By Samuel G. White
Published by The Montacelli PressCopyright 2010 ISBN 978-1-58093-287-5 256 pages
Book Review by Bob Borson, AIA
I just finished reading ‘Nice House’ by Samuel White. Maybe I shouldn’t say I read it as much as a looked at all the pictures – which there are a lot of them to see. Before I get into my specific comments about this particular book, I should state my opinion about all architectural books. It is getting harder and harder to find the type of books on architecture that ‘Bob the architect’ wants to read. I like good photography and context, but I also want floor plans and descriptions of process – share tales where challenges or problems were overcome … in other words, I want to understand a project more than simply looking at pictures of projects. The proliferation of the architectural coffee table book is getting out of control for people like me and I am finding it harder and harder to find books that bridge the gap between whitepaper manifesto’s and the aforementioned coffee table book. Don’t get me wrong, both have their place and I still but both types of books, just not as often anymore.
For me, this book falls somewhere in-between. There are plenty of pictures, in fact, there is at least one picture on every single page. There are also floor plans included for every project so major points for that. The only knock about the plans is that they are typically incomplete, showing only one level of a multi-level project so I found myself just as often disappointed that I couldn’t see how the second level works with the first level. I imagine that since most of the plans have public spaces on the first level, they are of more interest to the average person than a second floor collection of bathrooms, bedrooms and closet might be – all the same , a bit disappointing to come so close.
The basic concept for this book is simple enough but with enough moving parts as to still be intriguing. The author, Samuel G. White, was told early in his career that a project he had submitted for publication was “not polemical enough.” I can appreciate this comment and like the author, there are times when I would view that as a compliment. Somewhere between the work shown in shelter magazines and the large scale work that catches the eye of architecture critics everywhere exists well thought out, considered projects that are responsive to their sites and the needs of their owners. This book attempts to define exactly what it means to be “Nice”. I’m not sure that it achieves such a lofty goal, by the authors own acknowledgement, his initial tastes ran towards the great English country houses by John Smythson, John Vanbrugh, Robert Adam and Edwin Lutyens. Whether or not their work is what interests you, there is no denying the genius and imagery conveyed in the projects of those architects.
There are 32 projects highlighted in this book – and 26 of them are along the eastern seaboard with the balance residing Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and California. Most of the homes are either shingle style, cottage style, or shingle cottage style – this is where the authors predilections towards a particular style are most apparent. These actually are nice houses … particularly if you are interested in this style of residential architecture. The shingle style home conveyed a sense of the house as continuous volume. The effect of treating the building as an envelope of space, rather than a great mass, allowed the building to look as if it had been developed and expanded upon over the years. As a result, the development of the plans was important – another reason to be disappointed with the lack of complete project floor plans.
An additional aspect of the book that I appreciated was that every project was designed by an architect. As a result, the vast majority of homes reviewed demonstrate the type of thoroughness and approach to problem solving and attention to detail that make looking at projects like this so – well, nice. As unlikely as it may seem, as spectacular and elite as these home invariably are, they seem to all posses a restraint that belies the cost associated with building homes of this stature.
There are a few examples of modern/ contemporary houses – 3 by my count – but the book would not have suffered had they been left out. In my library at the office, this book will have some value to us because it is nicely assembled and includes some fine photography and imagery of this style of home. A partial list of some of the architects featured in this book include:
Walter Chatham, Architect
Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Andrew Bartle Architects
Joeb Moore + Partners, Architects
Alan Wanzenberg Architect
John Milner Architects
James F. Carter Architect
Just like the title ‘Nice House’ would suggest, this is a nice book.