Category Archives: Siting

Dream Cabins and Cabin Dreams

Getaway Architecture

Now, during the holiday week, is a good time to dream about rest and relaxation in your own rural getaway. So here’s a short list of architecturally suggestive cabins.

One. The prefab in the trees by Swedish firm Cyrén & Cyrén gives new meaning

to lodging, not to mention lodge-pole pines. It’s a bedroom unit in the Tree Hotel, located in Harrads, near Sweden’s Lule River, and looks like it came from a galaxy far far away (photo above courtesy Inhabitat, photo below courtesy Dezeen). A catwalk leads to the

rooftop entrance (one of the other suspended rooms is a mirror cube). Improbable and delightful — I want to go there! Presumably a gentle breeze will rock you to sleep, but if you hear a chain saw it may be time to check out.

Two. Continuing the rustic theme, here’s a cabin designed for Hans Liberg by Piet Hein Eek that uses tree trunks as a way of

playing with geometry: more of a log box than a log cabin. In full camouflage mode (the wood covers a prefab plastic and steel frame) with the shutters down, the

logs pile up and the hut disappears — well, almost. “Ceci n’est pas un woodpile,” as Duchamp might say. I like the way the design takes the idea of the duck blind and runs with it (quite far away!). Images courtesy Andrew Michler on Inhabitat and also Dornob. For more images see Thomas Mayer Archive.

Three. Architect David Coleman describes his Hill House in Winthrop, Washington as a “20 ‘ wide x 115′

long stepped platform… sited on a long, narrow, rocky hillside…it reads as a habitable landscape” (photos courtesy David Coleman). I like the way it culminates in the deck with the round fire

pit defined by gabion (rock filled cages) walls on the master suite end, and with another deck and more gabions on the living room end, as if the structure is growing out of or into the land itself (photo courtesy Mocoloco.) This simple serene progression from public to private and vice versa is evocative: home as a short architectural hike…

Four. This urbane floating home on Seattle’s Lake Union by Vandeventer & Carlander Architects puts the main entertaining spaces — organized as a series of framed openings within an elegant

box — on the upper level. The living room veranda is carved out of the rectangular volume to sharpen sight lines across the water. It also cantilevers over the lower floor to shelter the deck off the master bedroom. The design shows how to swim with geometry (photo courtesy Karmatrendz).

Five. “Packed But Never Shipped” might be a good name for this clever cabin by Olson Kundig Architects.

When the window flaps — resembling warehouse pallets — are down they form the surrounding deck platforms so the tiny structure can expand (images courtesy Olson Kundig). When the vacation ends, the platforms fold up for security and the house is effectively crated, to await the next weekend when it can be unpacked and played with again. Take care of your toys and they will last longer!

These design approaches appeal to me because they are all about serious play: taking inspiration from settings, structure, and materials to fashion something unique and memorable. Use them — along with the many serious and seriously playful schemes in our Cottage Plans Collection like 479-1 by architects Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso (below)

or 517-1 by architect Jonathan Feldman (below);

or 452-2 by architect David Wright (below)

to help you jump start your own getaway cabin dreams. (When you browse these collections sort by “newest plans” to see our latest designs.) Here’s to the comfort and joy of architectural invention.


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 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.”

Backyards, Borders, and Bedrooms

Lines in the Gravel

Our tiny backyard has a ragged patch of lawn that is bordered by a narrow brick mow strip. It’s supposed to form a nice crisp line between lawn and planting bed, and occasionally it does — when I’ve done the weeding. I appreciate the way such a simple device can makes the backyard feel almost like an outdoor room. But here are a few somewhat more inventive ways to shape outdoor space…I’d rather dream than weed anyway. I’m a fan of devices that have multiple functions or “do double duty” — as readers undoubtedly know by now — so the idea that a stair railing could also be a planter is appealing, as shown by this elegant modern installation by Surface Design.
The planter borders the upper terrace, which creates a nice green visual

connection to the lower strip of grass. The stair and the railing/planter divide the backyard into two distinct rooms: one for outdoor dining; the other for greenery (photos courtesy Surface Design). Or here’s a way to combine terrace, planter, and steps in one form,

as shown in a garden by Arterra Landscapes (with architect Thomas Hunter; photo courtesy Arterra). The plants become a sort of green railing. Garden stairs have been combined with overflowing water since Moorish times, not to mention the Italian Renaissance, but what about with something a little warmer? Landscape artist Topher Delaney‘s “In the Line of Fire” garden does just that,

with ribbons of flame at the base of a central step in this unusual garden. If you miss a step you’re toast — but I guess you could say it keeps you on your toes! (Photo courtesy Apartment Therapy.) The line (back to my mowing strip) is the simplest design device but it can also be the most visually compelling,

as architect Jonathan Feldman demonstrates in the ingenious way he ties part of his Caterpillar House to the surrounding landscape with three stripes sliced into the concrete patio. They set up an almost rhythmic progression between structure and site while expanding the lateral view into a field of lupine.

The Patio Home

Architects Braxton Werner and Paul Field — part of our Signature Studio — have just updated the imagery for their designs, and several show just how important backyards are as extensions of the house. For example, in their Plan 491-2 the living room doesn’t stop at the sliding glass window wall –

it incorporates the pool patio on the other side of the glass. The layout is simple and shows how the overhang — the dotted line — also defines the outdoor space.

Here’s a view from the outside looking in, showing how the paving pattern forms a kind of rug. The same blending of inside and outside happens in the bedrooms

on the ground floor, though these are on the other side of the house. The Werner Field designs are new interpretations of the patio home idea popularized in the mid twentieth century by architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler in Los Angeles. I guess I not only want a more visually ambitious backyard, I’d like one of these houses to go with it.

Waterside Home Design

Coastal Compositions, Modern and Rustic

A week’s vacation on the east coast got me thinking about houses by the water and what makes some of them successful, like the famous Clara Fargo Thomas house of 1937 on Mt. Desert Island in Maine, shown below (photo courtesy Portland Monthly).

It was built for a painter/muralist  and was designed by the great Philadelphia modernist architect George Howe (also responsible for the early modern PSFS skyscraper in that city with his partner William Lescaze). I remember architectural historian Vincent Scully showing this house in one of his Yale lectures as a landmark example of regional modernism. It was regional in its use of wood and stone, the shingle hipped roof, and the way the house capitalized on the dramatic natural setting; modern is its strong simple, almost abstracted shape, walls of glass, and concrete support beams cantilevered over the rocks and making the house appear to float over Somes Sound.

Inside, the view dominates and the elegant wood and glass doors slide away to unite the living room with the surrounding deck, as the descriptive page from an early article on the house shows (courtesy George Howe had a conversion of sorts in the late 1920s — he had been part of a very fine firm (Mellor Meigs & Howe) that produced elegant traditionally style homes around Philadelphia, but was starting to feel the need to express more of the Machine Age in his design. In 1930 he gave a famous speech to the AIA convention championing modernsim, which was a radical idea to a profession still steeped in Beaux Arts classical ideals. This house expressed a fine melding of past and future (as well as inside/outside) and became part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

The mid- and late 1930s saw a burgeoning interest in modernity and nature with the building of such landmarks as the Villa Malaparte (mentioned in a

previous post) on the island of Capri, shown above (courtesy, where the geometry is even more abstract — think of the abstract planes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, of the same period.

More recently, in the early 1960s on the California coast near Big Sur, architectural photographer Morley Baer and his wife Frances built a house that is eloquently simple in the way it complements its rugged setting just below Highway 1 at Garrapata Beach.

The stone-clad rectangle (over steel reinforced concrete block) sits at the edge of a field by a rock outcrop — like a restored stone barn from the 19th century somewhere in the Scottish highlands.

Only the very thin roof plane and the monumental window wall with its grid of twelve large square panes  framing the romantic vista — turning the big living dining room into the inside of a big box camera — expresses the modernity of the design.

Indeed, this window wall is very compelling. Long ago I remember looking through it and being totally mesmerized and thinking how fitting this design was for a nature/architectural photographer. The house sold recently for many millions — naturally (images courtesy John Gaar Real Estate).

Perhaps the ultimate nature-oriented designs — at least in the US — were built in the late 19th century in New York’s lake-filled Adirondack region. These super-rustic “Great Camps” for wealthy families escaping from New York or Philadelphia for the summer boasted elaborate stone and timber or log veranda-wrapped compounds, grand stone boathouses, and extensive docks.

A splendid new book — just in time to enjoy with the waning days of summer — describes the key examples in detail. Adirondack Style: Great Camps and Rustic Lodges by f-Stop Fitzgerald (clever name) and Richard McCaffrey with text by Lynn Woods and Jane Mackintosh (Rizzoli 2011,) tells the history of camps owned by J. P. Morgan, various Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers among many others. The sumptuous photographs show how the builders reworked natural materials and forms into a form of Rustic Baroque. Something to peruse as you sit on your own porch! The book was developed in cooperation with Adirondack Architectural Heritage.

The lesson in these sorts of houses and this sort of design is how the site determines the shape and character of each project. Of course these are extreme examples of creative responses to distinctive natural settings. Most waterside sites today are not as distinctive — if they can be had at all — but the concept still holds true no matter what the site: nurture that nature and make it your own!

How To Read Buildings; Plan Sale Trends

Before Kindle: Buildings as Books

The built environment is actually part of a vast architectural textbook waiting to be read — some structures are more biographical, some more novelistic, and some even approach the poetic. Buildings express the aspirations of individuals and communities as well as social and economic realities. By reading buildings you begin to see how a setting evolved and what it says about the culture that produced it. That’s what a new pocket paperback, Cityscapes by S. F. Chronicle urban design writer John King (Heyday Books 2011) demonstrates. It’s a compendium of quick “readings” of a wide range of old and new buildings in San Francisco, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s mini-Guggenheim on Maiden Lane to the vernacular houseboats on Mission Creek, all part of what he calls “shared touchstones of reference and recall, shaping our sense of place.” I recommend it.

House Plan Sales Trends

The way to read a house plan is to study it as closely as possible, from how it looks to how it lives. To that end I thought I would review what plans have been selling lately and do a little “reading” of my own. Naturally, I think the best houses give their occupants a sense of individuality as well as comfort while maximizing the potential of the lot — and many of our most recently sold plans do this. And I’m beginning to see a trend or two…like greater privacy for master suites and stronger indoor-outdoor connections.

Modern Plan 484-3 was sold to a customer in Atlanta. It’s designed to take advantage of a narrow sloping lot. It’s a row house with a garage at the bottom level, living-dining area in the middle, and bedrooms at the top. Strong outdoor connections make the home seem larger than it is. See how the great room opens to the barbecue/pool patio.

The main living spaces are compact but because  they overlap and can borrow light from each other on three sides they have a feeling of spaciousness. The island helps separate the kitchen from the rest of the main space without visually cutting it off.

Generous balconies off the master and secondary bedrooms on the top floor add to the airiness.

Plan 477-4, a stately classical design, sold to a customer in Alberta, Canada. It would fit an infill site in an urban neighborhood — though it could also work on larger lots as a kind of villa.  The porch arcade shelters the front door while providing a welcoming face to the street. Inside, the layout is

not large but has an air of elegance and formality thanks to the small vestibule and stairhall between living room and dining room. A pocket door allows the vestibule to open directly to the kitchen when needed, adding to the plan’s flexibility. Upstairs, the master suite is somewhat removed from the other bedrooms for greater privacy.

Modern barn-inspired Plan 450-2 sold to a homeowner moving from Oklahoma to Kansas.  It would work as a vacation cabin on a rural site, as a starter home, or artist’s studio. It could also be a guest house or the first stage of a larger compound. The plan is small but very efficient– with  back-to-back kitchen and bathroom set between living area and bedroom. And yet thanks to the openings on three sides of the two main rooms — including the large glass garage door used as a moving window wall in the living space – this little house feels bright and spacious. Read-on, MacDuff!

FLW Anniversary and Spring Plan Sale

75 Years Young

It’s incredible to think that the most famous modern house in America — Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania by Frank Lloyd Wright — turns 75 this year. I have toured it twice and it still looks contemporary and forward-thinking today. Thanks to Fallingwater (Rizzoli 2011) a book of essays and sumptuous photographs edited by Fallingwater’s director, Lynda Waggoner, you can take an engrossing armchair tour. Those cantilevered decks still inspire — though they have been strengthened over the years — but after three quarters of a century suspended over a waterfall anyone could use a little help!  In fact, the chapter by the engineer Robert Silman, who did the artful and seamless strengthening job with post-tensioned concrete (he was part of the team that helped first responders to the World Trade Center analyze the stability of surrounding structures)  is especially fascinating reading. (Wright photo courtesy Water Silman even quotes a letter from Frank to his client Edgar Kaufman, who had hired an engineer to second guess Wright’s own calculations: “You seem not to know how to treat a decent one [architect]. I have put so much more into this house than you or any other client has a right to expect that if I haven’t your confidence — to hell with the whole thing.” Don’t mess with Texas, er Taliesin! Spring is a glorious time to tour the house.

Spring Plan Sale and More Siting Advice

Though Fallingwater raises residential architecture to a high art, the principle of uniting structure and site should be an important part of every home design. One of the common refrains of this blog — and of — is that every ready-made house plan should suit its lot or be adapted to it. Here’s an example, the two-story Garage/Studio Plan 498-3 by architect Matthew Coates, which could easily become an in-law suite or backyard cottage. It’s a simple gabled box with a shed dormer but see how it is dug about four feet into the hill on the entry side so the car has a level pad. As you walk around it you see how each side responds to a different context, from the far side, where it’s not dug into the slope and it’s possible to have a straight path back to the entrance for the studio stairs. At the rear you can see how the stair takes advantage of the corner to bring  light not only to the stair itself but also down to the garage and up to the studio. The shed dormer takes it from there offering a private view into the forest. Our Flexahouse Plans 445-1 through 6, make a similar point. Architect Nick Noyes designed the Flexahouse , which is a type of ranch house, in three configurations so it can suit different lot conditions, from long and narrow to short and wide.

Orientation to the sun is key; in the northern hemisphere a southern exposure is usually best for warmth in winter and cool breezes in summer; west-facing glass needs to compensate for hot afternoon sun with insulation or shading of some sort. A northern exposure offers cooler indirect light and is the classic orientation for an artist’s space. A breakfast area often faces east to catch the morning sun. In a way you can think of the house as a sundial: analyze each room — where will the sun be coming from when you think you’ll be occupying it most often? It’s easy to modify a plan by replacing a window with a door for more convenient outdoor access, say, or by adding a window to capture a view. And our Modification Department is happy to help! A good house plan is only good if it takes advantage of its site.

Shaping Inspiration: Aqua Tower to Home Plans

New Waves in Nature vs. Nurture

I heard a fascinating lecture by architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang recently. She talked about the unusual wave-like design of her soaring 82-story  Aqua Tower (including apartments, condos, and a hotel) built by McHugh Construction and Magellan Development Group in downtown Chicago. The compelling design derived in part from studies of view corridors and wind patterns — and was also partly inspired by images of limestone cliffs along the Great Lakes, as shown here and which were themselves created by water and wind (photo courtesy Immaterial/Supermaterial, Woodbury University).  The myriad shapes of the curvilinear concrete balconies “confuse the wind” (i.e. slow it down) and give each apartment a sense of individuality (Aqua Tower photos courtesy The International Coolhunting Magazine). In most cases the curving balconies shape views and shelter living spaces from heat and glare. Where balconies are not feasible a different glass — with higher insulation value — is used. The reduced overhangs and use of a different type of glass (which is tinted a greener color) make it appear that ponds have formed on each of the tower’s vertical surfaces. Reusable, flexible steel forms for the cantilevered concrete balcony sections made the construction possible.

The lesson I drew from Jeanne Gang’s talk was that a her firm does a great deal of research into site conditions and the natural and  cultural histories of an area before developing a particular design. The design is thus “drawn out of the site.” (A new book on their work titled Reveal from Princeton Architecture Press explains this process.) This is a good way to think about home design as well — the house plan and the lot should complement each other. Mentally place your plan on your site and check to see if any key outdoor spaces are easily accessible, or if you should replace a window with a door.  This Plan 64-166 by Dan Tyree uses balconies and window walls to maximize views on a steep slope. Plan 500-1 by Robert Swinburne has  a side-facing bay window, which means its lot should have  room for a side yard.  In Plan 498-5 by Matthew Coates glass folding doors could replace the conventional sliders as a way to open up more of the great room to the patio. Indeed, I think every ready made plan should be modified to suit its site.


I asked Jeanne Gang how she got such a remarkable tower commission and she said it was mostly serendipity. A client invited her to a party and she met a developer who said he was interested in her work and would she consider a project he was starting. Sure, she said, thinking nothing would come of it. A few days later she got a phone call asking for a meeting in a few days. She assumed it was a competition so she quickly prepared a Power Point on her firm’s deep experience and award-winning past projects.  But when she got to the meeting the developer said he already knew her work and already had hired her and how soon could she have a design ready? “It was the most unusual and easiest commission we’ve ever gotten!” she said. Another lesson: you never know who is watching your work — or if the next plan you click will throw a curve and strike your fancy and become your dream house!

Avant Garde Rentals and Granny Flats

Cutting Edges

Spring fever is upon me and I am distracted by thoughts of traveling the world — so the New Yorker article by architecture critic Paul Goldberger about modern holiday houses in England captured my imagination immediately. He describes spending the night in an unusual new house called The Balancing Barn, designed by the Dutch firm MVRD. Situated on the Suffolk coast, it is, in his words:  “a shiny metal structure that sticks out over a hill, less a barn than a covered bridge that stops in mid-air.” The  image below shows just how startling it is, with a child nonchalantly swinging from the underside of the cantilever — as if an updated Alice has stopped to play while the Mad Hatter — now an avant-garde architect — is up in the kitchen putting the kettle on.  Paul recounts how surprisingly comfortable and even conventional the house is inside, despite the startling appearance of being suspended over nothingness. There is however, a window in the floor of the living room that connects guests to the ground even as it reminds them that they are lolling over a void. Talk about a new perspective! I think a weekend here would be very refreshing. This structure is part of a not-for-profit organization called Living Architecture, the brainchild of writer/philosopher Alain de Botton whose insightful and beautifully written 2006 book The Architecture of Happiness explores how architecture affects and even defines us.  The idea of  balance in building design, which is the subject of one chapter, appears to have been taken quite literally in this particular commission! The house sleeps eight people and rentals are for four nights. (Cantilever photo and interior view from Designboom; aerial shot courtesy Living Architecture.)

De Botton founded Living Architecture as a way to help people experience modern design first hand. A cool idea. There are several other rentals in the collection. Shingle house, by the Scottish firm  NORD Architecture, situated near Romney Marsh in Kent (the shingle name refers to the pebbly site, not the siding material) is a series of simple gables — almost like an arrangement of toy blocks. The interior is all white with a handsome U-shaped kitchen that opens toward the beach. Deftly placed windows here and in the dining area frame the views like paintings. The handsome banquette saves room and with the white-painted vertical board walls makes the small space seem larger than it is. Dune House in Suffolk, by the Norwegian firm Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects, resembles a Rubik’s cube that has been pulled slightly apart and set on a glass base. The living room includes a sunken area in front of the fireplace — the return of the “conversation pit” from mid-century modern design. The master bedroom includes a sculptural freestanding tub with its own view of the sea beside the door to the water closet and shower — truly this gives new meaning to the phrase “bed, bath, and beyond.” (Previous six photos courtesy Living Architecture.) Three more holiday houses are in the works and are slated to open by 2012. The Living Architecture website provides comprehensive photo tours of every rental — excellent homework for anyone thinking of building a new house. Meanwhile I need to start saving up for a fact-finding trip…

Essential New Books on Granny Flats and Cottage Style

Two excellent books recently came across my desk. The cleverly titled In-Laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats (Taunton Press, 2011) by Michael Litchfield, a founding editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine, is a comprehensively illustrated guide to the design and building of backyard cottages and additions for aging in place. Interviews with families who have completed this process  show that the trend is well under way. A thoughtfully designed in-law unit or granny flat makes it possible for seniors to live near family members without losing their independence. Communities  across the country are changing their zoning laws to allow the greater density that backyard cottages produce. The changes are long overdue. Chapters range from basement remodels and garage conversions to stand-alone structures — with a wide variety of case studies for each type of dwelling unit. For more ideas take a look at our own Granny Units Collection, including the Inspired In-Law Cottage by Larson Shores Architects, which comes in four different styles and plans. The L-shaped version, Plan 507-3,  is 500 square feet, includes a kitchenette that’s part of  the  living area, and has decks on two sides.

Storybook Cottages: America’s Carpenter Gothic Style by Gladys Montgomery (Rizzoli, 2011) explores in detail the mid-nineteenth century houses that were built from pattern books like Andrew Jackson Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses, published in 1850. Originally from the British Isles, the Gothic Revival flourished in New York and New England but the best known example is the farmhouse in Eldon, Iowa, famously painted by Grant Wood as “American Gothic.” Now I wonder what the farmer and his wife would think of sleeping in Alain de Botton’s Balancing Barn? The pitchfork makes me a little nervous but I’m sure they would make sure to stow it tines-down before turning out the light.

What Is A Good House?

3 Famous Modern Houses

I was inspired by the thought-provoking comments I received on last week’s post about good architecture — so now let’s zero in on what make’s a good house. I liked Jay’s observation that for many great architectural monuments “We instinctively honor the conviction of the builder.” The same holds true for houses — in some cases this might be the homeowner or the architect or the builder, or all three.  Here are three great modern houses that are at the top of my list of designs worth visiting and studying. I’d like to hear yours.

Some houses are important simply for the ideas they express.

Villa Savoye of 1929 by Le Corbusier at Poissy near Paris, is the most influential modern house in the world (photo by Omar through Creative Commons). It  became the symbol of Machine Age modernism: “the machine in the garden” and the “machine for living. ” It is remarkable  for the rational clarity of its concept and form — automobiles stored on the ground floor, open living area and “yard” on second and third, a cube that is both open and closed  — and also for the not necessarily rational idea of placing a roof garden on a house that is itself set in a forested park. See how one of the window bands is actually an open wall and frames views into and out of the courtyard on the second floor. In other words there was no need for the house to rise up like a cruise ship with a roof garden in the wilderness of this particular setting — the garden was already there. But Le Corbusier wanted to make this commission a prototype for all houses, especially urban ones, and it brilliantly illustrated his  intellectual idea. He was lucky to find clients who would build it — and very quickly, when rain started pouring through the roof and down walls, they did not themselves feel so lucky to be living in  a prototype,  and eventually sued for damages.

Fallingwater of 1936 at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, by Frank Lloyd Wright, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year (photo courtesy Fallingwater, Pennsylvania Conservancy).

It was the architect’s response to the European modernism of folks like le Corbusier: Wright rooted his very International Style-looking horizontal planes in the bedrock of the waterfall, like an architectural version of “Take That, You Greenhorns!” His client, department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann wanted something special and he got it. The house is the ultimate essay in contradiction. Unlike the Villa Savoye, it doesn’t stand apart from its setting, but literally splashes in it. If, as Wright is reputed to have said, he just shook the design out of his sleeve – like a sort of architectural playing card — then this was the ace of space. It is cerebral in its use of the cantilever and at the same time

robustly rustic and visceral in the way it becomes its own sort of ledge-leaping waterfall right beside the real thing and even  incorporates stones from the site into its design — see the boulders shown beside the fireplace on the plan. The house got a bit damp at times, but that didn’t seem to matter very much, since it was a vacation retreat. It may well be Wright’s most extreme house and makes the visitor marvel at the nature of architecture and the architecture of nature. When I visited I felt I was on an architectural ride.

Casa Luis Barragan of 1948, by Luis Barragan, in Mexico City, is an urban mystery tour. Barragan was Mexico’s most influential modern architect and his own house showcases abstract sculptural forms and deft interplays of light and shadow (photos courtesy Casa Luis Barragan).

The vast square window creates two rooms: one outside, the other inside. The house becomes a series of interlocking cabinets and cubes,

some almost secret. Above is the living room on the inside of that big window.

Simple sculptural stairs draw the eye and the imagination, leading one to wonder where they lead. It is the house as personal puzzle box; indeed, you have the feeling that the overlapping spaces allowed for occasional eavesdropping. It is impossible to sense the whole — the design unravels like a bolt of cloth; a textured narrative of space and time.

So can your house or mine have any of these qualities? Certainly, though perhaps not in such extreme forms. But as I explore the plans in our large Houseplans inventory I am always looking for  some aspect or feature — usually related to the age-old definition of architecture as commodity, firmness, and delight — to rise above the rest. Let me know your own favorite house designs, famous or otherwise.

Desk Design, Jefferson, and Siting Help from Don Lyndon

Looking In and Looking Out

I should have taken a “Before” photo of my desk and the surrounding area, with its sea of loose manila file folders crashing against reefs of brochures, books, magazines, and rolls of drawings. The new year seemed a good time to clean up my act: now the tide of paper has receded, if only briefly,  and the desk is visible again. So work surfaces and paper storage are on my mind, like the handsome bent bamboo  K Work Station by the innovative design firm MisoSoup:

It creates a serenely efficient corner office, though I would need space for conventional non-computer files (not to mention a waste basket).  Older desks often have more storage compartments — for a more paper-dependent age no doubt — such as this stair-stepping antique from the 1920s by designer Paul Frankl (image courtesy the very informative interior design resource Design2Share).

It takes inspiration from the signature silhouettes of New York’s Art Deco skyscrapers and is all about storage, as if Rockefeller Center were really one big filing cabinet above an ice skating rink  — which come to think of it, it is (I love those morphing metaphors!). The simplest way to deal with clutter is not to organize it but to hide it, which is what the rolltop desk does so well. The famous example by George Nelson for Herman Miller from 1964

simply pulls a tambour door across the low work surface, like a wooden blanket (image and Gueridon). But I’m afraid if it were my desk the cover would never completely close. Then again some designers appear to be “embracing the clutter,” as this example does,

with built-in bins for rounding everything up (I found this image on Dornob, a website full of fascinating design and furniture ideas). Room and Board’s Eames File Drawer Desk

remains a classic and would meet some of my needs. But I think my favorite example of a great desk is the one Thomas Jefferson designed in 1776 for use while traveling between Monticello and Philadelphia:

(both images courtesy The Smithsonian). This is the original lap top/I-Pad for writing occasional notes and the odd Declaration of Independence. In the end all you really need is a wide flat surface, good lighting, storage drawers, and inspiration.

The first weeks of the year are also a good time to look outward and for me that means thinking about siting. I asked the eminent architect Donlyn Lyndon — one of the designers of Sea Ranch (and author of the definitive book about it),  co-author with Charles Moore and Gerald Allen of the influential The Place of Houses

and Emeritus Professor of Architecture at U. C. Berkeley — for advice to share with prospective house plan purchasers. Here’s what he very eloquently wrote for me: “Siting is about Making Places. Siting is about making connections — to the ground; to the sky; to neighbors; to existing vegetation; to water and its flows, both natural and channeled; to the sun and the wind; to transportation. Siting is making the most of your surroundings; finding the best places to be for various activities, inside and out.”

He wants you to think creatively about the site even before you start looking for a house plan. He continues: “The first step is to examine your site, imagine being in it in various ways and at differing times of day and season. Make careful note of levels and change/slope of the ground. Get a sense of its dimensions by positioning yourself in ways that you expect to interact with people and measuring the distances.” I would add that a way to start thinking about such connections would be to find a few plans that already show some sort of site relationship,

the way Ross Anderson’s Ranch House Plan 433-2 wraps around a courtyard;  or the way Peter Brachvogel and Stella Carosso’s Whitehall Plan 479-8

uses porches and dormers to capture views; or the way Daniel E. Bush’s Modern Living Plan 460-3

opens to a variety of outdoor spaces.

Donlyn sums up his recipe for siting success: ” Choose a house plan not just on what looks good to you, but on what plan will do three things: Make rooms in the right places on the site; Make best advantage of your site and its views, outlooks/connections; Make sense with your neighbor/neighborhood, add value to the place. Then start imagining how that plan can best fit on the site, given the findings above. Make several different arrangements of the house on the land and imagine what might eventually be added to the site.”  (You can find more detailed analysis of siting principles in his Place of Houses book.) I think Donlyn must have been using that Jefferson desk — we should hold his truths to be self-evident.