Category Archives: Architectural Styles

Tour de France Architecture and the Classical Home

Pass the Salt — and the Classical Ideal

One of the great pleasures of watching the Tour de France (a current nightly addiction) is seeing modern cycling in a setting of great classical architecture. The most vivid backdrop so far was last week’s ninth-stage start at the famous

late 18th century salt works at Arc-et-Senans, Besançon (photo courtesy estrepublicain.fr). This remarkable complex of buildings (the one above was a theater) arose as part of an early utopian idea for a factory town, when salt was a precious commodity as an agent for food preservation and to improve taste, and a royal monopoly. Though these three riders are understandably oblivious to the robust Doric order behind them, they are chatting, ironically, beside an early example of what scholars call “architecture parlante” or “talking architecture,”

designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, and completed in 1778.  The aerial view shows the semi-circular layout and the architect’s interest in geometric order (photo courtesy salineroyale.com). In his excellent book European Architecture 1750-1890, architectural historian Barry Bergdoll explains that architecture parlante was about expressing the identity and profession of the client “through the manipulation of architectural symbolism.” Here that meant using a rustic Doric order (because Doric signified a utilitarian function at that time) and an orderly — i.e. geometric — layout with “an arc of residential and service buildings facing the salt production sheds and the director’s house along the diameter.”

Among the most expressive, or loquacious aspects of the Salt Works are the ornamental sculptures of saline water just before crystallization, as shown in this image, courtesy Miami.edu — which could also represent the occasional cramping that cyclists experience…Hydrate! Hydrate! Classical architecture has always embodied large ideas and associations — order, knowledge, Greece and Rome — so it’s easy to see how an architect like Ledoux would take imagery to an

extreme, as in his design for the keeper of a river dam’s power source as a giant sluice gate (never built; image courtesy Arch 672: Smart Surfaces Studio). It could be a progenitor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater at Bear Run, Pennsylvania for Edgar Kaufmann — only River Keeper Kaufmann actually ran a department store.

As it happens, Thomas Jefferson arrived in France in 1784, not long after the salt works and other buildings by Ledoux had been completed, and soaked up the classical vibe (if not the salt) from daily walks in Paris, as an insightful and

beautifully printed new book by historian Diana Ketcham and photographer Michael Kenna — Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks (Arion Press, 2012) — demonstrates. According to Ketcham, Jefferson was most attracted to

Neoclassical buildings like the new palace for the Prince de Salm, from 1787, with its monumental portico and long rows of columns along a court of honor (photo courtesy Arion Press). Upon his return from Paris in 1796, Jefferson

redesigned Monticello, no doubt prompted by what he saw in France. Monticello’s high blocky entablature and balustrade wrapping the brick wall above the windows like a tightly cinched cummerbund may have derived from the grand double entablature at de Salm. You can see echoes of the colonnade arrangement in his much later plan for The Lawn (central quad) at the University of Virginia.

The classical portico idea remains popular to this day. A recent, much

simplified version, is  Plan 492-8, by architect-sculptor Michael Curtis (part of our Signature Studio Collection), with its pedimented front porch. Inside of course, the layout is very contemporary, with the kitchen-dining room

and master suite opening to a spacious deck. Such a design would suit a site in neighborhoods where the language of classical architecture is still spoken. And in New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida or Stapleton, Colorado, which are classically inspired and where garages are usually on rear alleys, the main streets would be safer for cyclists!

Sarah Susanka, Hip Roofs, and Prairie Style DNA

Aloha Sarah — and Mahalo Frank

Let’s take a DNA strand out of Henry Louis Gates’ fascinating Finding Your Roots show on PBS, and apply it to residential architecture and our latest design by architect Sarah Susanka, Plan 454-11. It was  originally

conceived for a dramatic view-oriented meadow on the Big Island of Hawaii, as shown here. The plan is a new addition to our Signature Studio and one of the descendants, if you will, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School houses (remember the recent film of the same name about a Hawaiian family, starring George Clooney — genealogy is everywhere at the moment!). I’m thinking of the

Ward Willits house in Highland Park,Illinois, of 1901, shown above (photo and plan, courtesy delmars.com). See how the hipped roofs and horizontal lines of the Willits house dominate, appearing to float over the deeply recessed eaves. Susanka’s roofs also float; her design resembles a series of interlocking pavilions shaped to capture views in every direction. In the Willits plan, below, the

rooms radiate from the hearth at the center of a pinwheel, further accentuating the horizontality of the design and thereby expressing the lines of the Prairie

itself, hence the style name. Sarah Susanka’s plan, above, does something similar but within the overall constraint of the rectangle. A generous central hearth also anchors her design while the island kitchen, living room, dining room, and bedroom wings reach toward terraces and the landscape beyond. A classic

Susanka touch is to craft a room-within-a room for a sense of intimacy in a larger space, as she does here in the breakfast alcove with its built in seating and

window walls. She uses dropped soffits — like abstract cornices — to support concealed lighting and vary ceiling heights, which is also something Wright did. Susanka’s use of wood to articulate structure also recalls Japanesque design and this resonates with Wright and his lifelong interest in Japanese prints, not to mention his design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo from the early 1920s. It turns out he traveled to Japan for the first time in 1905, with guess who — Mr. and Mrs. Willits.

But you may ask, how does Prairie style relate to Hawaii? Well actually, there’s a logical connection, and it has to do with the hipped roof. The Hawaiian architect Charles Dickey is credited with developing a regional Hawaiian style of architecture through his use of the broadly sheltering hip roof — as shown

on his own house of 1926 at Waikiki (photo courtesy Wikipedia). Bertram

Goodhue’s more elongated hip roof for the Honolulu Academy of Art of 1927 developed the form on a monumental scale (photo by Burl Burlingame courtesy Honolulu Star Bulletin). Though the Wrightian and Susankan roofs read more as separate geometric units that seem to levitate over their structures than the Hawaiian hips, I think you can see the visual DNA connection. I’d just call them calabash cousins — i.e. extended family — no saliva test required.

New Katrina Cottages and Bungalows

Shotguns and Survival

Hurricane Katrina blew away or seriously damaged a lot of Gulf Coast architectural history — like the classic mid 19nth century “shotgun house”

at Bay St. Louis shown here (courtesy Mississippi Heritage Trust) and so-called because you could shoot a bullet front to back without hitting an interior wall, but Mississippi architect Bruce Tolar has fought back, helping communities overcome the devastation and even renew their roots. Like Marianne Cusato and others he developed a variety of innovative, easy-to-construct, small houses — including Katrina Cottages  — that add character, even a sense of history, to a neighborhood. Now these plans are part of our Signature Studio.

His two bedroom, one bath, 672 sq. ft. Plan 536-4 deftly brings the shotgun idea into the 21st century by including hurricane-resistant construction

and a contemporary layout. (You can still enjoy some target practice down the hall though you’ll need to be okay with blasting through the bedroom closet.) The house is tiny but lives large thanks to the generous front porch and the combined kitchen/living space. The three bedroom, three bath, 1,413 sq. ft.

Plan 536-1 takes a more expansive approach while keeping the neighborly

 front. The cross-axial dormers brighten the upstairs bunk room and bath.

Plan 536-3 is a simplified version of Plan 536-1, with no upper floor and

   a shortened front porch. I can see this plan built as a vacation cabin

or a starter home. But these houses are really designed to shape a

 community, as Bruce shows in his walkable Cottage Square development at

Ocean Springs, Mississippi, pictured in the two photos above, where his designs complement those by Marianne Cusato and others in a pleasing example of countryside urbanity.

Plan 536-5 takes a different tack and draws inspiration from Caribbean

architecture with stucco or plaster walls and high balconies as well as 

wrap-around porches to maximize cross ventilation in a hot climate.

With their connections to a larger historical context  these plans are all about creating — or in some cases re-creating — a strong sense of place. These houses remind me of Mark Twain’s famous line that history might not repeat it self, but it rhymes. Welcome Bruce!

“Mad Men” and Mid-Century Modernity at LACMA

Stereos and Studebakers

The start of Mad Men‘s fifth season this week on cable TV is fortuitous. Though the series spawned a new appreciation for slick Madison Avenue Modernism of the early 1960s — not to mention accompanying cocktails — it wasn’t easy to see

where part of that esthetic came from (photo courtesy shinyshiny.tv). But now you can, thanks to the exhibition running through June at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965 curated by Wendy Kaplan. In fact, the advertising firm that the character Don Draper runs, seen above at his desk with drink in hand, ought to be developing campaigns for many of the products in the exhibition, like the Studebaker Avanti of 1961-2 by Raymond Loewy, below.

California — and especially Los Angeles — became a remarkable incubator of modern design during the middle of the 20th century. The benign climate, burgeoning post World War II economy and population, and movie mystique attracted imaginative designers and take-a-chance clients. I toured the exhibit recently and was impressed with the way it explores connections between popular and high style design, from furniture and clothing to houses and cars while bringing the Left Coast side of the Mad Men era to life.

Time here begins in the 1930s, quite literally, with one of the first digital clocks,

the Zephyr clock by Lawson Time, from around 1938 (photo courtesy LACMA blog). My uncle had one of these and I always admired it — when the numbers turned over they bounced slightly before resting in place (perhaps a metaphor for hanging fire?). Time did appear to be hustling as new tracts developed across

the LA basin. Modern architects were designing houses and filling them with furniture like this 1931 bent plywood chair by Richard Neutra or this squared off

corner grouping by A. Quincy Jones from 1961 and Mondrian-esque glass coffee table of c. 1950 by Milo Baughman for Glenn of California  — which look like they belong in one corner of Don Draper’s office. Living In A Modern Way shows how California designers celebrated the casual indoor-outdoor living that

the California climate made possible, as in this promotional image for a development called Monarch Bay Homes at Laguna Niguel by delineator Carlos Dini, from 1961 (image courtesy LACMA).  My favorite part of the exhibit juxtaposes two elegant designs from 1961 by LA’s most minimalist architect,

Craig Ellwood: a superb elevation of his Rosen house and the Rosen’s custom stereo cabinet. Now this takes Machine Age abstraction to its logical extreme: house and stereo are extensions of each other, if not virtually indistinguishable —  do I live in the stereo or does the stereo live in me? Talk about surround sound! The only real difference, besides scale and some plumbing, is that the stereo has four bays while the house has only three. Clearly the sort of house where you would expect to hear Frank Sinatra, not to mention the architect, crooning My Way — and sotto voce “or the highway.” (Images courtesy LACMA.)

Even Barbie went modern, and her Dream House of 1962, shown below, is fun to

to see. The largest element in the show is a replica of the loft-like living room of  the Charles and Ray Eames house of 1949, the most famous structure in the

Case Study House Program of the late 1940s and early 1950s sponsored by Arts + Architecture magazine (photo courtesy NY Times). It functions both as a frame for nature and an elegant specimen box for the Eames’ collection (1,869 items in this space alone!). Which reminds me: Case Study House #3 shown below, by William Wurster and Theodore Bernardi is not in the exhibit but is in the

Houseplans.com Signature Studio and is Plan 529-1. See how it too blends indoor and outdoor space into a seamless whole: the house is the lot. Our Eichler Plans offer further variations on the modern living theme. They’re all part of the Mid-Century Modern design history you can own.

So, Don Draper — time to put down that highball and get back to work. You have a lot of selling to do!

 

Major Ranch House Exhibition at UCSB

From Corral to Cul de Sac in the Southern California Home

I just saw “Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House” in the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, curated by Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicholas Olsberg. It’s the first scholarly  exhibition on the history of the suburban ranch house at UCSB since the late architectural historian David Gebhard founded the museum’s design archive in the 1970s and collected the Cliff May papers along with those of many other influential Southern California architects and designers (catalog to be published in April). The fence on the intro wall aptly expresses both the ranch house idea

and the intent of the show: to corral the many facets of ranch house history into a coherent narrative while showing off holdings from the museum’s extensive architectural drawings collections. It’s mostly about ranch house designer, developer, and popularizer Cliff May, who began his career in San Diego in the early 1930s with courtyard designs like this one, which cloaked functional planning and space for the automobile in the romance of history.

They were inspired by early California ranchos with their covered “corredors” or porches. In 1934 he moved to Los Angeles and soon began developing Riviera Ranch, an equestrian-oriented subdivision off Sunset Boulevard near Brentwood. With larger lots his plans could “sprawl” across the site.

This house — for his own family — became his best sales tool and a laboratory for trying out new ideas like residential incinerators and walk-in refrigerators. In the 1950s he and his architect partner Chris Choate developed their “low cost ranch house” concept using standardized, pre-cut elements.

(Image courtesy AD&A Museum.) Window walls and shallow gable roofs were signature features, as shown in the brochure plan and the supergraphic of another May design that dominates a section of the exhibit (below).

May’s designs resemble Eichler tract house plans of the same era — the ranch house concept was everywhere at that time and very malleable. The tract ranch house became popular for developers, which is when the word sprawl took on

a less positive meaning; this is an aerial view of Lakewood Rancho Estates, in Long Beach, California (image courtesy AD&A Museum). Meanwhile May was still designing larger and more lavish custom homes for people like the inventor of

the Lear jet and the composer of the theme song for the TV show Bonanza. The typical pool and patio example above — one of many in the exhibit — became synonymous with California living (image courtesy AD&A Museum).

By the early 1960s Cliff May ranch houses had spread across the country as this wonderful pin map — which I remember seeing in Cliff May’s last office — demonstrates. Some of the pins represent subdivisions of more than 25 houses — his designs are in almost every state as well as as Canada and Mexico.

The show includes ranch house designs by other Southern California architects, from John Byers to Rudolph Schindler, proving that Cliff’s wasn’t the only game in town. As Jocelyn Gibbs, who is the curator of the museum’s Architectural Drawings Collection, told me: the intent was “to suggest that the ranch house and modernist ideas are not incompatible.” Indeed, the ranch house idea was stylistically very loose — simply a one story house with a modern open plan and strong outdoor connections. It had little theoretical baggage.

The need to exhibit only work from the museum’s collections is understandable but I wish there had been a way to include the wider architectural context, from William Wurster’s Butler house at Santa Cruz, California of 1935

(image courtesy Modern in Melbourne), to John Yeon’s Watzek house in

Portland, Oregon, of 1937 (photo courtesy Inside Oregon), to Frank Lloyd

Wright’s Herbert Jacobs Usonian House in Madison, Wisconsin of 1936 (image courtesy GreatBuildings.com) to Walter Gropius’s Arnold Wolfers house in

Brooklin, Maine of 1947 (image courtesy The Downeast Dilletante). Most architects took the ranch house in a more strictly modern direction and didn’t acknowledge Cliff May’s contribution. Nor did most of the design critics of the day. But though Cliff May was left out of architectural debates at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere, it’s clear, as this exhibition vividly demonstrates, that Southern California had a richly experimental residential design tradition and that Cliff had the last laugh. The show remains on view through June 17, 2012; museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5; free.


Contemporary House Plans from Estonia

Talent — and Modern Living — from Tallinn

I am excited to introduce house plans by Andrus Elm and Oliver Kangro of Concept Home, a company from Estonia on the Gulf of Finland with wide engineering, architecture, and development experience across Southern Europe and Scandinavia. Concept Home is the newest member of our Signature Studio, which also includes plans by architects from Australia, Brazil, India, Ireland , and Italy. I’m drawn to Concept Home’s open and adaptable layouts, wide range of plan types, and warm contemporary style. Plan 537-9, for

example, which has 1,487 sq. ft., would work well for a ski chalet or a country getaway, with its strong

indoor-outdoor connections (terraces on two sides) and upstairs balcony leading

to two bedrooms, which lets the upper level share views out the tall living room window wall. 

With its shed roof, vertical board siding, and

window wall, Plan 537-17 recalls classic modern designs like the Sugar Bowl Ski

Lodge of 1939 designed by architect William Wurster (photo courtesy 2729

Hyperion.com) and a mid 1960s house like this one at Sea Ranch by Joseph Esherick (photo courtesy Sea Ranch Escape). The layout of Plan 537-17 is

carefully thought out with a multi-functional island — for cooking and dining –

separating the kitchen from the living area, a large storage closet near the kitchen, and terraces at front and rear on the ground floor and deck above. The aim of Concept Home is to design houses that are flexible, functional, full of

natural light (this is Plan 537-4), and inexpensive to build. They feel natural and warm. And, according to Concept Home: “Most of our houses can be adjusted to passive house principles in a great variety of geographical locations. We believe that a modern house must be energy-efficient.” Bravo.

So welcome home, Andrus and Oliver — or should I say it in Estonian: Tere tulemast kodu!!


Mies, Modernism, and the Accent Wall

Brno: Above and Beyond

Villa Tugendhat, the famous house built in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1930 (now the Czech Republic) for textile manufacturer Fritz Tugendhat and his wife Grete and designed by architect Mies van der Rohe, opens for tours after restoration (photo courtesy Great Buildings.com).

The Tugendhats fled the Nazis in 1938 and after a complex history it is now owned by the city of Brno. I want to visit someday! Until then, let’s look at how this icon of modernism treated house design not as a box but as a series of

interpenetrating and overlapping spaces and planes. What a departure it was

and is! Here’s a view of the neighborhood. In the upper aerial photo see how the floors appear carved out of a large rectangular volume; sections even seem to  float. The street level entry with bedrooms is at the top; living, dining, study, kitchen occupy the middle; utility spaces are at ground level. Roof decks, window walls, even the terrace stair read as voids in, or extensions of, the elemental geometry. Views of the living room from the 1930s show how Mies treated walls,

whether sold or transparent, not as fixed boundaries but as shifting planes (though they are in fact fixed) that give shape and character to what is essentially an infinite extension of space from inside to outside.  The living room window wall takes the idea of uniting interior and exterior a step further: an electric motor allows it to disappear into the floor. (These elegant panels are the precursors to the sliding partitions of countless modern homes and, less nobly, convention hotels.) Here ornament is no longer something applied but must be inherent in the luxurious materials used — onyx, Macassar ebony, rosewood,

polished metal — as shown in a recent photograph of part of the living area and the curving dining room wall (courtesy Great Buildings.com). According to the villa’s website the Tugendhats were decidedly forward-thinking and must have been perfect clients for Mies. Grete recalled: “I truly longed for a modern spacious house with clear and simple shapes. My husband was horrified by the idea of having rooms full of objects and cloths as he had known from childhood.” The Mies-designed Brno chairs, seen in the dining room above, and armchairs,

like the one above, added to the spacious uncluttered effect. These chairs remain popular today and even spark further inventiveness, as in the recent art piece by

Fernanda Fragateiro, which cleverly comments on the creative relationship between Mies and his interior designer collaborator and erstwhile mistress Lilly Reich: sort of a love seat with stretch marks! (photo courtesy Frieze magazine.) For more on the house and its restoration see Architectural Record.

Today many architects and designers continue to interpret and expand upon aspects of a Misian esthetic, as Braxton Werner and Paul Field do in Plan 491-6,

with the stone wall that extends through glass to shape a patio, and in Plan 491-5

where the headboard becomes the storage wall. Here the element that defines the room is what one might call a multi-functional accent wall.

The Tugendhat house remains a remarkable symbol of the 20th century. Bravo to Brno for bringing it back to life. In a recent novel — The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer (Other Press, 2009), which uses the Tugendhat house and its glass living room as the key setting, architect-protagonist Rainer von Abt says: “Architects are people who build walls and floors and roofs. I capture and enclose space within.” I’ll let you know how everything turns out.