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8 March 2013

One of the more bizarre stories to emerge in the architecture news of late is about one couple’s attempt to keep their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in New Jersey alive. The Bachman Wilson house was designed in 1954 and is today owned by an architect couple, Mr and Mrs Tarantino. For its sins, it was built on the riverfront at Millstone, New Jersey, and, after repeated flooding, the Tarantinos want to move.

They don’t just want to move themselves, though: they want to move the house too, brick by brick, to a new location to save it. Their asking price is $1.5m (€1.1m), which includes the sale and the deconstruction of the house. The project has garnered a strange amount of press, in no small part because one of the potential buyers is Italian architect Paolo Bulletti, who has more ambitious plans than simply shifting the house upstate. He wants to ship the house across the Atlantic into the Mediterranean region and leave it perched at Fiesole, above Florence – like a midcentury Noah’s Ark escaping the flood but with fewer animals, one hopes.

Following a scandalous affair in 1910, Lloyd Wright himself escaped to Fiesole to hide with his mistress, so it would make a fitting resting place for the Bachman Wilson house. Due to Italian permits though, the house would become a museum piece or garden sculpture – it could not be lived in.

Comment threads suggest a healthy degree of outrage at the whole matter (do they ever not?). The Tarantinos have worked closely with the Lloyd Wright Foundation; it’s hardly as if they are flogging it brick for brick in the back streets of Italy. They are giving a new chapter of life to a building they have lived in and loved for 25 years, whether it can remain a home or not. The very story of its survival – a rock against the flood – singles it out for attention.

Meanwhile, over on the rugged, sea-battered west coast of Newfoundland in Canada, I’m witnessing a different approach. Rickety wooden houses and sheds perch precariously on the remote islands; simple, effective structures whose uniform boxy exteriors belie the comfort and often stifling warmth inside. Every so often, winding around the little coastal roads, it’s clear that the elements have won: you spot a squashed wooden structure on the verge of giving one last woody wheeze and creak before plummeting into the sea.

“There he goes, he’s had a good life,” says my guide, referring to the house as an old man. These are not Lloyd Wright houses but they are still homes. It’s a thought-provoking, dignified attitude towards possession and knowing when to let go. It leaves me wondering if the online outrage might be any less angry if the Tarantinos let their Lloyd Wright house just slip quietly into the river. Somehow I suspect not.

Hugo Macdonald is Monocle’s design editor.


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