Book Review: Houses for Sale

By Michael Meredith & Hilary Sample (Canadian Centre for Architecture and Corrani Edizioni, 2019).

“At first glance, children’s books seem like the simplest things in the world,” write Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample in a postscript to a new picture book they’ve created for the CCA. “But the reality is the opposite: there is an incredible sophistication in the naïvité of children’s books.”

In Houses for Sale, a family’s search for a home takes them on a journey to the great houses of modern architecture—from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, Chicago (1888-1889) to Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House in Tokyo, Japan (2002-2005). In all, the family visits some 36 houses, each illustrated in a jaunty spread, with colour-block characters roaming across a black background.

Unsatisfied with what they find—Michael Grave’s Hanselmann House “seemed complicated,” Frank Gehry’s residence in Santa Monica “looked unfinished,” Rem Koolhaas’s Maison à Bordeaux left them “overwhelmed and bored”—the family eventually decides to build their own house. This leads to another adventure, in collected building elements and materials, and trying out different construction techniques.

Although sparse in words, the book is some 126 pages—a length that gave me pause before first reading it with my toddler. Another false idea about children’s books is that the stakes are low—why bother with quality if your readers are aesthetically unsophisticated? On the contrary, the stakes are enormously high. If a kid likes a book, it means that parents are bound to read it at least 100 times (sometimes, multiple times in a single sitting). More than a few kid’s books that didn’t make the cut have been quietly purged from our shelves.

Happily, this is a book that’s delightful for both kids and parents—especially if those parents are architects. For the preschool set, it has layers of captivating detail—my son enjoys searching for the family’s two pet dogs in each spread, tracing the path of an errant golf ball into a house’s chimney, and spotting cameos by penguins and monkeys. (There are no houses from Antarctica, but Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro in Brazil includes simians climbing up its columns.) 

For the grown-ups, there are savvy references and in-jokes in each illustration—Brigitte Bardot walks atop Casa Malaparte, the Vanna Venturi house is surrounded by a flock of ducks, two cartoon contractors appear to be strangling one another. It’s also a canny selection of buildings, with a few residences that aren’t well known to me. The book is smart and substantial enough to grace a living room in a kid-free house, too.

I’ll keep Houses for Sale within my kid’s reach for a while yet.