Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Flexible Home: Airstream Trailer to Rotating Villa

Wheels-Within-Wheels

What is flexibility in home design? Partly it’s about efficiency, as in the Airstream Sterling Concept Trailer designed by architect Christopher Deam (released late last year by the Airstream company), where multiple functions

are packed into every surface of the small interior. The cabinetry recalls the compact, every-inch-counts-ingenuity of yacht and jet plane interiors, as well as Fuller’s Dymaxion house (photo by Drew Kelly, courtesy The New York Times).

The walls become both moving partitions and storage containers, while the streamlined metal surfaces and overlapping spaces bring the Airstream’s classic, sleek, retro-mod exterior inside to accentuate the feeling of spaciousness (photo courtesy DesignMilk).

A more extreme example of flexibility might be the famous modern Italian villa

known as il Girasole (the Sunflower) near Verona, built in 1935 by civil and nautical engineer Angelo Invernizzi with architect Ettore Fagiuoli. It rotates to follow the sun (like a sunflower) and take in a 360-degree view  — a precursor to all those rotating cocktail lounges from the 1960s and 70s, only here the whole house turns, not just the top floor. It’s built on a massive three-story

stationary concrete drum that’s dug into a hill. Here you see the two story

L-shaped house on top of the drum after it has made a compete revolution: now the L faces the viewer, now it faces away. The house itself is supported on a chassis that runs on three circular rails, as  shown here in an aerial view.

According to architectural historian Colin Davies in his book Key Houses of the 20th Century: “Villa Girasole is more like a traveling crane or swing bridge than

a sunflower.” The great wheels are remarkable objects in themselves — like monumental kinetic sculpture. Electric motors can push the house through a complete rotation in about 9 hours. (OK — it’s 6 pm: that must be the vineyard! Time for another glass of grappa! Or is that the grappa and it’s time for another vineyard…) The house pivots around an axle connected to a large bearing at the

base of the drum through a tall cylinder containing a circular stairway wrapping

an elevator. It’s a surpassingly clever design and you can view a fascinating short film about it narrated by the engineer’s daughter at Flixxy, where she recalls: “Each time I lifted my eyes from the book I was reading I would see a different vista.” So –  il Girasole is quite literally flexible in the sense that it moves, but it takes a lot of effort to make that possible (images courtesy Loftenberg.com).

Flexibility can also refer to how a design, or elements of a design, accommodate different circumstances, which was the reasoning behind the development of our Flexahouse, by architect Nick Noyes. It combines the same great room, storage wall, entry, bedrooms, master suite, and garage in three different ways, from I-shape (Plan 445-3)

to L-shape (Plan 445-5 — this one doesn’t move!)

to  T-shape (Plan 445-5)

– to suit different lot sizes, from narrow to wide. In short, there are many ways to achieve flexibility. The trick is simply to plan for it!

 

Living Beside the Pool

 Taking the Plunge

It’s a compelling dream to live poolside – especially during the hot, waning days of summer. So let’s dive in! Think of the Alhambra in Spain with its

shallow pools and long water courses — though maybe no diving there (photo courtesy Viva-Spain). Here are some examples of more recent houses — if not palaces — with seamless indoor-outdoor poolscapes.

It was natural for the swimming pool to become an emblem of the suburban dream in sunny Southern California, with its culture of experimentation and cinematic glamor, but architects took it a step farther in the 1950s and 1960s, when they incorporated it into the house and treated it as a room in its own right (naturally the air could get a little thick). Los Angeles-based ranch house popularizer Cliff May, for example, made the pool part of the living

room in some houses, like this one in Rolling Hills from 1963. (That planter by the pool was important — you wouldn’t want your LazyBoy to roll into the drink during cocktails by the fire.) In a house May designed for Tucson the

pool is shaded by an extended gable made of ocotillo branches and has a stone table/island at the center — it’s a marvelous shimmering and shady mirage of a desert isle made real (both photos by Rochelle Kramer, courtesy RanchoStyle).

Los Angeles architect John Lautner turned the pool into abstract architectural sculpture, especially in his great Sheats-Goldstein house on a steep hillside, of 1963, where the pool resembles a solid block of glass inserted flush with the

patio, which is itself an extension of the living room under its concrete roof-riff on the triangle (photo by ARTJOCKS courtesy James Goldstein). This remarkable design is all about contrasting solids and voids, enclosure and exposure, and geometric shape expanding into space toward Downtown LA.

(photo courtesy Arcspace). Originally only a curtain of air separated inside from outside, but this was later replaced with glass. The pool also functions as a sort of aquarium for swimmers because windows look into it from the master suite on the lower level.

Today, architects around the world have put pools everywhere, even on the

roof, as this famous house in Paris by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) of 1991 shows (photo courtesy OMA). A recent design by the inventive

Singapore firm of Guz Architects keeps the pool on the ground but lifts the house over it in a dramatic acrobatic gesture. The structure floats while the pool supports — a wonderful reversal of roles.

Italian architect Lorenzo Spano, who is part of our Exclusive Studio, has

developed this idea in his Plan 473-2, shown here, where the bedroom floor

is above the pool. The living-dining-kitchen is at pool level. Part of the hallway

floor is glass, so you can see through to the swimmers below. Perhaps Lorenzo was thinking of the Blue Grotto on Capri! Swimming pools just seem to encourage “freestyle” home design.

House as Cave, Bridge, or Tank

Beyond the Basic Box

A house is always a storehouse for the imagination, but sometimes it can take surprising turns as a container. Here are several particularly evocative design approaches to stoke your own fires of invention.

Cave. Early houses were caves of course, but here’s an example of a modern house built into a hillside in the spa town of Vals, Switzerland, that gives cave dwelling a contemporary twist. Talk about

a seamless transition between house and site – here the house is the site! Designed by Bjarne Mastenbroek of SeARCH, and Christian Muller Architects

to preserve the pristine alpine landscape, the house is primarily accessible

through a tunnel from a nearby wooden barn. The great cutaway oval is courtyard, light source, and connection to the hillside, framing views of the

valley below without blocking sight lines from above (photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy ArchDaily). You can see the entry barn beyond the lip of the oval, above; and the entrance from the tunnel is behind the blue tub. And you can even experience the home yourself: it rents through the website Villa Vals — I’m adding it to my bucket list!

Bridge. A clever solution for a difficult site like a small ravine is to treat the house as a bridge. An early modern example is the famous Warner or “Bridge House” in New Canaan, Connecticut of 1956 by John Johansen, which

straddles the Rippowam River near Philip Johnson’s Glass House (photo by Robert Damora courtesy Philip Johnson Glass House). The H-shaped plan puts the living-dining room on the bridge at the center; the four corners

contain the kitchen and bedrooms (image courtesy Faustian urGe). According to Gwen North Reiss, who interviewed the architect in 2010 when he was 94, Johansen considered the bridge not just a site solution but an important metaphor of transition and renewal. She quotes him: “The bridge represents in mythical forms the leaving of one region familiar to you…Throw yourself on a bridge and you are separated from time and space and then you find your way down to another reality hitherto previously unknown to you.” The barrel vaults in the roof are also evocative and follow the line of the stream (rivulets, perhaps?). More recent versions of the bridge-as-house can be found in the

work of Cutler Anderson Architects in Washington State, as shown here, where spanning the site made it possible to avoid “culverting the stream” (photo courtesy Cutler Anderson). Another way to go is to use bridge

stanchions to allow for a longer span, as shown in this house by Adelaide, Australia architect Max Pritchard (photo courtesy Max Pritchard Architects).

Tank. The water storage tank is especially compelling as a container. A quick Google search produces a variety of tanks that have been converted to houses,

like this very vivid one in Thorpness, England with its tall red storybook gable and long white chimney — like something out of a Dr. Suess book (photo courtesy Armchair Travelogue). This round concrete tank in an industrial

section of London is being converted to living quarters by the designer Tom Dixon, who added the windows and the wood siding and has plans to construct an elevator (good idea! photo courtesy Daily Mail).

The talented Max Pritchard used a 50 year-old concrete water tank as the base for this delightful house overlooking Adelaide. According to the Pritchard firm

the basement and a bedroom level (with windows punched into it) were built within the tank, while a new upper level containing the main living areas and

master bedroom follows the shape of the tank with a semicircular wall of glass — like a large bay window — to capture the sweeping views of city and sea.

As these structures demonstrate: design is about turning limitations into possibilities.

 

An Olympic Salute to the Inventive British Home

Vaults, Jumps, and Other Leaps of Faith

Cheers to the organizers of the London Olympics for using the games to highlight some of Britain’s most famous architectural landmarks. Take the

equestrian events, where you could see riders jumping over clever architectural models of Number 10 Downing Street (photo courtesy

The Guardian), and the Tower of London (the latter is shown above, photo courtesy Hussavelos) — all within sight of the Queen’s House by Inigo

Jones (ca. 1635, just behind the jumps) and the Naval Hospital by Sir Christopher Wren (ca. 1695, twin domes behind the Queen’s House)  at Greenwich. Horse Guards Parade — the grounds in front of the

the symmetrical Horse Guards by William Kent  (1753) in central London made a very theatrical backdrop for beach volleyball (photo courtesy Eurosport.com). Indeed it became a marvelously improbable stage set — like an urban, open-air

version of Palladios’s Teatro Olimpico (a serendipitous name) of 1585 in Vicenza, above, no less (photo courtesy wikipedia). Kent would have known a lot about Palladio and his theater but probably not much about volleyball, not to mention

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh-Jennings (photo courtesy London2012). Horse Guards Parade Ground was an inspired choice of venue because it was designed as a ceremonial setting in the first place. One good parade — or should I say, ace serve – deserves another.

London definitely had a starring role, which made me think about how British design in general has contributed to the shape and character of the home. It’s a huge subject but here are three especially influential figures.

1. In the late 1800s print maker, textile designer, and author William Morris helped found the English Arts & Crafts

Movement and gave us wallpaper designs like this one, called “Vine.” The movement’s hand-crafted, nature-oriented approach lead to the development of the Craftsman style (image courtesy Historicstyle.com).

2. Early twentieth century Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh designed his iconic ladder- and oval-backed  chairs, which remain popular today (image

courtesy Makedesignedobjects.com).

3. London-based designer/author/impresario Terence Conran has been influential through his modern design shops (Conrans) and books promoting an eclectic functionalism. In the kitchen and living room of Conran’s own house

you can see how he deftly combines spare modern lines, open planning

and abundant daylight with subtle colors and the warmth of wood (photos by Paul Massey courtesy HousetoHome.com). A good place to toast a British accent in design.

Idea Collecting at Heath Ceramic’s New Tile Showroom

Beyond the Backsplash

I just toured the newly opened San Francisco showroom for Heath Ceramics — the famous mid-century modernist tile factory based in Sausalito — and found it full of suggestive ideas for storage and display, not to mention the vast array of products, from field tiles to tea pots, in colors and finishes that look positively edible. Husband-wife owners Robin Petravic and Cathy Bailey have turned a former linen shop and laundry located in the city’s Mission

District into an airy design lab and gallery. The building layout and renovation was designed by San Francisco architect Charles Hemminger; the showroom interior was done by the Los Angeles firm Commune. The palette of unpainted wood, concrete, glass, and tile evokes a spare Japanesque/Scandinavian esthetic, which seems very appropriate for the strong simple shapes and nature-based hues of the company’s products. The retail showroom wraps around a

clerestoried atrium that will soon house tile-making operations and a Blue Bottle Coffee cafe (dishware manufacture will remain in Sausalito). So you

will be able to sip from a classic Heath “Coupe” line cup while watching the tile for your backsplash emerge from the primordial clay. But here

it’s not only the tile that’s alluring — as shown by sample panels that swivel so you can see the colorful glazes in different lights — but also the ideas for

flexible and built-in cabinetry. The kitchen island is especially suggestive, with butcher block counters flanking the range  for easy food prep before cooking,

and open shelving for convenient pot and pan storage. The floating wall shelving (bolted to the studs) against the vivid blue tile backsplash creates a spacious uncluttered look. The unpainted wood makes a perfect foil for the

tile, ensuring its starring role. Setting the tile perpendicular to the counter edge so that it connects with the tile running up the wall creates visual continuity for a very clean and unified design. The display tables are on rollers

so they can be used to reconfigure the space or combine with other tables for larger arrays. Heath has also begun a program of rotating exhibitions here and is currently showing work by Japanese Master Akio Nukaga. In sum,

the space deftly combines art and commerce. In effect, everything in the space

is carefully curated to feed the imagination…Say, wouldn’t these tiles look great in an outdoor shower on a house like this one by architects Braxton

Werner and Paul Field, Plan 491-2. I can see placing it around the corner to the left, not far from the pool. On that panel by the last window — a tall accent wall of blue-green classic field tile, don’t you think?