Category Archives: contemporary home design

Farmhouse/Barnhouse Modern

Dreams of Fields

While in Chicago last week at the Reinvention Design Conference — a stimulating confab of architects who specialize in residential work — I toured a remarkable house with lessons for anyone interested in home design. Designed by Vinci/Hamp Architects, it’s a recent addition to the

historic Crab Tree Farm (a dairy farm) built in 1911. The crisp white gabled Continue reading

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 445-1

to L-shape Plan 445-3 – 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!

 

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.

Porches and the Primitive Hut

Dream Time

The idea of escape to a simpler more relaxing way of living is especially appealing right now. In my case that would mean lounging on a porch — like this

elegant screened version by In Situ Studio — my head buried in a good spy novel

(photos courtesy In Situ Studio). The Roman architect Vitruvius believed that all architecture began with the primitive hut, which I think you could say is in the DNA of most great porches. Later philosophers, like the former Jesuit priest Abbe Laugier in his Essay On Architecture of 1753, adopted this idea and visualized the first buildings as simple — but classical — lean-tos made from tree trunks. You can see the

roots — literally! — of the classical pediment in that triangle of twigs at the top. The big idea was that architecture evolved as a refinement of elemental nature, meaning that the tree is simply a column in its primitive state. Or, put another way — in the beginning there was a gazebo! (Remember that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is talking about man’s natural state at this time as well.) This elemental and romantic nature-based concept remains powerful — think of Henry David Thoreau’s back-to-nature shack on Walden Pond or the evolution of the camping tent  — especially among architects and designers and almost

anyone looking for rest or relaxation, as this wonderful recent example designed and built by Alan Brown on the Big Island of Hawaii — out of mostly recycled materials — shows. Note to Thoreau: Why build in the cold-climate east when you can enjoy balmy evenings with scents of  plumeria and ginger on the slopes of Mauna Kea?! (Photo courtesy Alan Brown)

Moscow architects Kerimov Prishin designed their Arbor 15 project as a

performance platform containing a dining area, fireplace, and sink. Panels in the slatted front unfold to reveal that everything is on stage. Curtains at the sides

reinforce the idea that the act of dining is itself a theatrical event — which seems

very logical when you think that conversation in the dining room is the subject of so many plays and film scripts (photos courtesy the architects via designboom). It’s the outdoor dining room as dacha…Chekov, anyone?

Perhaps the most extreme form of the porch as primitive hut is a unit at the famous Swedish Treehotel (another room was mentioned in an earlier post) in

the shape of a giant nest, as shown here — or is it a condorminium…(image courtesy Treehotel).

Though most porches are attached to houses, it’s also true that many rooms can grow up to become porches; it just takes a little education and the addition of a

folding window wall or two. Which is what happens in the kitchen of Plan 48-46,

shown here. The breakfast area opens up to turn the entire space into a dining porch. Trees and triangles have come a long way since Vitruvius.

Andrew Blum’s New Book Digs Up the Internet

The Cloud is Underground (and at the Bottom of the Ocean)

Here’s an important new book for anyone who surfs the Web: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (Harper Collins, 2012) by

geographer/journalist Andrew Blum. It’s important because Andrew describes in fascinating detail the physical, earthbound structure of the Net, reminding us that though “the Cloud” may comprise the pulses of light produced by powerful lasers, the ganglion of fiber-optic cables carrying that light are crowded together in predominantly unmarked buildings, rooms, and vaults all around us, and in the ocean too. It is a “tangled web,” to be sure, with elements of secrecy, but Andrew deftly unravels the key developments, from the first non-academic hub known as MAE-East (Metropolitan Area Exchange) in Tysons Corner, Virginia near Washington, D. C. to Facebook’s huge new data center in Prineville, Oregon.

I had breakfast with Andrew recently and he told me that a high point of his journey was seeing the cables inside Fiber Vault 1 on the Equinix campus in Ashburn, Virginia. In the book he writes that this was among the biggest places “where Internet networks connect… the nexus of nexus. Hot and still. I could smell it: it smelled like dirt.” But then he realized there were many such vaults — that the Internet was there and everywhere.

He toured the London Internet Exchange where a refrigerator-sized machine with blinking lights carried 300 gigabits of data per second (300 billion!); followed a fiber-optic cable-laying crew under the streets of Manhattan; and visited places where undersea fiber-optic cables come ashore, as at Porthcurno on England’s Cornwall coast.

The book explains a complex world that is hidden in plain sight — a true parallel universe. Indeed, reading Andrew’s book is like dipping into a somewhat more technical Harry Potter sequel where you find yourself on a real Diagon Alley face to face with a Fiber Mux Magnum Machine (it changes signals for a router). Pressing “Enter” will never be the same.

An article adapted from Andrew’s book appears in Fortune, with the

addition of these fascinating maps charting the Internet highways across the globe. The one below shows average Internet speeds and an important hub like the exchange building at 60 Hudson Street in Manhattan (images by

Nicolas Rapp; Data Geotel Communications, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, courtesy Fortune magazine).

Francois Levy and BIM

Talk of data centers and server farms makes me think of architect Francois Levy’s cool Barn Plan 450-2, which he describes  as “an efficient modern

agrarian home.” It’s suitable for a vacation or weekend house, or as a secondary structure. Barn doors on two sides of the kitchen-living area make it possible to

turn this space into an outdoor room in good weather. There’s a loft above the bedroom. The plan is part of the Signature Studio Collection. Francois Levy teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and his new book BIM in Small-Scale Sustainable Design (Wiley 2012) explains how to use digital models

for the design and documentation of houses and other buildings. BIM stands for building information modeling — with tools like ArchiCAD. Using case studies, he explains how these tools make it easier to produce sustainable architecture. These may be the machines that designed the vaults that hold the cables that hold the Internet — sounds like we’re playing that memory game about packing grandmother’s trunk.

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!