Conversation Pits and Refugee Home Design

Modernism With Individuality

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Julie Iovine, executive editor of The Architect’s Paper, perceptively describes the mid-century modern J. Irwin  and Xenia Miller residence in Columbus, Indiana, which is now open to the public (photo courtesy Wall Street Journal). Built in 1953 for the chairman of Cummins Engine and his wife —  who put their town near Indianapolis on the map by paying the design fees for every new public building as long as nationally recognized architects were hired to design it — this remarkable house is both abstract and highly personal. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, architect of the St. Louis Arch and Dulles Airport; influential modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley did the garden. Organized on a grid with a flat roof that almost floats, with walls of marble and glass that draw the eye into a similarly abstract landscape, the house has anumber of surprises, including a splendid conversation pit, shown here, with colorful patterned fabric and pillows by industrial designer and folk art collector Alexander Girard. (The International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico devotes an entire wing to the extraordinary collections Girard amassed, which became the inspiration for his own designs.) That sunken square sitting area is a classic example of functionalist thinking: both open and constrained at the same time. According to Iovine it was often used for slumber parties.Nearby in the same wide open space is the cylinder-shaped fireplace suspended from the ceiling (you can also make it out at the rear of the previous photograph, though because it’s white like the surroundings, it almost disappears). A long storage and display wall and ribbon skylights are the other key elements animating this space. What a classic and marvelous example of Modernist
design thinking: Saarinen has reduced architecture to the manipulation of form and function. He used structural geometry — the square, circle, and straight line — instead of conventional furniture and walls to define each functional area within a larger space (three interior photos courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art). Without these finely worked materials and vivid accents such an abstract approach could result in a cold, anonymous, corporate lobby-like design — but here it has immense personality and power. Contact the Indianapolis Museum of Art/Miller House for tours.

Stanford Students Design For Haiti

Architecture has many roles: inventing inspirational one-of-a-kind custom homes is one; solving urgent housing needs for refugee populations is another. I was privileged to watch architecture, engineering, and product design students addressing the latter problem recently when I served on a design jury for a class at Stanford University taught by architect Charles Debbas and engineering lecturer Glenn Katz. The assignment was to develop housing prototypes for Haiti earthquake refugees that would be climate appropriate, economically feasible, well engineered, sustainable, and require no skilled labor to build. A monumental task! During the term experts gave informational talks. Kate Stohr from Architecture for Humanity (one of their projects is shown above) spoke about reconstruction efforts for refugees and dealing with corruption and political obstacles. Kristel Younes from Refugees International described human conditions in refugee camps throughout the world, infrastructure of camps, safety, sanitation. Monica Underwood from America USAid Projustice discussed rebuilding the legal system from scratch when all records, birth certificates and criminal records are lost.

I think the students’ resulting projects are highly imaginative — and very inspirational, too. Many teams used easy-to-grow and harvest timber bamboo as  the key building material. One combined the bamboo with gabion baskets containing decontaminated rubble from the ruins (top, right above) for the walls.Another devised a clever cruciform plan (see upper left on the board above) to ensure cross ventilation and private outdoor space. Another studied regional building traditions and adapted them (left, above) to contemporary needs. Each team combined a wide variety of disciplines to come up with feasible real-world solutions. I was impressed by the esprit de corps and ingenuity demonstrated by each project and I toast all six teams. They are already helping to make a brighter future — and the conversation has just begun. Bravo!

3 responses to “Conversation Pits and Refugee Home Design

  1. Pingback: Conversation Pits and Refugee Home Design | Smarter Clicks | Keeping you in the know...

  2. Thanks for your interesting article and highlighting housing plans and efforts for Haiti. I spent a year in Haiti with Architecture for Humanity and took the photo of the building you’re showing as a project of theirs led by Kate Stohr. It is not one of their projects, but the office where they work.

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