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Dune House in Suffolk, on Britain's east coast
Frank Lloyd Wright called it Still Bend, because the nearly 3,000-sq.-foot house overlooks a marsh on the East Twin River in Wisconsin. Completed in 1940 and funded by local businessman Bernard Schwartz, the house has a main floor unfettered by walls, which measures 63 feet from front door to back wall. It also boasts an interior balcony and a soaring, two-storey ceiling typical of Wright’s designs.
Michael Ditmer, co-owner of what is now called Bernard Schwartz House, wants to share that experience. For US$295 to $425 a night, depending on the season, you can rent the four-bedroom house and warm yourself in front of one of the three fireplaces centred around a massive brick chimney, including one in the outdoor sunken court.
“Wright had a lifelong interest in building homes for the middle class,” says Ditmer, who bought the house with his brother for $375,000 in 2003. Since most people can’t afford a Wright-designed house, he keeps the architect’s dream alive (and funds maintenance and renovations) with short-term rentals. Nearly 600 people a year take him up on the offer.
Ditmer, whose business keeps him in Minnesota most of the year, rents the house through his website and through airbnb.com, a travel site with a section for aesthetes who want to stay in starchitect-designed structures by the likes of Wright or Frank Gehry all over the world. He’s had such an increase in bookings recently that when he wants to stay there himself, he has to turn people away.
In England, a project called Living Architecture has the same idea. A not-for-profit originally funded by a panel of wealthy patrons, its goal is to promote modern architecture—and its enjoyment. In five years, it has commissioned notable architects to design five rental properties around England.
Dune House, a structural marvel with a fishbowl-like main floor that provides a 360-degree view of the seaside landscape in Suffolk, sleeps nine and costs about $30 per person a night. It recently received a nod from the Royal Institute of British Architects and has since been booked right through 2013. With two more residences planned for next year, Living Architecture aims to act as a modern antidote to the long-standing British tradition of charming (read ancient), drafty holiday cottages.
“Most rental houses in the U.K. are of dire standards,” says the group’s creative director, the philosopher Alain de Botton, who wrote the 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness. “The bathrooms don’t work, there’s mould on the ceiling, the fridge was last cleaned a year ago.” He believes that living in a well-designed structure can satisfy the brain’s pleasure centres, much like being in the presence of a beautiful work of art, though on a much grander scale. “Architecture is a total immersive experience. It touches you from the start to the end of the day.”
Structural engineer Jane Wernick, the London-based editor of a book of essays called Building Happiness: Architecture to Make You Smile, agrees that well-being and a well-designed space are inextricably linked. “The human scale of a beautifully designed house is largely what’s so attractive,” she says. “It seems that if a space is designed to encourage chance encounters where people can stop and have conversations, that leads to a happier environment.”
Back in Wisconsin, Ditmer is leafing through the comments in his guest book. His favourite is from an 11-year-old girl, who, he says, “loved the way the sunlight came through the cutout windows in the morning and put on a sort of light show on the walls. She really got it.”
See more architectural gems for rent (photographs courtesy of Living Architecture):