Vision Quest

Christopher Hawthorne is the architecture critic of The Times. Contact him at

From the center of Helsinki, the quickest way to get to the house that the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed for himself and his family in the 1930s is to take the streetcar. After a handful of stops, the bustle of the city gives way to a quiet, leafy neighborhood called Munkkiniemi. And there, overlooking a balding soccer field, is a modest, boxy house, sheathed in white-painted brick and vertical-wood panels, with almost no windows facing the street.

The sense of arrival is not grand, to put it mildly. There is no allee of trees down which other leading European architects might have raced in their sleek motorcars, eager to see what Aalto, who was in his late 30s when the house was finished in 1936, had created. The setting is so entirely pleasant and suburban that it’s hard to imagine what’s inside will be revelatory.

Maybe revelatory is the wrong word. As a traveler, visiting houses that noted architects designed for themselves is always at the top of my list. It’s not because I guess that the houses are going to wow me the way a bold new museum or skyscraper might--or because I find voyeuristic pleasure in seeing how famous designers lived and the sofas and lampshades they chose (though there is a bit of that, I admit).

It’s because I know these homes will offer a concentrated blast of vision --architectural talent distilled almost to its essence. The best are models of concision, dense and economical, full of passionate meanings that can take a few visits to tease out. They are poems rather than prose, espresso instead of watered-down coffee.


The reasons are fairly simple. Architects tend to be relatively young when they get their first chance to design their own residences. If they’ve already done residential work, they are taking ideas they’ve explored in those projects--almost always bigger and more elaborate than what they can afford for themselves--and are recasting them in tighter spaces on an unforgiving budget. If they’ve yet to design much of anything, they are using their own houses to explore ideas that will pop up in later projects.

There is an occasional whiff of overreach about them. Young architects who think of their houses as manifestoes, or more practically as advertisements for their work, may be tempted to build elements they don’t need in an effort to impress potential clients. But more often, great architects use their houses to test abstract design ideas against the particulars of their more prosaic needs--and without a lot of money to spare.

We have a long list of such houses in Los Angeles, of course, including supremely inventive examples by Frank Gehry, Rudolf Schindler and Charles and Ray Eames. Of those houses, only Schindler’s is regularly open to the public. Gehry still lives in his much-altered Santa Monica bungalow, which makes tour bus visits awkward. In fact, you can imagine that one reason Gehry is designing a secluded new house for his family in Venice is that he’s grown tired of looking out past his cup of morning coffee and seeing an architecture student across the street, sitting on the curb with a sketchbook.

Philip Johnson never had to deal with that problem at his iconic Glass House in Connecticut because though the house, finished in 1949, is spare and entirely transparent, it sits on a tree-filled estate covering nearly 50 acres. He dealt with the tricky problem of balancing public access with privacy by donating the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and decreeing that it not admit visitors until he was safely deceased, which he has been now for three years.


Europe has a deeper collection of architects’ houses open for tours. London’s John Soane Museum is not really a museum but the architect’s densely furnished and idiosyncratic home, which he tinkered with from 1812 until nearly 1840, layering ideas about ornament and light one upon the other.

In southern France, the tiny cabin overlooking the Mediterranean that the masterful Le Corbusier built for himself and his wife is open for tours two mornings a week. Though I’ve never taken one, I imagine they last about 10 minutes, for the house is about 150 square feet. Outside, it looks like a log cabin, inside, like a ship.

Its size makes you wonder why Le Corbusier, while he was sketching grandiose and ruthlessly progressive plans for European cities, designed such a miniature romantic getaway for himself. It’s a bit like finding out that New York’s tyrannical urban renewal czar Robert Moses rode a bike around Greenwich Village and preferred sleeping in a tent under the stars.

Back in Helsinki, the joys of the Aalto house take awhile to reveal themselves. The house, with an exterior that seems loosely inspired by the sliding planes of Cubism, is a study in varying degrees of privacy and exposure. Much of the ground floor is occupied by Aalto’s narrow double-height studio, where he and his assistants worked. It leads into a formal living room with a piano and broad views of the garden: a space big enough for entertaining.

At the top of the stairs, Aalto created a spot just for his family, onto which all the bedrooms open. He, his wife and two kids gathered there to eat breakfast. It’s really no more than a glorified landing--but with its fireplace and near-perfect proportions, maybe the most beautiful landing I’ve ever seen.

The power of that room, out of all proportion to its size or apparent ambition, is a reminder of why visiting an architect’s house can be such a memorable experience, especially for design aficionados. Aalto, in the end, saved his most impressive architectural gesture for a part of the house that his frequent guests, and even many of his employees, would never see.