Category Archives: Regional 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

Cabins Inspired by Railroad Depots and Fire lookouts

From Trains to Towers

I’m excited to report that two cabin plans by Montana architect Jeff Shelden (one of which I mentioned in a previous post) are now part of our Exclusive Studio. Both designs draw inspiration from what you might call “the short and the tall” of the architectural past. Late 19th century American railroad depots, like these

from Cornell, Wisconsin and Missoula, Montana provide a perfect point of departure (and an irresistible metaphor) for vacation house design because of

their crisp outlines and straightforward structure, not to mention their promise of escape (vintage postcard from collection of Duane Hall, courtesy Greg Meier, Bruce, Wisconsin; color photo by bdbrewer courtesy Virtual Tourist). Jeff

retained the depot details in Plan  547-2, as you see in his rendering, complete with large brackets supporting the roof’s shady overhang. However, inside,

the 1,040 square foot cottage is all about easy modern living. The great room at the center is flanked by the master suite on one end and a guest bedroom on the other. It could be expanded into a larger year-round home by connecting the entry to new rooms or a garage.

Jeff’s other cabin is inspired by US Forest Service fire lookouts

built during the 1930s, such as this one on Mt. Brown in Glacier National Park (photo courtesy HikingGlacier.com). Jeff’s interpretation — Plan 547-1 below, is

vividly romantic. The pyramid-roofed design is all about escaping into the wild. As Jeff tells it, the fire towers “were a place where life and relationships were condensed to their essential elements, where nature overwhelmed and embraced

those lives.” The 576 square-foot structure — it also resembles a rustic water tower — has a stone base containing the cooking/dining area, which

functions as an old-fashioned farmhouse kitchen. You’ll notice that the

  has no bathroom — the original design called for a composting toilet some distance away from the cabin. So you’ll need to modify the plan to suit your own requirements. The second floor is one room for living and sleeping and

opens to the wrap-around cantilevered deck, as shown above. The ribbon of 

windows and the scattered books let the gaze as well as the imagination wander. Welcome, Jeff, and thanks for prompting dreams of summer getaways!

Renting a Lookout

If you want to try bunking in a fire tower before actually building one, you are in luck: various historic lookouts are available for overnight stays now that new technologies perform similar functions. Just remember, it’s all about the view because the interiors are spartan. Visit Recreation Rentals of the Pacific Northwest (part of the US Forest Service) for more information. Here’s a sampling in Oregon:

Fivemile Butte Lookout.

Hager Mountain Lookout.

Bolan Mountain Lookout.

Drake Peak. Enjoy the panoramas!



Architecture Is Not a Luxury

Living With Ingenuity

Architecture is often considered a luxury but why should that be true? I think good design is a necessity; it’s about invention and making new things happen. Bad design ought to be the luxury we cannot afford. And what is the general definition of luxury anyway? It derives from the Latin words luxuria and luxus, meaning excess; in the 18th century it came to mean “something enjoyable or comfortable beyond life’s necessities,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Shelter is of course a necessity; but it’s the job of architecture to make shelter something more — and more can mean comfortable, expressive, ingenious, idea-rich, even memorable. If that’s a luxury then hold the foie gras — I’ll take design. I feel architecture can inspire our own sense of possibility and make us aware of nature and the world around us in fresh ways. Take a tiny “unbuildable” infill lot in Tokyo, for example. Architect Yasuhiro Yamashita,

of Atelier Tekuto (photos courtesy the firm) saw the size limitation as an opportunity to develop a sort of contempo-Gothic iceberg: towering translucence

above, expanding volume below. Walls of obscure glass soar to a point (the wall is the ceiling) over the entry and bedroom floor above ground and make it

possible to flood the underground living area with daylight. Also the plan of the house tapers toward the back door, creating a false perspective that gives an impression of spaciousness, which is accentuated by the white metal fittings and walls. It resembles the bridge of a ship. Or a lantern for living. (Though I admit there’s not a lot of room for Granny’s sleigh bed.)

Or what about this unusual house by architectural historian and architect

Terunobu Fujimori (photo by Adam Friedberg via Dwell) that ingeniously combines opposites, an anchoring cave and a high-in-the-sky tea house, within a charred cedar skin — which is a traditional Japanese method for


protecting wood from insects (photos, courtesy Materia Design, and Japanese Craft Construction on Flikr). The design may be a luxury for the inhabitants but for me it is essential because it beautifully illustrates what a home can be: sheltering cave as welcoming entry and foundation; tea house as flight of fancy, an imagination set free. And yet contradictions abound — as they do in many homes. For what is a tea house but a space for ritualized ceremony — so here is ritual lifting away and loosening up — literally. And the cave is not dark and carved from stone but open and full of light, like a breezeway. Not to mention the burnt exterior protected from decay. Architecture can tell a story by turning some ideas upside down and making them hard to forget. Louis Kahn once said we didn’t need Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony until we heard it; well it’s the same with great houses. Maybe architecture is the luxury we didn’t know we needed.

On a somewhat more prosaic (certainly less melodic) level, to me the greatest luxury at the moment would be if my sweet peas climb up the grid of string I have tied to the backyard fence. Or maybe if we added an outdoor shower – like

the one here (courtesy Sunset Magazine). In any case, spring is here — and that’s a luxury I can live with.

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 Exclusive 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!

Home Ideas from Apple’s Architect

Slide To Unlock! A Linear Approach

I just saw a wonderful rustic-contemporary house by eminent architect Peter Bohlin, whose firm – Bohlin, Cywinski, Jackson – is responsible for the design of the Apple stores including the marvelous glass cube on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as well as the headquarters for Pixar, in Emeryville, California (which I profiled in a previous post). The tour was sponsored by the California Council of the AIA, hence the populated spaces.

The house rides a gentle live oak-studded ridge and offers layout lessons as well as some innovative design details. You follow the long stone wall

to the entry, pass through the wall, and arrive on the deck between the pool and the house. Turn right and you enter the great room.

The stone-paved circulation spine (where everyone is standing) follows the inside of the wall you just paralleled, past the kitchen to the bedrooms at the rear. Turn the other way and you face the pool and the dramatic mountain view.

That familiar stone wall is now leading the eye into the distance even as its

increasingly irregular profile deftly echoes the line of the hills. Now this is architecture that resonates with its setting!

In one sense, and with the Apple connection in mind, it’s a sort of “I-house” (thank you Houseplans.com colleague Ting Lee for this observation!) so here are what I’d call the relevant “architectural apps.”

The cutting board/drain board that’s part of the kitchen island does double duty: it slides on tracks across the sink to form a handy cover for dirty dishes or when you need more

surface area for food preparation or a buffet.

This is a clever idea that I wish I had in my kitchen — the cutting board always needs to be washed off anyway so why not make it part of the sink in the first place. Another “take-away” idea is the way the fireplace forms part of a separate alcove while still warming the room at large, as shown in the overall photo of the great room, above. The generous hearth allows for sitting, wood storage, and display while acting as a focal point for the rest of the space.

It’s a short-hand version of an inglenook, which was popular in Shingle Style and Craftsman homes at the turn of the 20th century. Bohlin’s multi-functional approach continues in the design of the niche for the flat screen television.

It’s hidden behind this sliding steel panel, which is shared with the adjacent deep-sill window — note the barn door track at the top. When you want to watch television you slide the panel to the left and it covers the window, thereby blocking the light. Then — to just slightly adjust  the phrase on every I-Phone — just slide to unblockA clever alternative to hiding the flat screen behind a painting.

The bathrooms in this house are also very cool and include a double vanity that’s one long concrete trough sink

and a bench that extends through the glass wall of the shower

to maximize the feeling of spaciousness.

The broader lesson of this house is in the simple linearity of its plan: really just one big room connected to bedrooms and bathrooms by a corridor like compartments on a train. And here the deck and pool continue the line, but as rooms that are open to the sky. This “single file arrangement” is a good conceptual starting point for anyone thinking about building a new house and will fit a variety of site conditions. For example, compare Greg La Vardera’s Plan 431-2

where every major room opens to the deck that runs the length of the house, with Plan 491-10 by Werner Field,

with the great room similarly bracketed by bedrooms, decks like running boards, and a breezeway near the center. This sort of linear plan is almost an archetype — Peter Bohlin simply put the great room at one end. So if hiring Apple’s architect is not an option, use these plans to start visualizing what you need for your situation, I mean your “I-Building-Pad.”


Monterey Design Conference 2011, Part Deux

Begin With A Body Wall

The architectural conversation sponsored by the California Council of the AIA at Asilomar last weekend was very rich and has taken me a while to process, hence the continuation from the previous post. Take, for example, the very corporeal “P_Wall” commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from architect/computer artist Andrew Kudless and shown in his talk. Andrew is on the faculty at California College of Art and founded the Matsys design firm.

When Andrew projected the image above and talked about his interest in how certain structures form in nature, my first reaction was — what is it for? Is it architecture or art? According to Andrew it’s an “exploration of the self-organization of material under force.”

The  wall is made of one hundred fifty cast plaster tiles. According to Andrew “using nylon fabric and wooden dowels as form-work, the weight of the liquid plaster slurry causes the fabric to sag, expand, and wrinkle.” The idea, as I now understand it, is to show how an architectural element — the gallery wall — and one’s skin might overlap (dewlap?!) in form and function. I first thought of Gertrude Stein’s poem “A Long Dress” which asks: “What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current. What is the wind, what is it.” Now I begin to see that this folding, bulging line could be the current Gertrude describes. SFMOMA design curator Henry Urbach saw in this wall connections to the organic work of Antonio Gaudi, and now I can see that — a wall that’s both architecture and art, with a nature all its own. I get it now, and I like it, but I wouldn’t want to live with it.

Iconic Homes

The house was another topic of exploration at Asilomar, and we were treated to a talk by Duluth, Minnesota architect David Salmela, whose award-winning work is both modern and regional, like this abstract approach to the sauna

(photo by David Getty, courtesy Minnesota Monthly) or his Jackson Meadow project,

a neighborhood development that manipulates a vocabulary of traditional wood gables and porches in strong contemporary ways (photo courtesy Jackson Meadow). David talked about “looking for the ingredient that defines a place” and designing “to solve the problem and not necessarily to please people.” But I think his work has pleased many because it has an iconic simplicity that always involves a strong connection to nature. A new book on his work has just appeared:

by Thomas Fisher from the University of Minnesota Press. I like the fact that each of David’s projects is very different while at the same time sharing similarities in the use of geometric forms and  natural materials. In his talk he spoke of “emulating, not imitating” other architecture — and I can see visual connections to the work of architects as diverse as Alvar Aalto, Adolph Loos, and Ray Kappe.

Soaring Farms  and Falling Fountains

Two talks seemed to galvanize the architectural audience. The first, by Dr. Dickson Despommier, an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Columbia University, described the Vertical Farm Project, explained in detail in his book.

The aim is to counteract world food shortages that are projected to occur  by 2050, when the world’s population will have increased by 3 billion. He writes “At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?” His ingenious solution is to find ways to farm in buildings situated inside the city limits — a way of rehabilitating derelict structures as well as developing new architectural prototypes, like the example shown below: “Urban Farm, Urban Epicenter”  

by Jung Ming Nam. I liked Dr. Despommier’s statement that we tend to treat the city as a parasite (a consumer of resources) when we ought to be looking for ways to make the city’s relationship to the planet symbiotic (more of a partner in the cultivation of resources). He ended his talk by showing a recently completed building in Suwon, South Korea, shown below,

 designed for this very purpose. (A fine article by Lloyd Alter on Treehugger describes how it works; photo courtesy Spiegel Online.) The Vertical Farm is on the rise!

Eminent landscape architect Peter Walker drew rapt attention for his story of working on the World Trade Center Memorial in Manhattan with architect Michael Arad. It turns out that when Arad was selected as one of the 8 finalists, he called Walker and asked him to join his team. Arad’s concept of the two vast voids (each 200 feet square, outlining where the towers had been) endlessly filling with water yet draining into a smaller central void, had already been established but he needed help with the landscape.

Walker, a devotee of modern art, immediately responded to the abstraction of the Arad design, recalling minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd and Carl Andre. He understood that the final design needed to be “strong enough for memory,” and designed the grid of mature trees for the park to act as buffer/transition from the city — planted in a complex architectural infrastructure that he devised — and by working with experts to invent the weir that allowed a large volume of water to fall as efficiently as possible in a continuous curtain — no small feat.

 (These two images courtesy Auhana.) As he said, the fountains were to be about “filling and emptying done at the same time.” The names of those who died form a parapet at the top. As Peter Walker talked I began to understand the extraordinary metaphor for grieving that Michael Arad and he had created:  the fluid welling up in memory as a way to salve, but not wash away, the sorrow. Peter received a standing ovation. Suddenly this little conference center in the sand dunes seemed part of a much larger world.

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.


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 who is the newest member of our Exclusive 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!




Wild Architectural Rides

Working Vacations

Some architects are always looking, and adapting what they see for their designs. Take David Weingarten and Lucia Howard of Ace Architects, for example. Their “Rancho Diablo” is an extraordinary architectural travelogue or “ride” that incorporates references to the Wild West desert of Wile E. Coyote, Italy, and early Bay Region design history.  Here are some images of the house.

The marvelous ovoid openings that appear in all three images (photographs courtesy Ace Architects) are adaptations of a Gothicized window treatment developed by Berkeley, California architect Bernard Maybeck for some of his early 20th century houses like the one shown below.

You can see that David and Lucia enjoy their work! But there’s more. Rancho Diablo also houses one of the largest collections of miniature or souvenir buildings in the world (it may well be the largest), amassed by David Weingarten and Margaret Majua. These include coin banks, pencil sharpeners, lamps, thermometers, and salt and pepper shakers in the shapes of landmarks from across the planet — they are often in exhibitions at SFO, museums, and elsewhere.

At Rancho Diablo there is a special gallery that holds a selection of the miniatures. Here you can tour the Eiffel Tower and the Egyptian pyramids without leaving home.

As the architects themselves might say, their work, like their collecting, is “vigorously eclectic.”

Not to be outdone completely, Houseplans.com has a growing collection of plans that exhibit a travel-history (travelicity?!) quality, which seems especially appropriate for summer.We have a version of the White House, for example, Plan 119-189.

Or if the burden of history is a bit heavy, why not lighten the load with a lighthouse, Plan 64-204.

You can see more such designs in our Unique and Unusual House Plans Collection.

Another friend of mine, artist Keith Wilson, never stops working when he’s on a holiday trip. His eye is architectural and whimsical at the same time: color and shape recombine in almost childlike ways, recalling the work of Paul Klee. His drawn buildings are recognizable but novel, like the vibrant sketch of St. Peters in Rome, shown below.


Just a few elements – curves, columns, pediment, dome – capture an impression of the landmark, while the bright colors and grid change it into something new. I think this process of “capture/change” is what many people go through as they visit a new place. Vacations are the times to refresh your image banks! So use your camera or I-phone to record your surroundings — you may see ideas you can adapt for your new home. Bright colors for an accent wall? Or maybe you’ll see a Gothic window you can reinterpret. I think this is what summer is all about — looking for ideas wherever your travels may take you.


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!