Monthly Archives: February 2011

Houses and the Academy Awards

Oscar as Client

In films, houses are often metaphors for a state of mind or an idea.  Residential settings in two recent Academy Award contenders are especially evocative — and show how design creates a mood. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, and Kim Cattrall but the isolated and foreboding modern house by the sea — where much of the action takes place — has an important supporting role. The house where the ex British Prime Minister (Brosnan) works on his memoirs with his ghost writer (McGregor) after the previous writer’s mysterious disappearance

is all geometric glass and concrete. The contemporary furnishings (by Walter Knoll Designs) in sombre grays and black, with a splash of blood red in the modern painting, exude corporate cool and the threat of danger. In the distance is the glass railing around the stair. Everything appears rational and visible and yet invisible at the same time — like the transparent railing itself. The orderly home office

where the writer is supposed to work telescopes the film’s core conceit.  Precisely positioned items  — juice bottles, manuscript pages, file box  — allude to a straightforward narrative, at least on the desktop. The modern window wall looking out on a severe landscape of sea grass, dune, and gray sky frames a view of apparent clarity, yet there’s hardly anything there. Or rather, what’s there is hidden below the surface, and every surface in the house is sleek or sharp or reflective. It’s not giving away the plot to say that nothing is as it seems; or everything is. The house is itself not a real house but completely invented; an impressive example of set designer Albrecht Konrad’s  artistry. Photos courtesy House of Anais blog.

In The King’s Speech (directed by Tom Hooper)  Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue, meet in Logue’s office. This space is shabby but architecturally distinctive, even elegant, with mottled walls that look as though layers of wallpaper have been stripped away, leaded arched windows and a curved clerestory. It has what might be called “good bones.” (Set decorator Judy Farr and production designer Eve Stewart reworked existing  rooms in London’s stately Portland Place, built in 1775).

The rooms are seen in contrast to the stultifying formal palace interiors where the royals live. The clever juxtaposition is between preserving appearances and understanding reality, between the psychological causes of the stammer and the therapeutic cure — literally the stripping away of layers of restraint. Wallpaper-as-psyche! I love it.

Not that we all need gloomy modernity or the equivalent of the analyst’s couch to shape our days and nights. But it’s worth remembering that architectural space can produce strong emotional effects through structure, furnishings, and light. In other words every space is a potential stage set.  A while  ago, when I entered the stairway of an aggressively sculptural public library in Buenos Aires I felt physically compressed, as if the walls were closing in on me. A space that to my mind ought to have been all about movement, instead shouted constriction. Maybe it should have been used in a movie!

Shameless Self-Promotion Department

In other news, a very thoughtful article about Houseplans.com appeared in The Washington Post last week. Real estate columnist Katherine Salant talks about some of the plans in our Exclusive Studio, including work by Sarah Susanka, and the Sea Ranch Cottages by William Turnbull, and explains the role of the architectural editor. So this is what I do!

What Is A Good House?

3 Famous Modern Houses

I was inspired by the thought-provoking comments I received on last week’s post about good architecture — so now let’s zero in on what make’s a good house. I liked Jay’s observation that for many great architectural monuments “We instinctively honor the conviction of the builder.” The same holds true for houses — in some cases this might be the homeowner or the architect or the builder, or all three.  Here are three great modern houses that are at the top of my list of designs worth visiting and studying. I’d like to hear yours.

Some houses are important simply for the ideas they express.

Villa Savoye of 1929 by Le Corbusier at Poissy near Paris, is the most influential modern house in the world (photo by Omar through Creative Commons). It  became the symbol of Machine Age modernism: “the machine in the garden” and the “machine for living. ” It is remarkable  for the rational clarity of its concept and form — automobiles stored on the ground floor, open living area and “yard” on second and third, a cube that is both open and closed  — and also for the not necessarily rational idea of placing a roof garden on a house that is itself set in a forested park. See how one of the window bands is actually an open wall and frames views into and out of the courtyard on the second floor. In other words there was no need for the house to rise up like a cruise ship with a roof garden in the wilderness of this particular setting — the garden was already there. But Le Corbusier wanted to make this commission a prototype for all houses, especially urban ones, and it brilliantly illustrated his  intellectual idea. He was lucky to find clients who would build it — and very quickly, when rain started pouring through the roof and down walls, they did not themselves feel so lucky to be living in  a prototype,  and eventually sued for damages.

Fallingwater of 1936 at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, by Frank Lloyd Wright, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year (photo courtesy Fallingwater, Pennsylvania Conservancy).

It was the architect’s response to the European modernism of folks like le Corbusier: Wright rooted his very International Style-looking horizontal planes in the bedrock of the waterfall, like an architectural version of “Take That, You Greenhorns!” His client, department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann wanted something special and he got it. The house is the ultimate essay in contradiction. Unlike the Villa Savoye, it doesn’t stand apart from its setting, but literally splashes in it. If, as Wright is reputed to have said, he just shook the design out of his sleeve – like a sort of architectural playing card — then this was the ace of space. It is cerebral in its use of the cantilever and at the same time

robustly rustic and visceral in the way it becomes its own sort of ledge-leaping waterfall right beside the real thing and even  incorporates stones from the site into its design — see the boulders shown beside the fireplace on the plan. The house got a bit damp at times, but that didn’t seem to matter very much, since it was a vacation retreat. It may well be Wright’s most extreme house and makes the visitor marvel at the nature of architecture and the architecture of nature. When I visited I felt I was on an architectural ride.

Casa Luis Barragan of 1948, by Luis Barragan, in Mexico City, is an urban mystery tour. Barragan was Mexico’s most influential modern architect and his own house showcases abstract sculptural forms and deft interplays of light and shadow (photos courtesy Casa Luis Barragan).

The vast square window creates two rooms: one outside, the other inside. The house becomes a series of interlocking cabinets and cubes,

some almost secret. Above is the living room on the inside of that big window.

Simple sculptural stairs draw the eye and the imagination, leading one to wonder where they lead. It is the house as personal puzzle box; indeed, you have the feeling that the overlapping spaces allowed for occasional eavesdropping. It is impossible to sense the whole — the design unravels like a bolt of cloth; a textured narrative of space and time.

So can your house or mine have any of these qualities? Certainly, though perhaps not in such extreme forms. But as I explore the plans in our large Houseplans inventory I am always looking for  some aspect or feature — usually related to the age-old definition of architecture as commodity, firmness, and delight — to rise above the rest. Let me know your own favorite house designs, famous or otherwise — I have listed a range of House Museums on the website — and I’ll try to keep a running list for the blog.

What is Good Architecture?

Defining Design

Let’s talk architecture. A friend, syndicated real estate journalist Katherine Salant, recently asked me to explain what I meant by good design. I went into my usual rant about functionality, balanced light, good proportion, deft use of materials, connection to a place and time, and the need for serendipity or an occasional sense of surprise. And it occurred to me that this is a lot to ask from a home plan, so maybe it’s more relevant to public buildings — like, say, the Pantheon in Rome, one of my favorite structures.

This extraordinary monument built between AD 118-126 by the emperor Hadrian — apparently an amateur architect in his own right, or at least a very well traveled and informed client with a sizable checkbook — uses the simplest of forms: cylinder, triangle, dome to create a grand, formal, almost abstract structure. Called the Rotunda, it was a designed as a temple to all the gods (photos, gothereguide).

It is a vessel for holding nothing less than the universe itself (ambitious folks, those Romans). The swelling dome encircles the visitor in a spatial surprise, at once vast and intimate. The oculus — a skylight to beat all skylights — brings the real universe inside (one cloudy day when I  entered, it was actually raining inside) as the shaft of sunlight falling from it moves across the floor and walls like a high intensity tractor beam.  It centers the space on the individual, er god. Standing in the middle of that space you do feel almost deified… well  maybe I’m getting carried away. But that’s great architecture.

Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, begun in 1788, achieves a similar effect by doing the opposite.

Here the space is overfilled by the marvelous monumental glowing gilded statue. The disparity between container and contained heightens the sense of wonder as you crane your neck upward to take everything in. There is hardly room for the visitor, which makes the visitor appreciate the experience of walking through this sacred space  all the more.

I think I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre is a stroke of genius

for the way it uses  geometry and transparency to fuse history and modernity. The pyramid acts as a simple and eloquent foil for the facades of the 17th century buildings lining the Court d’Honneur.

At Kiyomizudera Temple (founded in 780) in the hills above Kyoto, the journey up to it from the valley floor  is almost as important as the arrival  at its gate

because on the way, you catch glimpses of the enormous interlocking timbers that support it, making you realize the feat of engineering that made the building possible. The artful manipulation of structure and scale is most memorable here.

My favorite building in Houston is the Menil Collection of 1981, a museum by Renzo Piano to house the modern art collection of Dominique de Menil. It is an understated but powerful frame. Slender columns

float across the porch-wrapped front under skylights that are curving leaves of iron. Architecture is reduced to a play of proportion and light — and therefore becomes magnified.

What about context and connecting to the site and the world around us — this too is an important characteristic of good design and fine architecture. I think Chicago’s “Lima Bean” sculpture, officially known the “Cloud Gate” by artist Anish Kapoor at Millenium Park, is an excellent example.

The myriad highly polished stainless steel plates on the convex and concave form wrap the world around you and beckon you through to marvel at everything inside-out and outside-in, a sort of Mobius strip- as-mirror. The bean is all context and unreality at the same time. It makes you look at it and the surroundings in a new way. To me it says “Look at me, look at you, look at us!” That element of surprise, the way it draws you in for a double-take,  is the sign of great design.

So, can, or even should, a house plan hope to do any of these things? A few do, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or  Philip Johnson’s Glass House. But they can be difficult to live in every day. Most homes are not, and probably should not be, art objects or architectural monuments — but I think they should still be artful in some way, if only in their warmth, or flexibility, or the way they make you feel comfortable. What are your definitions of good design?

New Houses in Older Neighborhoods

Urban Farmhouse and Roman Villa

While at the International Builder Show in Orlando I toured two new demonstration homes that were built in established neighborhoods. One, designed by architect Ed Binkley for Southern Traditions Development as Green Builder Media’s Vision House,

sits on a long narrow lot not far from downtown. I think it expressed a green sensibility very well in the use of eco-friendly materials like fiber cement siding and ICF construction (insulating concrete forms using Arxx blocks, example below: reinforcing bars are added, then concrete).

However, energy-efficient materials alone do not make a house green. The key for me is how this design thoughtfully maximizes the tight infill site (house photo above by Andy Frame courtesy Green Builder magazine) and deftly incorporates outdoor space. It does an excellent job.

With its generous double decker front porch facing the street

and the semi-detached rear garage/studio shaping a small courtyard, it allows  the house to live larger than it is. The welcoming and usable front stoop, simple gable profile, and backyard garage are all elements found in New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida or I’on, South Carolina — as well as the late 19th and early 20th century neighborhoods that New Urbanists emulate.

The innovative twist here is the lanai connecting house and garage:  it’s a private summer living room and barbecue center. The roof deck is accessible from the upstairs master suite.  The lanai opens to the family room beside the handsome island kitchen (Andy Frame photo, below). Ed Binkley calls his design an “urban farmhouse,” and that seems an apt description. Various details play up the rustic theme,

such as railings fabricated from hog wire fencing (I also like the bright, well-situated and multi-functional laundry/study just off the stairway) and

a trough sink for the kids’ bathroom (Interior design by Patricia Gaylor).

This house reminded me of designs in our inventory that would also work well on in-fill sites, like Plan 443-9,

which includes a carport beside the front porch or Plan 464-1 — suitable for a corner lot with wrap-around verandas. The other Orlando demonstration house told a very different story. Part of a long running program called The New American Home, it’s all about showing the latest products to builders. This year, to ensure completion in a tough economic climate, the organizers found willing clients (most demonstration houses are built before finding a buyer). The very large classically-inspired house was built on two lots near a lake — also not far from downtown Orlando.

A real estate columnist friend remarked, as we stepped off the media bus: “It looks like Embassy Row.” To my mind it recalls major classical monuments,

like the New Pavilion by Karl Friedrich Schinkel at Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin of 1824 (shown above) or possibly the Huntington Library in Pasadena. The designer of the New American Home is classically trained  portrait artist and polymath Michael Curtis, who knows a lot about Greek and Roman precedents in architecture and sculpture and offers a range of scholarly American classic home designs as part of our Exclusive Studio, like Union Springs 492-4,

with its stately portico.

The New American Home was designed to reflect the client’s requirements (for health reasons all the building materials had to be hypoallergenic; hence the concrete and stone for walls and columns) as well as to showcase builder products — it’s not meant as an exemplar for future home designs, despite its name. So I overlooked the size and scale and concentrated on the very carefully articulated and beautiful architectural details, like the columns

near the rear patio, with their elegant and  accurate composite capitals; or the outdoor kitchen nearby,

with rustic stone as the backdrop, and used as sheathing for the base of the serving island. Now you might note the two flat screens — perhaps a case of product placement acceding to the law of symmetry — not necessary but certainly enthusiastic. You can watch the Super Bowl while I channel surf.

In any case the grand rooms, high ceilings, and pool courtyard (photo by James Wilson via Residential Architect) were fun to experience — like touring a very well preserved Roman villa, or was it the eastern wing of the Malibu Getty Museum. For complete design and supplier credits see the TNAH website.