Karen McCartney's big & beautiful book, Superhouse, takes you on a tour through the houses of the world that demonstrate the sheer scope of ‘super’. She takes us from the Solo House in Cretas, Spain to the Concrete House in Sant’Abbondio in Switzerland to our very own Upper Hunter in regional NSW and back again.
Lavishly photographed by Richard Powers, this book is certainly beyond the everyday, just as it promises and now it is being turned into an exhibition with Sydney Living Museums.
The word ‘super’. A recent descriptive to imply big & expensive. What is your definition?
I was sure from the outset that while some houses could be ‘big and expensive’ as long as they were architecturally fascinating it could not define the entire content so I wrote a definition of what ‘super’ meant to me in this context to see if it stacked up. This was my outline “A super house is one that delivers a 360-degree completeness of form, its exterior and interior have a seamless execution and above all else it is awe-inspiring. This quality can be elicited from the perfection of its natural setting, a remarkable use of materials; an exceptional level of craft, groundbreaking innovation or a use of space that lifts the spirit. All the houses chosen will be beautiful and possess a quality that sets them distinctly apart from the everyday. A strong connection with nature would provide the choice of projects with a necessary thread of coherence.”
How did you choose & find the houses?
This was a case of research, research, research. I looked at architects I admired to find recent projects, and tried to create a geographical spread and a broad range of house types. I also wanted to deliver great interiors, even if spare, that reflected the aesthetic of the house. This was hard, as often the interior décor had changed – often not for the better. It is interesting how many houses are good but not quite great and so I kept looking until I found that x-factor.
What were the logistics of shooting all over the world?
This was an added factor of difficulty. Richard Powers, the photographer for the book and exhibition travels the world constantly but aligning his travels with where I could find the house took a bit of logistical planning. We tried to get to Japan but couldn’t make that work but have managed to cover South and North America, Europe (UK, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy) and of course locally in Australia and New Zealand. I tried to get to as many as possible as there is nothing that quite beats the experience of being in a house but it just wasn’t feasible for them all.
Do you write on the go or in chunks of time? And where?
I tried to have just one project and one architect in my head at one time. You really need to absorb his or her particular philosophy, and I could only do each one justice by approaching it individually. I interviewed all the architects and found them to be inspiring in each and every instance and always came away with a renewed understanding and appreciation of the craft. For this book I hired a tiny office in George’s Height, Mosman where I would go and write for a few hours at a time. It was a great way to focus.
Why do an exhibition?
The exhibition was a chance to expand upon the themes in the book and also to draw on a greater range of local Australian examples such as work by Chenchow Little, James Stockwell and Clinton Murray and Polly Harbinson. We have pulled the houses into themes such as The Land, Small Spaces, Finding Form, The Re-imagined, and the role of Roof tops and Skylines. Each house has a different way of prompting thought about how we live or could possibly live. For some people one place would be a delight while to others would be inconceivable. It makes us question the norms.
Once I had my definition I could enjoy the sheer scope of ‘super’. A Meisian pavilion, in Ireland by modernist architects Scott Tallon Walker was super because, not only did it cantilever dramatically over a river, but also, in a land dominated by low-lying white thick-walled cottages it was a cultural anomaly. Likewise, a Brutalist house in Sao Paulo by Mendes da Rocha, which combines fluid, forms in concrete, both inside and out, with patterned Portuguese tiles and ingenious window systems. It is also furnished with great creative aplomb.
How does the exhibition move beyond the book?
Richard’s photographs are of incredible quality and so can be blown-up to super-size and retain all the detail. But we didn’t want it just to be a book on the walls and to that end immersive spaces of three key, and very different houses, have been created. These include Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann, Almere House, a pre-fab by Jan Benthem of Benthem Crouwel and the cover image, Solo House, by Pezo von Ellrichshausen – each of these is accompanied by an audio interview with the architect. We have also produced a video which interviews key Australian architects and is interspersed with sound bites from a selection of Australian influencers (such as Nectar Efkarpidis, Neale Whitaker, Dana Tomic Hughes and Andy Griffiths) giving their definition of what the term ‘superhouse means to them.
Superhouse: architecture & interiors beyond the everyday’ is published by Penguin/Lantern ($69.99 rrp) and the eponymous exhibition launches with Sydney Living Museums on 29th August and runs until 29th November 2015.