Category Archives: house museums

Mies, Modernism, and the Accent Wall

Brno: Above and Beyond

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 in March 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.


Fireplace Focal Points and House Plans

Architectural Warmth

Here are some images of fireplaces to help you take a breather — or just plain zone out — during the holiday shopping rush. The flames, not to mention the surround, can be mesmerizing.  The Pasadena architects Greene and Greene designed one of the most famous fireplaces  for their Gamble house of 1908.

It’s an inglenook in the living room — rather like a very elegant compartment on a train that just happens to have a large fireplace between the bench seats where the window would be (photo courtesy The Gamble House). Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for his fireplaces and an almost ritualistic attitude toward the hearth as the very center and soul of a home.

At Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, of 1937,  he created an organic inglenook from boulders on site (photo courtesy About.com). In the late 1940s, ranch house popularizer Cliff May took the fireplace

outside and added a rotisserie/barbecue. The architectural possibilities are vast and have grown substantially with today’s prefab gas units, like these examples from Ortal Heating Solutions. One can extend across an entire wall

or become a minimalist room divider

that doubles as a display space for artifacts. A frameless glass front can turn the

corner in a minimalist modern way (these three photos courtesy Ortal).

So how do the architects and designers at Houseplans.com treat the fireplace? For Sarah Susanka in Plan 454-6, the fireplace becomes part of a multifunctional wall

with space for storage and display as well as a flat screen television. In Plan 491-7 Braxton

Werner and Paul Field treat it more abstractly as part of a stone wall. Lorenzo Spano echoes Cliff May by going outside with it in Plan 473-3,

only now making it a freestanding piece of sculpture. There are many ways to spark your architectural imagination.

Garden Spas and Tower Houses

Bubbles and Bromeliads

Summer’s end prompts one last grasp for outdoor recreation, say for this seductive, round stainless steel spa deftly set into a boulder-strewn backyard slope.

Thanks to the simple clarity of the design — a smoothly turned curve set into upper and lower decks that stair-step down the hill — it becomes an integral part of the landscape (unlike so many prefabricated spas that resemble huge plastic tub toys full of bubbling hot water). Rectangular versions can also become focal points instead of eyesores.
This one edges a patio close to the house and doubles as a garden seat.

Here the clear green-blue water stands out against the burnished steel of the spa and the red-brown of the wood deck, to make a serene reflecting pool when not in use (examples and photos courtesy Diamond Spas). Though custom-designed, these modern spas are less expensive than adding a pool, fit smaller spaces, and allow for year-round use. 

Rapunzel was a Ranger — and More

Small towers — with a room at the top for reading, sleeping, or just looking out – have been seductive since well before Rapunzel was asked to let down her hair. There’s just something very appealing about having your own retreat at least one story up with a commanding view across the landscape — especially to architects. Of course it helps to have a way in and out that doesn’t involve a lot of “product.” Montana architect Jeff Shelden of Prairie Wind Architecture designed a tower as a weekend getaway, and patterned it after fire lookouts in national forests, complete with a walk-around balcony.

I visited it with Jeff  during the winter a number of years ago and I was entranced. It has everything: the lower floor is a country kitchen

complete with an old-fashioned range, and a dining nook. Upstairs is the living

area and the wrap-around balcony sheltered by the pyramid roof.

San Francisco Architect Lewis Butler (Butler/Armsden Architects) has designed a getaway for his parents in California’s Central Valley that harks back to 19th and early 20th century water towers, as well as early  work by William Wurster.

A lookout is where the water tank would have been.

The view across fertile fields is majestic: “Good Morning, Yolo County!”

Much of the interior of the tower is occupied by the soaring master bedroom (a circular stair in one corner winds up to the lookout). The kitchen/living space is in the shed roofed section at the base.

An equally seductive tower house by Andersson-Wise Architects overlooks Lake Travis near Austin, Texas. 

Each of the lower two floors has a bedroom with a dramatic corner window. At the top is a kitchenette and dining terrace where I think every meal must

begin with a toast to Lake Travis (images courtesy Andersson Wise Architects). Arthur Andersson was a design partner of the late Charles Moore, who was one of the architects of Sea Ranch and other modern regionally evocative designs and founder of distinguished firms across the country. Moore’s Quarry Road House,  also in Austin, is a magic cabinet of design ideas in its own right and can be visited by appointment.

At Houseplans.com we have several tower plans, including Plan 64-202,

which includes two bedrooms on the ground floor, kitchen-dining in the middle, and living room at the top. Tower Studio Plan 479-6, by Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso, mentioned previously, is shown here included in a larger house.


Using a small tower element to define some aspect of a larger house or compound is a clever idea. It can help define an entry or organize a composition. I have even seen a very elegant modern house that included two towers diagonally opposite each other, designed for an artist and an architect — a sort of Romeo and Juliet approach but with a happy ending. Maybe Rapunzel can find a compatible Prince architect someday.


Conversation Pits and Refugee Home Design

Modernism With Individuality

A recent Wall Street Journal story by Julie Iovine, executive editor of The Architect’s Paper, perceptively describes the mid-century modern J. Irwin  and Xenia Miller residence in Columbus, Indiana, which is now open to the public (photo courtesy Wall Street Journal). Built in 1953 for the chairman of Cummins Engine and his wife —  who put their town near Indianapolis on the map by paying the design fees for every new public building as long as nationally recognized architects were hired to design it — this remarkable house is both abstract and highly personal. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, architect of the St. Louis Arch and Dulles Airport; influential modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley did the garden. Organized on a grid with a flat roof that almost floats, with walls of marble and glass that draw the eye into a similarly abstract landscape, the house has anumber of surprises, including a splendid conversation pit, shown here, with colorful patterned fabric and pillows by industrial designer and folk art collector Alexander Girard. (The International Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico devotes an entire wing to the extraordinary collections Girard amassed, which became the inspiration for his own designs.) That sunken square sitting area is a classic example of functionalist thinking: both open and constrained at the same time. According to Iovine it was often used for slumber parties.Nearby in the same wide open space is the cylinder-shaped fireplace suspended from the ceiling (you can also make it out at the rear of the previous photograph, though because it’s white like the surroundings, it almost disappears). A long storage and display wall and ribbon skylights are the other key elements animating this space. What a classic and marvelous example of Modernist
design thinking: Saarinen has reduced architecture to the manipulation of form and function. He used structural geometry — the square, circle, and straight line — instead of conventional furniture and walls to define each functional area within a larger space (three interior photos courtesy Indianapolis Museum of Art). Without these finely worked materials and vivid accents such an abstract approach could result in a cold, anonymous, corporate lobby-like design — but here it has immense personality and power. Contact the Indianapolis Museum of Art/Miller House for tours.

Stanford Students Design For Haiti

Architecture has many roles: inventing inspirational one-of-a-kind custom homes is one; solving urgent housing needs for refugee populations is another. I was privileged to watch architecture, engineering, and product design students addressing the latter problem recently when I served on a design jury for a class at Stanford University taught by architect Charles Debbas and engineering lecturer Glenn Katz. The assignment was to develop housing prototypes for Haiti earthquake refugees that would be climate appropriate, economically feasible, well engineered, sustainable, and require no skilled labor to build. A monumental task! During the term experts gave informational talks. Kate Stohr from Architecture for Humanity (one of their projects is shown above) spoke about reconstruction efforts for refugees and dealing with corruption and political obstacles. Kristel Younes from Refugees International described human conditions in refugee camps throughout the world, infrastructure of camps, safety, sanitation. Monica Underwood from America USAid Projustice discussed rebuilding the legal system from scratch when all records, birth certificates and criminal records are lost.

I think the students’ resulting projects are highly imaginative — and very inspirational, too. Many teams used easy-to-grow and harvest timber bamboo as  the key building material. One combined the bamboo with gabion baskets containing decontaminated rubble from the ruins (top, right above) for the walls.Another devised a clever cruciform plan (see upper left on the board above) to ensure cross ventilation and private outdoor space. Another studied regional building traditions and adapted them (left, above) to contemporary needs. Each team combined a wide variety of disciplines to come up with feasible real-world solutions. I was impressed by the esprit de corps and ingenuity demonstrated by each project and I toast all six teams. They are already helping to make a brighter future — and the conversation has just begun. Bravo!

Historic Modern Houses to Tour, Garage Storage

The Architect’s Imagination

I recently attended a private benefit for U. C. Berkeley’s  Environmental Design Archives at an extraordinary Mid-Century Modern house. Designed by architect Ernest Born for himself and his wife Esther in 1951, the simple board and batten exterior (shown at left, photo by Morley Baer, courtesy EDA) literally draws a redwood curtain across the front of the house. See how the top rail reaches across the driveway to complete the geometric composition — like a curtain rack itself. The house is in a windy location near the ocean so the wall functions as a wind break as well as privacy fence. But what a surprise inside! You pass a galley kitchen under a balcony (that’s part upstairs hall, part study) and enter a sensational loft-like two story living room overlooking an expansive rear garden — this view is from the balcony. The monumental two-story square window wall functions as a gigantic lens for looking out and looking in and effectively doubles the size of the indoor world. The fireplace is treated as a geometric sculpture –  — the brick firebox resting on a cantilevered hearth and fronted with vertical wood strips below the cylindrical chimney. It’s clear that Born was influenced by Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City of 1948 with its iconic square window, mentioned in earlier posts, but there’s also a strong resemblance to the loft-like living room of the Charles and Ray Eames house near Santa Monica of 1949, shown at left  — though in the Eames house the window wall is treated as a more complex grid, steel ceiling ribs extend outside to form a canopy, and a wall of books extends along one side (image courtesy Gabriel Ross Blog, which covers modern furniture, lighting, and home accessories). Experiencing the Born house – which also has a beautiful and deftly composed contemporary addition by Aidlin Darling Design — see the three-story addition on the left in the photo above (by Dwight Eshliman, courtesy the architects) — made me look for significant modern houses that you can tour by appointment. Spring is the best time to explore — here are my current top five (not including the Eames house and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, discussed in previous posts).

Los Angeles, California. The Schindler House (part of the MAK Center) by Rudolph Schindler of 1921 is really two living units and was built for Schindler and his wife, and his engineer colleague Clyde Chase and his wife. The tilt-slab  concrete-and-glass construction was both forward-thinking and historically minded, with outdoor fireplaces and roof decks. The entry fee includes a visit to the Fitzpatrick-Leland house of 1936 also designed by Schindler (however, only on the first Friday of every month — photo courtesy MAK Center).

Dearborn, Michigan. Futurist-engineer R. Buckminster Fuller’s famous round steel Dymaxion House of 1947 (though initially conceived in the late 1920s) is one of the exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum. The name was invented by a publicist who followed Bucky Fuller around and eventually combined parts of words that he seemed to use a lot as he was speaking about his inventions: “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension.” The shiny metal structure — a sort of cross between a spaceship and a souffle — was meant to be a prototype for efficient modern living, though only one was built. Two prefab bathroom units and a kitchen pod are at the center, ringed by living areas and the two bedrooms.

Norman, Oklahoma. An organic original. The Bavinger House of 1950 by the brilliant and eccentric Bruce Goff, who studied for a short time with Frank Lloyd Wright and developed new versions of the quonset hut during World War II, is one of the most unusual modern houses in the U. S. In concept it’s a spiraling stairway under what feels like a tall tent. A series of living and sleeping platforms are suspended on cables along the stair like giant candy dishes. The modernity is in the openness of the interior, the free-form structural conception, and the novel use of materials. Tours — usually led by family members — are by appointment with the Bavinger House Conservancy.

Plano, Illinois. The levitating, mirage-like, glass and white steel Farnsworth House, by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, takes modernity to an extreme. As Marc Myers wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal piece: it’s “part fishbowl, part tree house, and part transparent time capsule.” It was built for doctor Edith Farnsworth as a country retreat; only the bathrooms are enclosed. Now through July 31 you also get to tour the Lumenhaus Solar Decathlon winner, temporarily installed nearby on the same property.

New Canaan, Connecticut. Architect Philip Johnson’s justly famous Glass House of 1949 was heavily influenced by the Farnsworth house, but here, instead of floating over the landscape the structure is firmly grounded in it — in fact becoming an artful rearrangement of it. Again, only the bathroom (the cylinder) is enclosed. Johnson told the story of a visit by Frank Lloyd Wright: Philip met Frank at the front door. “Well, Philip” said Frank. “Am I inside or am I outside? Do I keep my hat on or do I take if off?” Johnson kept the building/landscape dichotomy front and center by prominently displaying an important 17th century landscape painting by Nicolas Poussin in the living room. Now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house is open for tours by appointment from May through November. The house is one small part of Johnson’s large estate, with many other buildings by him, including an underground art gallery and a lake pavilion, which can also be toured. (Photo courtesy The Glass House.)

Spring Cleaning

It’s interesting to note that few of these landmark modern houses have garages — apparently architects didn’t like dealing with the automobile (some still don’t). But spring is a good time to think about reorganizing. I saw these garage storage systems by Gladiator Garageworks in KBHome’s Greenhouse at the Home Builder Show and was envious. The units free up the floor space so there’s room for all kinds of tools and sports gear as well as cars. Brackets supporting the shelving click into horizontally grooved wall panels. Cabinets on casters add flexibility. Gladiator also has a new 66.5 inch bamboo-topped modular workbench with leveler legs for uneven floors.

So maybe this is how a modern architect would at least organize a garage, if not design one from scratch!