Gorgeous homes

Homes featured in Superhouse include the Toro Canyon House (left) in California and Astley Castle (above) in England.
Homes featured in Superhouse include the Toro Canyon House in California.PHOTO: RICHARD POWERS/ MUSEUM OF SYDNEY
Homes featured in Superhouse include the Toro Canyon House (left) in California and Astley Castle (above) in England.
Homes featured in Superhouse include the Astley Castle in England.PHOTO: RICHARD POWERS/ MUSEUM OF SYDNEY

Upcoming show in Sydney gives a peek into "Superhouses"

When Karen McCartney first stumbled on the title Superhouse for her new coffee-table book, she worried it might sound a bit "flash, moneyed - vulgar even".

Then again, perhaps that is part of its appeal. Superhouse is unabashed property porn.

Houses are photographed in luscious detail, ranging from the grand tumbledown arches of a restored 16th-century English castle to a Seattle home built into a rocky outcrop.

Most urban professionals in cities such as Sydney, London and New York are unable to get on the property ladder without help, let alone live in a house with the delicate curves of a butterfly wing, like one Victorian superhouse overlooking the wilds of the Bass Strait.

So why do Australians - and others - fantasise over these dream homes?

"We are always fascinated with how other people live and, particularly, the ends of the spectrum," social researcher Rebecca Huntley says. "So it might be with the same interest we watch the Australian documentary Struggle Street and view some extraordinary house designed by an architect."

Like a designer handbag or a car, people's homes give them status and become a signal of the standing they wish to project.

It is no surprise, then, that people have a preoccupation with peeping through the keyhole into the lives of others. TV programmes such as Renovation Rescue, The Block and Relocation Relocation are booming; The Financial Times publishes a weekly At Home interview with a well-known person; interior design magazines are at every newsstand; and Superhouse, an exhibition coinciding with McCartney's book, will be held at the Museum of Sydney from Aug 29 to Nov 29.

In the West, the relationship between a room of one's own and how it defines identity remains strong. Yet aspirations differ from culture to culture.

In high-density Hong Kong and Tokyo, for example, most families live in cramped apartments and a goal might not be ownership of a large house to entertain in but membership of a coveted social club.

But in Australia, as affluence increases and families reduced in size, houses have only gotten bigger, many now endowed with open- plan kitchens, spacious ensuite bathrooms and media rooms.

Australia might be a beach and bush nation in the popular imagination, but in reality, it is highly urbanised. Despite apartments rearing up across inner city areas, most locals aim to live in stand-alone houses in sprawling suburbs.

"People love looking at beautiful things and to be inspired," says Mr Neale Whitaker, editor-in-chief of Australia's Vogue Living.

"But they love it even more when the dream presented to them is potentially within their reach.

"That if they painted their walls a certain shade or re-tiled the bathroom, their home might just look like the pages of the magazine."

While this means rampant consumption, it also means design is becoming "less elitist and more democratic", says Mr Whitaker.

"As home improvement and renovation becomes within reach of all of us, there is a quest at the top end of the market to create homes that are ever more individual and bespoke."

It was this quest McCartney taps for her book, showcasing houses that project a different way of living and with a connection to nature, an idea of retreat, a luxury of absence or a beauty in form.

"It wasn't just about grand scale and money," she explains at her Sydney northern beach house. "It became about thought and originality and perspective, that allowed these houses to have a richness."

The fantasy of the dream home may well be about marking one's identity. Yet the best of the dream homes built - the ones that become part of people's architectural heritage - are just as much about aesthetics, beauty and daring design.

The test is whether, in future generations, these homes will be valued as classics. Are they passing fashions or will they become integral to the culture of the country? That, after all, is something worth dreaming about.


•Superhouse ($98.50) is available at Amazon.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'Gorgeous homes'. Print Edition | Subscribe