” (Collins Design, $29.95) offers an international tour of some of the best examples of contemporary home design, with a few traditional structures tossed in for good measure. The book features more than 75 homes in locations as diverse as Australia, Japan, Brazil, Great Britain, Spain, Germany and South Africa. There are also examples closer to home, in Boston, Los Angeles, Tucson and other American cities. Sites range from downtown urban settings to waterfront and countryside homes.

Envisioned as an “inspirational handbook,” the compilation provides multiple color photographs of interiors and exteriors, floor plan illustrations and architectural elevation drawings, and commentary on the prominent design features of each home. Some are noteworthy for their environmentally friendly use of materials or other “green” virtues, others for their aesthetics, but there’s something to like about each one. And while the dominant visual theme is that of abstract compositions of blocks and other geometric forms, there is a surprising amount of variety in the final forms that take shape, and some of the homes depart from that template altogether.

Multiple gable roofs adorn a former fishing net factory in Scotland that now serves as a private residence; a Dutch home uses walls of colored glass for interior partitions; and a sinuous free-form home in Sweden melds a fairy-tale cottage facade with an interior that mimics a natural cave. Keep browsing, and you’ll encounter a white whale of a home in Finland, with sweeping exterior contours that conjure images of Moby Dick. A few pages further along resides a Japanese beachfront home with a startling shape — two offset stacked cubes formed in concrete and glass. They tower above a square footprint a mere four meters (about 12 1/2 feet) in each direction, defying gravity and the offshore winds.

Aside from captions and brief textual asides, there’s little of the lengthy verbal explanation that accompanies many books on architectural design. An easier gig for the author perhaps, but this collection is intended to evoke the visceral response, not the theoretical one. In her introduction, Canizares notes that the language of residential design should not be limited to a high priesthood of “closed architectural circles” but rather extended to the general public. Like the minimalist style featured throughout the book, her captions target the essential and capture the gesture of the spaces, then move on. The focused commentary ensures that the great photos aren’t just eye candy, but hundreds of teachable moments that can let readers pick and choose the designs and details that they might want to replicate in their own homes.

Is it likely that every residence featured is a place you’d want to call home? Not a chance — but that’s beside the point. The theme is good postmodern design, with dozens of variations to ensure that there’s a dream house here for everyone. And it’s in a convenient book form, so you don’t have to hoof it around the world to find yours.