Reading About Houses
With the many boxes of architecture books in our basement you could say that they’re helping to support our house, and with all the architecture books on our shelves you could also say that they’re helping to weigh it down. But at least it’s balanced — though some folks in my family could say we have reached a tipping point, literally. In any case, the obsession must be fed, so here’s a quick round-up of design books that have recently caught my eye — good for last minute gifts or your first reading list of the new year.
In the decades following World War II, a number of small communities across the country built modern, architect-designed houses, such as Snake Hill in Belmont, Massachusetts, and Six Moon Hill at Lexington in the same state. Living Modern, by Waverly Lowell (William Stout, publisher), chronicles the planning and building of such an enclave, called Greenwood Common, in the Berkeley Hills above the University of California campus in 1952.
It was developed by architect William Wurster, dean of Berkeley’s architecture school and later founder of the College of Environmental Design. His idea was to create a modern but regionally responsive, outdoor- and community-oriented neighborhood of houses by a diverse array of contemporary architects. (Full disclosure: Wurster bought the land from my grandmother, who was very interested in modern architecture. My father used to tell us children about playing softball on what his family called “The Front Lot,” where eight houses now stand.) Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the setting
including the common green facing a view of the Bay, and several of the individual gardens many years before he became famous for his city parks and water gardens around the country. The book vividly describes how clients and architects worked together to create very progressive living environments and includes conceptual sketches like this series by architect Donald Olsen,
which shows his interest in International Style geometries.
Casa Del Herrero, by Robert Sweeney (Rizzoli, publisher) is the story of a meticulously preserved Spanish Colonial Revival style house in Santa Barbara from the 1920s.
The name means house of the blacksmith and the edifice was built as the winter home for the family of St. Louis industrialist George Steedman, who enjoyed such hobbies as metal working (hence the name), wood working, and wine making. For Steedman, according to Sweeney, “the shop was the holy land.” And his shop is indeed a marvel: the large room is densely packed and highly organized, with a vast array of tools occupying every surface.
He must have been a challenging client because he was constantly tinkering with every detail, from handrails to glassware. Spanish tile and wrought iron embellish every room. You can visit the house by contacting the Casa Del Herrero Foundation.
Energy Free Homes for a Small Planet by Ann Edminster (Green Building Press) is an essential reference for anyone planning to build a home that uses as little energy as possible.
The author is an architect who helped develop our national green standards. She explains what a net zero energy home is and shows how to develop your own plan for building such a house. The chapters address her concept of integrated design and how to minimize the energy your house needs, how to minimize the energy the house’s occupants need, and explain the options for appliances and fixtures. It’s a comprehensive guide to the greenest green.
What do architects read? I am always interested in this question because I want to know where architects get their design ideas. Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books by Jo Steffens (Yale University Press) looks at the book collections of ten contemporary New York-area architects.
Interviews with each architect explains what they read, and what their top ten books are. Robert Venturi’s seminal Complexity & Contradition in Modern Architecture — a book published in 1966 that championed the role of ambiguity in architectural form — is on several lists. There’s a voyeuristic aspect to the photos of sample shelves from each library…I confess I’m always looking for a copy of my book Cliff May and the Modern Ranch House! (must be the egg nog from our holiday party just now finished: it’s a truth serum). Billie Tsien and Tod Williams talk about their love of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica both for its lucid writing and for its tactile leather binding. Most of these libraries are organized by subject or architect so the juxtapositions aren’t unusual. But it’s an intriguing idea for a book and just makes me want to know more about the sources of architectural imagination.
These volumes can be found at the usual Internet sources but bookstores that specialize in design are especially rewarding places to browse, including Mrs. Dalloways Literary & Garden Arts, Builders Booksource, and William Stout Architectural Books. Happy reading and Happy holidays.