Category Archives: Classical houses

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!

Welcome, Katrina Cottage Plans

Finessing the FEMA Trailer

Big news! We are very excited to welcome the Katrina Cottage plans — from a team of designers and architects led by Marianne Cusato — to our Signature Studio. Prices start at $850. Years ago I saw one of the first examples, at the Home Builder Show in Orlando (shown below, courtesy James Hardie), and was very impressed. Here was an innovative solution to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina that could apply to housing needs in general.


I especially liked the efficient layout (this example is only 300 square feet), well proportioned double-hung windows, and front porch with built-in benches. I thought then, and now even more so, that this little house would dignify any neighborhood. To my mind it is a highly evolved descendant of the charming wood-framed “earthquake cottages” built for San Francisco’s homeless

after the disaster of 1906 (photo courtesy National Park Service, Presidio). Fast forward to today and our expanding collection of Katrina Cottage designs, like Marianne Cusato’s Plan 514-5, shown below.


The 544 square-foot, two bedroom, one bath house includes a galley kitchen

and a front porch that’s 8-feet deep so it can be used as an outdoor room to expand the house in good weather. Here it is as built.

(Photo courtesy Cusato Cottages.) The house is only sixteen feet wide but has a strong presence thanks to the welcoming front porch. Marianne calls this “vernacular Gulf Coast” architecture but I can see it working in places like the Northeast and Midwest as well.

Envisioned as a dignified alternative to the FEMA trailer, Katrina Cottages have been hailed for their design, durability, versatility and, affordability in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, on CNN and in all major news outlets nationwide. The Katrina Cottage concept is the vision of architect Andres Duany, partner in Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism and designers of hundreds of pedestrian-oriented communities including Seaside, Florida. The cottage idea was first developed at the Mississippi Renewal Forum in October 2005. The goal was to create a safe, affordable, livable home that can be built quickly and that ultimately becomes an enduring contribution to the neighborhood — not a temporary, often stigmatized, and possibly unhealthy solution like a FEMA trailer.

Plan 514-10 by Eric Moser, of Moser Design Group, is 20 feet wide and includes a buffet bar/peninsula in

the kitchen.

 

A shed dormer brightens the loft. Plan 514-11 by W. A. Lawrence of

Period Style Homes is 25 feet wide and includes an option for adding a third bedroom. Marianne Cusato’s Plan 514-18 is the largest so far,

at two stories and 1,200 square feet. Two bedrooms and a second bathroom are 

on the upper floor. Here’s a built version of it in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (photo courtesy Cusato Cottages).

The shutters, clapboard siding, and gable profile give it a handsome Colonial Revival look.

Marianne Cusato is the author of Get Your House Right, Architectural Elements to Use and Avoid, with Ben Pentreath, Richard Sammons and Leon Krier, foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales (2008, Sterling Publishing). In 2006, her Katrina Cottage won the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s “People’s Design Award.” W. A. Lawrence and Eric Moser have long been involved in neighborhood and residential design. These houses can be family homes, vacation cabins, even granny units, and it’s easy to imagine combining them into vibrant communities. To mix a few metaphors — an architectural phoenix has risen from the floods. Welcome, Katrina Cottage plans!

How To Read Buildings; Plan Sale Trends

Before Kindle: Buildings as Books

The built environment is actually part of a vast architectural textbook waiting to be read — some structures are more biographical, some more novelistic, and some even approach the poetic. Buildings express the aspirations of individuals and communities as well as social and economic realities. By reading buildings you begin to see how a setting evolved and what it says about the culture that produced it. That’s what a new pocket paperback, Cityscapes by S. F. Chronicle urban design writer John King (Heyday Books 2011) demonstrates. It’s a compendium of quick “readings” of a wide range of old and new buildings in San Francisco, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s mini-Guggenheim on Maiden Lane to the vernacular houseboats on Mission Creek, all part of what he calls “shared touchstones of reference and recall, shaping our sense of place.” I recommend it.

House Plan Sales Trends

The way to read a house plan is to study it as closely as possible, from how it looks to how it lives. To that end I thought I would review what plans have been selling lately and do a little “reading” of my own. Naturally, I think the best houses give their occupants a sense of individuality as well as comfort while maximizing the potential of the lot — and many of our most recently sold plans do this. And I’m beginning to see a trend or two…like greater privacy for master suites and stronger indoor-outdoor connections.

Modern Plan 484-3 was sold to a customer in Atlanta. It’s designed to take advantage of a narrow sloping lot. It’s a row house with a garage at the bottom level, living-dining area in the middle, and bedrooms at the top. Strong outdoor connections make the home seem larger than it is. See how the great room opens to the barbecue/pool patio.

The main living spaces are compact but because  they overlap and can borrow light from each other on three sides they have a feeling of spaciousness. The island helps separate the kitchen from the rest of the main space without visually cutting it off.

Generous balconies off the master and secondary bedrooms on the top floor add to the airiness.

Plan 477-4, a stately classical design, sold to a customer in Alberta, Canada. It would fit an infill site in an urban neighborhood — though it could also work on larger lots as a kind of villa.  The porch arcade shelters the front door while providing a welcoming face to the street. Inside, the layout is

not large but has an air of elegance and formality thanks to the small vestibule and stairhall between living room and dining room. A pocket door allows the vestibule to open directly to the kitchen when needed, adding to the plan’s flexibility. Upstairs, the master suite is somewhat removed from the other bedrooms for greater privacy.

Modern barn-inspired Plan 450-2 sold to a homeowner moving from Oklahoma to Kansas.  It would work as a vacation cabin on a rural site, as a starter home, or artist’s studio. It could also be a guest house or the first stage of a larger compound. The plan is small but very efficient– with  back-to-back kitchen and bathroom set between living area and bedroom. And yet thanks to the openings on three sides of the two main rooms — including the large glass garage door used as a moving window wall in the living space – this little house feels bright and spacious. Read-on, MacDuff!

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 Signature Plans 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.

Sears Stock Home Revival

Sculpting the Classic Home

Meet Michael Curtis — a sculptor who also designs houses — and the newest member of our Signature Studio. Here he is at the Supreme Court with his portrait of Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

His most significant sculptural commissions include The History of Texas at Texas Rangers Ball Park, Arlington, Texas, the largest US frieze of the 20th Century; numerous portrait busts for the Library of Congress, The Supreme Court, and other public buildings. Recent statues include General Eisenhower and The Shipbuilder, both in Alexandria, Virginia and his painting, sculpture, and architectural drawings are represented in over 250 private and public collections. He also designed The New American Home 2011, debuting at the National Association of Home Builders Show in Orlando this coming January (to be described in a future post).

Naturally Michael’s house designs are rooted in the classical tradition, as you can see in his Plan 492-2 The Philadelphia, which re-invigorates the Colonial Revival style while adapting it to modern living.

The symmetrical arrangement of windows, porches, and columns adds a sense of courtly elegance and poise. Lots of curb appeal here: “Knock, knock, Ben Franklin, are you home?!” Inside, the layout of the main floor follows a classic Georgian/Colonial plan, with central foyer and stair hall between living room and kitchen/dining room. The rooms are distinct yet connected to one another (guess what: no dead-rooms!). Space flows gracefully in a circular motion, making this a good house for playing tag with the family dog — something I do quite a lot — and my ultimate test for a good floor plan.

Both the island kitchen and the dining room open to the screen porch or sun room as well as to the central hall. The living room opens to the central hall and to its own spacious covered porch. Because each main floor room is so well defined even as it connects to other spaces, the house can feel intimate or expansive, depending on the occasion. Such a design immediately brings to mind the Sears mail order houses of the early 20th century, like this one,

called The Lexington, from 1927. Note the price, $4030 for the whole house, not just the plan! The almost circular layout (too bad the living room has only one way in from the hall), the side porch, the symmetry, and the shutters are very similar to The Philadelphia. According to the online Sears Archives (a treasure trove of information): from 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold 70,000 – 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program and designed 447 different housing styles. Well, I guess you could say Michael Curtis’ plan is an improved late entry!

In Plan 492-3 Ann’s Arbor, Michael departs from the Sears model somewhat in opting for an almost geometric Greek Revival style design. He wraps a very simple gabled rectangle in a porch with Tuscan style wood columns, like a modest Greek temple.

The Greek temple form is also evident in the floor plan,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

with a very straightforward arrangement of rooms. In good weather the front veranda becomes an outdoor living room, while the side porches allow master suite and dining area to expand as well. Upstairs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

there’s space for three bedrooms and a game/media room. More Michael Curtis designs will be debuting shortly. It’s a pleasure to welcome him aboard.

Two New Design Books

The subject of classical design is handsomely explored in the just published Classic Homes of Los Angeles, by Douglas Woods, sumptuously photographed by Melba Levick (Rizzoli).

Many of LA’s most impressive eclectically styles houses from the 1920s and 1930s are here including mansions by Paul Williams (who also produced several important stock plan books), George Washington Smith, and Roland Coate, along with brief histories of each commission.

A new book of architectural criticism also caught my eye: Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, by Blair Kamin, architecture critic at The Chicago Tribune.

Most of the essays are about Chicago but several are especially perceptive about larger issues. For example, he describes the restoration and improvement of Paul Rudolph’s famously battle-scarred Art & Architecture Building at Yale, a building that suffered fatal flaws in circulation and ventilation — and even a fire — despite heroic sculptural ambitions.  (I remember that building from my own time at college — with its fortress-like ribbons of corduroy concrete; if you leaned against it you bled. ) Kamin applauds how the redesign solved the functional problems and says “It is fitting that the restoration at once celebrates him (Paul Rudolph) and sends the broader signal that no matter how disheveled they appear, masterpieces of mid-twentieth-century modernism can and should be preserved.” Another essay on the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (2,717 feet) shown on the book’s cover, praises the skill of its design while acknowledging the questionable nature of the tall for tall’s sake commission. I like his final punch line: ” Nothing succeeds, it seems to defiantly declare, like excess.”