Category Archives: Design ideas

Storage Ideas and the Urge to Purge

Container Zen

It may be a cliché but the new year makes me feel – if only for a moment – a new determination to simplify. Take books for example: what I really should do is edit down my library to whatever fits one bookcase, like this clever “reading ring”

sculpture by Danish architect David Garcia, founder of MAP Architects. According to the artist  the work, titled Archive II, “is a circular library for the  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.

 

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.

Pitching Perfection in Baseball, Homes, and Gardens

Matt Cain, the Villa Rotunda, and a Perfect Barbecue Garden

I learned a new definition of perfection the other night when I witnessed the San Francisco Giants’ Matt Cain pitch a “perfect game” against the Houston Astros: 27 batters up; 27 batters down — the first such milestone in the 129-year

history of the Giants franchise. The sell-out crowd — and the water cannons (at right in photo) — erupted. And naturally this made me think about the nature of perfection in other fields of dreams. In his wonderful book The Perfect House, architectural historian Witold Rybczynski explores the concept as it applies to the Italian villas by Renaissance luminary Andrea Palladio. Take the Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, for example, with its four identical temple fronts,

central cross-axis, and dome (photo courtesy The Culture Concept). It’s an exemplar of perfection, at least according to the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, quoted by Rybczynski: “…in perfect buildings the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme.” The simple

geometric clarity of the plan (image courtesy Wikipedia) — as well as the way each temple front frames a different vista across the landscape — creates an impression of wholeness within the hilltop setting. It’s hard to see how anything can be added or subtracted; i. e. the equivalent of 27 up and 27 down!

Geometric order often contributes to an idea of perfection, as in “perfect circle,”

illustrated here by Plan 64-165 (though it’s actually a hexadecagon), or

“perfect rectangle” as illustrated by Plan 491-10.

Perfection also depends on context — does it fit the site, the culture, the needs, the dreams? And though I subscribe to the Vitruvian principles of function, strength, and beauty (aka commodity, firmness, and delight), perfection for me often combines usefulness and practicality with artfulness and surprise. An example is this small rear garden by landscape architect Robert Sabbatini, FASLA. It’s multifunctional, with a dining patio, built-in barbecue, espaliered

pears and rows of lettuce, peas, and herbs. The deck, steps, and tapered path into the vegetable garden all revolve around a marvelous central stone cairn — a cone-shaped barbecue. It’s a well-head that cleverly functions as its opposite:

a fire pit. Robert bought the crank-up grill from an ironmonger and designed the fire pit around it.  I admire this garden’s multiple roles, elegant lines, and innovative practicality. And I like that it’s also a little rough around the edges because, as the late landscape architect Thomas Church once said: “Don’t fret if your garden is never quite perfect. Absolute perfection, like complete consistency, can be dull.” I think almost perfect is true perfection because you can actually live with it. So what’s your idea of the perfect home? Maybe it’s somewhere between the Villa Rotunda and Giardino Sabbatini. It turns out there are many ways to pitch perfection — and by the way, grilled prosciutto-wrapped shrimp is delicious!

Ideas of Home at UCSD and MOMA

Foreclosing on the Familiar

“Fallen Star,”  by the Korean born artist Do Ho Suh, is the newest sculpture installation at the Stuart Collection on the campus of the University of California at San Diego and debuted this week with more than a thousand visitors on opening day. It’s a small gabled cottage that has somehow crashed into the

roof of a seven story engineering building and now teeters over the edge… perhaps the Wizard of Oz was aiming for an advanced degree. It’s definitely a mortarboard mash-up. According to Mary Beebe, the collection director, “It was his idea and we produced it.” From the rooftop the house appears only a little off

kilter, but then as you peer over the railing you see that only engineering — i. e. the cantilever — is holding it up. It may be an art piece but it’s also a strong advertisement for structural daring. (“Go forth ye graduates, and engineer!”) The work explores Suh’s “on-going exploration of themes around the idea of home, cultural displacement, the perception of our surroundings, and how one constructs a memory of a space.” When he arrived in the U.S. from Seoul, Korea in 1991 to study, Suh understandably felt un-moored, which “led him to measure spaces in order to establish relationships with his new surroundings. He had to physically and mentally readjust.” The permanent installation is clever in the way it literally and figuratively readjusts — indeed, upends — the romantic notion of home, acknowledging that in today’s reality it remains both fixed and floating — or fleeting — for many.

In my mind this work is really a last minute West Coast entry in the current exhibition “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which I saw last month. The purpose of the show, organized by MOMA architecture curator Barry Bergdoll and which runs through August 13, is to explore new architectural possibilities for cities and suburbs in the aftermath of the recent foreclosure crisis. Five teams of architects, planners, ecologists, engineers, and landscape designers were asked to produce proposals for housing in five different suburban communities, from Temple Terrace, Florida to Rialto, California. The result is a series of essentially utopian schemes. I was most drawn to the solution called Nature City, for Keizer, Oregon by WORKac, a design firm in Manhattan. Inspired by the Garden City concept

espoused by influential late 19th century British urbanist Ebenezer Howard, (detail of part of a garden city plan shown above, courtesy Our Letchworth), they proposed developing a 225 acre parcel (already slated for big box stores and the like) in a way that is  “five times denser than the adjacent suburban blocks but

has three times the amount of public open space, including a 158-acre nature preserve.” The idea is to create a symbiotic relationship between structure and site with a wide variety of housing types, from attached town homes to towers to

courtyard houses and long blocks like this “Cavern Building” with huge park-like pass-throughs and lake-like pools; the latter, glass-walled and three stories deep, is especially ambitious! (Model image courtesy MOMA). The most arresting

feature is a series of parks and pools that spiral around a great dome (shown above) that collects methane from a mound of solid waste and produces compost, while waste heat warms public pools at the rooftop. It’s an architectural circle of life — a rose is a rose is a Compost Hill. The show’s other four schemes offered equally suggestive architectural solutions for new construction (one, by Studio Gang, even inserted new housing into the shell of a derelict factory) but none addressed how to deal with existing neighborhoods where foreclosures are rampant — the house on the brink, as it were, to steal Suh’s metaphor. In the end that is the harder question.

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!