Category Archives: Courtyard Plans

Window Walls and Rooms-Within-Rooms

Every Solid Loves a Void — and Space is a Wrap

Let’s explore two strong architectural ideas — the window wall and the room-within-a-room — and how they can enhance house design. Both have long histories. In one sense the glass wall goes all the way back to the tall banks of windows at the Tudor estate known as Hardwick Hall in England, built by Bess

of Hardwick in the late 1500s, shown here (photo courtesy Anglotopia.net). At that time glass was an important emblem of power and wealth because it was so rare — thus it was a fitting material for the richest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I. You didn’t mess with Bess. A more recent example is the glass

living room wall to the right of the tree courtyard, at the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau designed by Le Corbusier and built as a demonstration house or “machine for living” for the Paris Exposition of 1925 (photo courtesy 4rts.wordpress.com). As we have seen in previous posts, the window wall became a signature feature of Modernism, especially in mid-twentieth century works like Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth house and Philip Johnson’s Glass

House. Our Plan 520-4, by Irish architect Frank McGahon, shown here with its flanking window walls, is a recent version. The great appeal of the window wall is to unite inside and outside while framing both. The trick is to beware of exposures — even insulated glass can transmit heat and cold.

The room-within-a-room idea is vividly illustrated by a piece of furniture, also from England of centuries ago: the Great Bed of Ware, ca. 1580, with its large

post and beam frame and heavy curtains closing it off for privacy and warmth (photo courtesy Wikipedia).

Thomas Jefferson’s bed alcove at Monticello, shown above, is a sort of built-in version, minus the curtains (photo courtesy Colonial Williamsburg). Architect Charles Moore was fascinated with this idea and referred to it as an aedicula, which is Latin for a small shrine. (The most famous example of an aedicula

is the baldacchino with twisting columns over the altar at St. Peter’s in Rome, by Bernini, photo courtesy Saintpetersbasilica.org.) Moore used a much simplified version of it in his own house at Orinda from the early 1960s, where the larger

living and smaller bathing spaces are defined by columns and skylights, like separate domestic temples clustered under one roof (image courtesy Eleanor Weinel’s Arch4443). Moore’s design partner, William Turnbull, used an even more spare — and more Jeffersonian — version in his Sea Ranch cottage of the early 1980s, which is our historical Plan 447-1, where the bed is an alcove

in the corner. A flexible contemporary take on this idea is “The Cube” designed by architect Toshi Kasa of Spaceflavor for Feng Shui expert Liu Ming in his live/work loft in Oakland, California (photo by Joe Fletcher via The New York

 Times). The 8 foot-square cube-on-wheels is a bedroom on one side and an office on the other, allowing Mr. Ming to use the rest of his loft for his classes. I trust the brakes are on in case there’s an earthquake.

An outdoor room within a garden is yet another way to go, as architect Ross

Anderson shows in our Plan 433-2, above. See the outdoor fireplace opposite the built-in bench forming a small living area at the edge of the courtyard in this partial view.

But where might the window wall and the room-in-a-room work together? How about Hojo House by Akira Yoneda of Architecton in Japan. The glass house is

behind an elegant scrim of steel tubes, creating a modified screen porch that distracts from the very tight infill site (thoughts of cages inevitably spring to mind; photo courtesy infoteli.com). But I think today’s most famous example of the two ideas working together might be the marvelous glass cube entrance to the Apple store

on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where the novelty of a structure that is there-and-not-there makes you see everything around it — like the Plaza Hotel across the street — more clearly. The simple contrast between solid and void is visually refreshing and builds a larger whole. Designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple’s magic container makes you realize it is a room within the much larger room that is the terrace on which it sits, the street, and the edge of Central Park itself. Some ideas just expand!

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.


Retro Modern Showhouse in Orlando

Water Tables, Flame Throwers, and Other Novelties

Splash and Sizzle seemed to be the watchwords of the latest show house sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders and Builder magazine. Designed to be a “reinterpretation of the classic white box of the 1960s and ’70s,” this so-called “New American Home” (the program, now in its 29th year, is a design and new product showcase for manufacturers) occupies an infill lot in Winter Park, just north of Orlando, Florida. I toured it earlier this week while I attended the International Builders Convention in Orlando.  The modern two story, 4,183 square-foot home wraps around three sides of a square

pool flanked by decks, effectively turning the water — and outdoor living — into  glamorous sculptural features. The pool sharply edges the lanai, shown above, which means you better not have that second martini unless you fancy a dip. Probably not a space for toddlers, either, come to think of it. Electrically controlled screens by Phantom Screens glide down from the ceiling (where they are hidden) to keep

insects away. (Photos above courtesy James F. Wilson.) There’s no denying the resort-style theatricality: in one corner of the deck there’s a riff — or is it a ripple — on the Renaissance idea of the “water

table” — though here the water runs under a glass top to form a cascade at one end. It looks wildly impractical  and is pretty noisy but would be a great spot to sip a margarita on a hot and humid summer day. Or is this where you check in! Fire is the other element that gets a lot of play, from the stainless steel “Bellagio

Patio Torch” by Napoleon Fireplaces on the deck, to the glass flame cube placed on the outdoor kitchen counter. Australian fireplace manufacturer Eco Smart is especially

inventive — their other designs beside the Mini T, above, include the Cyl,

the Bulb,

and Styx. All of the Eco Smart products use bio-fuel.

The house is clearly designed for a very specific client in mind — an art lover who enjoys taking advantage of the balmy Florida climate. The plan shows how

everything opens to the outdoors; in fact the front entry is actually into the lanai, which seems appropriate in Orlando. The restricted palette of white stone,

white solid surface, glass, and chocolate brown cabinetry (as here in the kitchen) is too slick and boardroom/penthouse for my taste, but it was fun to explore. I

think my favorite spot is the upstairs lounge with its deck and partial street view, shown above. (Two previous photos courtesy James F. Wilson.) I was encouraged to see a modern design approach instead of yet another reworking of a Mediterranean style. And anyway, the house showed off the products very well, which is what it was designed to do. The house was designed and built by Phil Kean, LLC/Phil Kean Designs.


Holiday Bookshelf: On Kitchens, Salvage, Edward Durell Stone

Supporting Ideas

Before I recommend some home design-related books for your last-minute gift list, let’s consider the bookshelf that will hold those new tomes. Thanks to a cool website called The Design Vote, I came across a poetic version: two artworks by Mike & Maike (produced and sold by an innovative design company called Blankblank) that comment on the influence of words and ideas. Each is a cluster of books on a single theme notched into a shelf that’s a piece of reclaimed hardwood.  One, called “Juxtaposition: Religion” holds religious tracts, including the Bible, Qur’an, and Tao Te Ching (according to the company the art piece is one of twelve things Gwyneth Paltrow can’t live without).

The other,  “Juxtaposition: Power” holds political treatises, from Plato’s

Republic to The Communist Manifesto. By bringing such volumes together and scribing slots for them into the wood so that they all sit at the same level, the artist makes us think about the influence of each book, their competition with each other, and how juxtaposition is important in stimulating curiosity and the imagination itself. The fact that each book has its specific (literal?) slot is also suggestive –

things can get messy — and interesting — when ideas move off the page (out of the slots we invent for them) and into the world at large (a land of many suppositions and juxtapositions).

On a somewhat more practical level, what’s a good shelf that’s flexible enough for changing needs and expanding collections? We used the infinitely adjustable Rakks system of extruded aluminum shelf supports (photo courtesy Rakks),

in the laundry and closets of our Online Ranch House, Plan 508-1 (detail below). The brackets notch into the vertical strips at any point so shelves can be placed

at whatever level you wish. We’ll be using the same system in our Online Country House, Plan 508-2, which is now under construction.

Three New Design Books

Counter Space, by Juliet Kinchin with Aidan O’Connor, accompanied the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition on design and the modern kitchen – shown below – and offers a fascinating look at how

architects, product designers, and artists re-imagined the kitchen in the 20th century. For some, such as Viennese architect Grete Schutte-Lohotzky,

it was a kind of laboratory where efficiency, cleanliness, and storage became standard elements. The photo shows the MOMA exhibition replica of her 1926-27 “Frankfurt Kitchen” for affordable public housing. MOMA started collecting stylish kitchen implements in the mid 1930s. Ideas for “Kitchens of Tomorrow” proliferated during World War II. Tupperware appeared in 1958. Television writers and film directors used the kitchen to communicate harmony or chaos. In short, it’s a huge subject – this book just scratches the surface – or should I say, scrubs the sink.

Salvage is always of interest but especially during a difficult economy, so I was drawn to Salvage Secrets by Joanne Palmisano (W. W. Norton & Co.),

which offers a wealth of ideas for using old objects and materials in new ways. She includes a helpful lexicon — for example, recycled refers to items made from salvaged materials whose basic structure has been changed and repurposed means  items reused in a different area of the home or used in a different way — like the antique swing doors adapted as sliders, shown below.

Chapters are on wood, glass, metal, stone/concrete/brick/ceramics, lighting, where to find salvage outlets (a countrywide listing is included), and design concepts. The book shows the wide range of salvageable material available and what to do with it.

Edward Durell Stone was one of the most influential yet least appreciated modern architects. His work was uneven but fascinating. The excellent and exhaustive new biography by his son, architect Hicks Stone (Rizzoli, publisher)

lucidly describes the man, his work, and his contradictions. An abstract modernist, he was strongly influenced by pattern and texture. He developed a form of ornamental grillwork — beginning during his participation in the design of Radio City Music Hall during the 1930s — that culminated in his famous American Embassy in New Delhi,

completed in 1959 (image above courtesy David Cobb Craig blog; below, courtesy Goat Hill Resorts).

Hicks writes that here “Stone had essentially taken a glass building and wrapped it with ornamental screen block.” The interior courtyard is an elegant water garden, expressing — with the screens — not just connections to Indian landmarks like the Taj Mahal, but also to Stone’s lifelong interest in unifying indoor and outdoor space (photo below courtesy Bustler.net).

Stone later used similar concrete block grills on other commissions and then other architects and designers copied the idea and it became a cliché-victim of its own success. (I remember wondering about such screens on dental offices and shopping malls as a boy.) Stone rose from poverty to become one of the country’s most successful architects who counted Eero Saarinen, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and other visionaries among his friends. He also designed some of the earliest dramatically modern American residences,

like the Mandel house at Mt. Kisco, New York, of 1935, with its iconic curving

glass block dining room (photos courtesy Arch News Now). And yet he had a lifelong drinking problem that no doubt lead to his multiple marriages, poorly managed office, and work that occasionally verged on the simplistic and banal. The story brings an important but largely forgotten architect, and architectural culture, back to life. It turns out Stone isn’t easy to pigeonhole — or slip into a notch on a book shelf.

Iconic House Design plus New Kirei Wood Paneling

Start With Simple

Let’s talk about how using an iconic shape can help you conceptualize the modern design of your new home — architects start here all the time. Take the simplest architectural outline, such as four walls topped with a gable roof, as shown in this archetypal Scottish stone barn.


(Image courtesy gairloch.org) What can you do with it? How can you pack it, expand it, open it, raise it, give it a sense of history or modernity? Here’s a sampling of houses that all began with a similar profile,

starting with architect Rick Joy‘s design for a barn-inspired house in Vermont.

(Images courtesy Architectural Record.) Inside you can see how the shape is simply hollowed out for the main living space, with minimal but strong posts and rafters providing support. The design feels modern and historical at the same time. One side opens to a terrace while other has high windows for balanced light. Architects William Turnbull and Mary Griffin began with the long barn idea and then

divided it into two spaces (kitchen/living area and a bedroom/bathroom) separated by a breezeway-dining room, creating a contemporary dogtrot cabin (itself an historical house type) for the wine country.The outdoor dining room can be closed off from the prevailing wind with a sliding barn door  (which is in the open position, in kitchen on drawing).

The house is the width of a vine row (drawing and photo courtesy TGH Architects). Architect Stephen Atkinson took a similar tack with corrugated aluminum siding

and pulled the fireplace away to mark the edge of the deck in his Zachary vacation house.

(Images courtesy Studio Atkinson.) His plan is also a dogtrot but includes a galley kitchen that parallels the long axis; the breezeway stretches beyond the house to include the fireplace and deck. Australian architect Glenn Murcutt has often explored the use of simple house forms and distilled them to an essence,

as in the elegant curve of the gable on his Marie Short house (images courtesy Architectural Record), which also seems to be channeling a fluid line from Alvar Aalto. In this case the walls are really a series of operable layers that filter light, air, and view. So the iconic form creates a structure that allows for change depending on needs and circumstances. The two story gable is equally iconic, especially in the Rudin

house, made of concrete by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron (image courtesy Apartment Therapy), which in turn has influenced designs by others,

like this memorable little shelter by Ultra Architects of Poland (image courtesy Mocoloco).

The most famous riff on such shapes is probably Robert Venturi’s design for his mother’s house from 1964 in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.

Venturi used the gable as the centering device for the facade and then broke it to bring in high light and shape the entrance (image from The American House, courtesy curatedmag.com). This house became an icon in its own right as a herald of “Post Modernism.”

Archetypal house forms are also at the heart of designs by architects in our Exclusive Studio, such as Bud Dietrich’s wide gable that encompasses

greenhouse windows and a garage, Plan 481-1; Ross Anderson’s Plan 433-1

for a coastal getaway, with saddlebag-like attachments like the rustic staircases and the screen porch; Braxton Werner and Paul Field

and their version of a long barn house, Plan 491-10; Gregory La Vardera’s Plan 431-14

even recalls the Herzon & de Meuron example in its cubist quality, only in shingles this time, not concrete,  and Frank McGahon’s Plan 520-7,

which combines a series of long gables into a courtyard layout. And we’re back to the stone barn — not from Scotland now but from Ireland!


Recycled Wood News

Kirei is a sustainable wood manufacturer known for handsome bamboo, wheatboard, and Kirei board products (the latter is made of reclaimed sorgum straw) and has just launched the new Windfall line of paneling.

It uses reclaimed wood from deconstructed buildings in the Pacific Northwest to create engineered wood panels for wall coverings and casework (image from Kirei). Solid panels come in Clear, Ivory, Anthracite, and Mocha finishes; 3-ply panels come in Clear finish. Solid and 3 ply panels also come in an end-grain style.




Frank McGahon, Irish Modern Architect

Compound Interest

One of the great pleasures of my job is meeting and working with talented architects from around the world who are interested in making high quality home design available to everyone. And so I am especially excited to present house plans by Irish architect Frank McGahon, the newest member of our Signature Studio.

His work is both regionally expressive in the use of traditional  features like stone walls and courtyard compounds, and very contemporary in the manipulation of open plans and strong indoor-outdoor connections, as you can see in a view of the living room window wall opening to the patio in Plan 520-6, above. Here’s a another view.

Each of the three key functional spaces — kitchen/dining area, living room/entry, bedroom wing —  is expressed as an independent gable.

One wing angles slightly away from the next to frame different views and allow a measure of privacy for each. The wide entrance hall binds them while bending them into a curve, like a bow-string pulled taut. Open the front door and you are effectively releasing the arrow and launching your gaze into the vistas ahead. Ingenious!

Frank (here he is) knows something about tradition. He has followed his great grandfather, grandfather, and father into practicing architecture in the town of Dundalk, equidistant between Dublin and Belfast. After graduating from the School of Architecture, University College Dublin in 1989 he worked in London and Dublin before returning to work for his father in Dundalk in 1992, eventually taking over the practice and establishing McGahon Architects in 2001. But he’s also a modernist as you can tell by the elegant abstraction of Plan 520-4, below.


 It’s an elemental nature-viewing pavilion; the ultimate getaway.

See how the living/dining area and master bedroom flank the flame-red kitchen/storage/plumbing core. It’s a modernist reduction to essentials and draws inspiration from great twentieth century architectural icons like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and more recently the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura (winner of the 2011 Pritzker Prize) such as his house in Cascais, Portugal, shown below.

(This image courtesy the Pritzker Prize website.) I like how Souto de Moura’s house and pool are essentially “the same only different:” one a rectangular solid, suspended; the other a rectangular liquid, grounded. The firm of Shift architecture urbanism in Rotterdam has designed a faculty club for Tilburg University that uses the same shape but with different solids and voids, as shown below.

(image courtesy Dezeen Design Magazine). Indeed, there’s a fine essay waiting to be written about how modern architects have adapted the simple flat box in a thousand different ways, proving yet again that limitation breeds invention…

But Frank McGahon has additional arrows in his architectural quiver. One that’s particularly compelling is his use of courtyards and patios to make the house and lot extensions of each other while forming a compound, as he does in Plan 520-9, below.

The entire lot is divided into a series of rooms, some roofed and some not, with a home office in a separate structure at one end. In effect, the house is surrounded by courtyards. In Plan 520-7, it’s the other way around.

Here the courtyard is at the center and the house is a square doughnut in plan — like an atrium house in Pompeii. Again a major space like the kitchen/dining area connects to the outdoors in a dramatic way,

in this case via one of Frank McGahon’s signature glass gables. Compounds aren’t the only way to go however. His L-shaped house in Blackrock, Plan 520-8, is really an L-inside a rectangle.

Conceptually, then, whether surrounded by outdoor rooms or surrounding them, house = lot. This is the architectural imagination at work. Welcome to the neighborhood, Frank!