In this extract from the introductory essay to Infinite Space, a new compilation of dream houses photographed by James Silverman over the course of his travels, Alan Rapp discusses the photographer's approach to architectural image-making in the 'age of the globalized residence'.
Whether of a remote mountain cabin in Norway, a sensuous desert oasis in Morocco, or a monolithic concrete home in Switzerland, Silverman’s photographs capture the seemingly uninterrupted flow between interior and exterior space. The architecture documented in this book is often defined by elements that absorb, reflect, or deliberately break with their surroundings. Together they show how 'infinite space has become a key precept of contemporary architecture across the world.
The window is still the humblest plane. It did not start out as that magic surface that generously permitted a vista out to the world. As early as the Republican era, before piped water, Roman houses had angular cutouts in the roof of a central living space that vented smoke from the hearth fire. A depression under this opening also gathered rainwater into the house’s cistern. Aperture, skylight, and chimney: the earliest of what we would consider modern houses were adept at multitasking.
The windows eventually crept down to the wall surface, but they remained high for security’s sake. Metal or wooden frameworks held small glass panes. Cast and blown glass on the industrial scale provided glazed windows for more houses, villas, and public and religious buildings, though primarily for the higher classes. They permitted light, but due to their irregularities they were not used for looking out. The invention of view tropism, designing around a vista, was still a ways off.
Covered with various materials—skins, cloth, flattened horn, slices of marble or crystal, or parchment—windows permitted soft light and some measure of insulation. Glass panes were not for the masses in the medieval era, but they became prevalent even before the Age of Reason and the invention of plate glass technology. It is hard to estimate the effect that the window had on the development of the modern interior, but what became clear is that developing the position, size of aperture, and technology of opening and securing windows had a two-way effect. The resident inside could see out—but anyone outside could see in. With the privileged view from the interior came the possibility of the equal-opportunity gaze from without. The siting of residences could still be bound primarily to ideas of territory and security, and the visual scan from that defensive position could also, it turned out, take in all of that landscape. The paradox of the window view was established.
Long before orthodox Modernism, the modest window was the element through which one could bring the outdoors—light, air, or that ineffable, multi-sensory feeling of atmosphere—into the home. As sash, mullion, muntin, and pane glazing technologies became more refined, the overall concept of the “window” turned into a composite construction technology unto itself. The development of this technology permitted another modern innovation: the residential lifestyle. More indoor activities were possible at all times of day. By the time the first truly modern houses debuted in the early twentieth century—with their startling new qualities of factory aesthetics, the demotion of architectural and interior decoration, and the new imperative to design without servants (or their quarters) in mind—the modern window made them sunnier than what came before.
So what can be said about the contemporary house that goes beyond the most familiar framings? We have to acknowledge that however refined the design, assembly of materials, and sensitivity to site and climate is, and however increasingly technologized the modern house has become, in the end, it is a shelter and base for domestic life. The archetypal hearth-home, version 3.0. The notions of comfort and safety that those primal redoubts provided have undergone endless stylistic interpretations and variations, but it is a given that the modern house, even in sun-challenged climates, is flooded with as much daylight as possible.
What photographer James Silverman takes as his subject is the globalized residence. Whether in Brazil, in Sweden, or in Morocco, the houses in this volume have a lot in common—modernist tropes extruded to their utmost degree of geometric clarity, a sense of spatial openness, and again the light, the light, the light. Somewhat dependent on the climate and local building traditions, the primary materials can be wood, stone, or metal, but the various methods of dissolving the boundary between exterior and interior are what allow residents to experience the full potential of modernism’s promise. The level of articulation of spaces is extraordinary. Elements coexist in complicated planar schemes, but at base is still the goal of exploring this age-old relationship between inside, representing civilization, and the natural world outside. There are a number of domestic spaces that are mostly exterior, or at least are not entirely constrained by interior walls, yet are very much a part of the house. Terraces, balconies, and porches—all are platforms for not just framing, but being part of the site, the environment, and the vista.
Seen in succession here through the lens of a photographer who is attuned to these formal and ambient qualities, it is as if the domestic sphere is undergoing a vast iterative process that somehow reflects and augments the effects of globalization. Contemplating the allusive phrase infinite space, we might imagine a concept for an impossibly vast structure, such as the radical design collective Superstudio’s ultra-conceptual earth-spanning conjecture, Continuous Monument. But this is not the age when megastructural schemes that encircle the globe, critiquing the limits and nature of architectural agency in any context are routinely proposed.
We retrench in the home, even today. But the difference now is that what I see out of my window extends much further than the eye’s reach. The global house is knit together with every other in a skein that blends old and new. Old in its attempt to refine—if not perfect—a space that is a residence in the service of what is seen as its era’s ideal lifestyle. New, in that its geographic sprawl is not contiguous or continuous in Superstudio’s sense of vast and leveling spatial dynamics.
In the age of late globalization, of pocket-sized telepresence and mass migration, the house is inherently nodal. The concept of home takes on a special meaning. It is not just where we are, in the sense of staying put, but is now often also, in many changing and evolving senses, where we might be: ensconced in media, surrounded by a menagerie of goods produced around the world, an halfway in or out the door. Where we are is always someplace else.
This is an extract taken from Alan Rapp's The View from the Window: On James Silverman’s approach to architectural photography in the age of the globalized residence. Infinite Space is currently available for pre-order from the publisher.