Category Archives: water in design

Living Beside the Pool

 Taking the Plunge

It’s a compelling dream to live poolside – especially during the hot, waning days of summer. So let’s dive in! Think of the Alhambra in Spain with its

shallow pools and long water courses — though maybe no diving there (photo courtesy Viva-Spain). Here are some examples of more recent houses — if not palaces — with seamless indoor-outdoor poolscapes.

It was natural for the swimming pool to become an emblem of the suburban dream in sunny Southern California, with its culture of experimentation and cinematic glamor, but architects took it a step farther in the 1950s and 1960s, when they incorporated it into the house and treated it as a room in its own right (naturally the air could get a little thick). Los Angeles-based ranch house popularizer Cliff May, for example, made the pool part of the living

room in some houses, like this one in Rolling Hills from 1963. (That planter by the pool was important — you wouldn’t want your LazyBoy to roll into the drink during cocktails by the fire.) In a house May designed for Tucson the

pool is shaded by an extended gable made of ocotillo branches and has a stone table/island at the center — it’s a marvelous shimmering and shady mirage of a desert isle made real (both photos by Rochelle Kramer, courtesy RanchoStyle).

Los Angeles architect John Lautner turned the pool into abstract architectural sculpture, especially in his great Sheats-Goldstein house on a steep hillside, of 1963, where the pool resembles a solid block of glass inserted flush with the

patio, which is itself an extension of the living room under its concrete roof-riff on the triangle (photo by ARTJOCKS courtesy James Goldstein). This remarkable design is all about contrasting solids and voids, enclosure and exposure, and geometric shape expanding into space toward Downtown LA.

(photo courtesy Arcspace). Originally only a curtain of air separated inside from outside, but this was later replaced with glass. The pool also functions as a sort of aquarium for swimmers because windows look into it from the master suite on the lower level.

Today, architects around the world have put pools everywhere, even on the

roof, as this famous house in Paris by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) of 1991 shows (photo courtesy OMA). A recent design by the inventive

Singapore firm of Guz Architects keeps the pool on the ground but lifts the house over it in a dramatic acrobatic gesture. The structure floats while the pool supports — a wonderful reversal of roles.

Italian architect Lorenzo Spano, who is part of our Exclusive Studio, has

developed this idea in his Plan 473-2, shown here, where the bedroom floor

is above the pool. The living-dining-kitchen is at pool level. Part of the hallway

floor is glass, so you can see through to the swimmers below. Perhaps Lorenzo was thinking of the Blue Grotto on Capri! Swimming pools just seem to encourage “freestyle” home design.

9/11 Memorial, Plus-Pool, and the Power of Design

Water Work

The power of design was made evident to me once again when I visited the recently completed National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York. First you must receive a free visitor pass from the Memorial website specifying the time for your visit.
Then, when you get to the site – which is surrounded by seven skyscrapers in various stages of construction – your visitor pass is inspected and you enter a long line of switchbacks that, after about half an hour, leads into a small lobby where you pass through x-ray machines – as if you are boarding a plane – and

then go out again down a blue walkway, around a corner, to the park itself,

which is a geometric expanse of granite pavers and lawn under a forest grid of swamp white oaks. (The Memorial museum is not yet finished.) Ahead are the two vast 200 feet-square, 30-feet deep pools — one tracing the footprint of the north, the other, the south tower of the World Trade Center. Wide balustrades — dark bronze waist-high, slightly tilted tablets inscribed with the names of those who died in the towers, at the Pentagon, and on Flight 93 — rim the top of each thundering cascade.

Architect Michael Arad had wanted the names to line walkways behind the falling water at the bottom of each pool, which would have turned the water into a veil of tears and would have given each visitor a more private experience, but security concerns made this impossible, hence the inscribed slabs at the top.

The sound of the rushing water and the sheer expanse of dropping space draws you ineluctably to the edge. It is the 21st century equivalent of Frederick

Church’s famous painting of Niagara Falls of 1857 (image courtesy The Corcoran Gallery of Art). The scale of the opening and the volume of the water is mesmerizing. But now it’s not just the power of nature we

are witnessing but the power of human nature we are enshrining. My first thought was that the design is too repetitive but then I realized that it isn’t — since the names are all different — and anyway the towers were twins in presence and must be twins in absence. And at the center of each dark pool is a further, darker chasm, where you can’t quite see the bottom and the water falls into emptiness. Thus the monumental scale and the depth-within-depth describe the collective loss itself, both literally and figuratively.

The ingenious weir at the top turns the water into a painterly element.

The long airfoil shape made of comb-like tines breaks the sheet of water into individual strands that then recombine in a thin curtain of silver to flash in the sunlight. The weir also spreads the flow evenly, maximizing its apparent volume while minimizing actual water and energy use.

Landscape architect Peter Walker — who worked with Michael Arad — spoke of the way the design is about filling and emptying at the same time (as I mentioned in a previous post about Walker’s talk at the Monterey Design Conference), and this seems especially apt, for a memorial is about filling a void that cannot be filled and holding memories that must not be forgotten. This is abstraction at its most elemental and powerful — like nature itself.

In the Swim

On a lighter note, one of my daughters made me aware of another approach to water in New York that is both wonderful and crazy: the cross-shaped multi-purpose Plus Pool (four pools in one) designed to float in the East River and that is being proposed by Dong-Ping Wong of Family Architects, and Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin of PlayLab.

They got hot last summer – “So we proposed a pool. More specifically, we proposed a pool that uses and filters the very water that it floats in. A pool that makes it possible to swim off the shores of New York, in river water, that’s clean.”

The engineering firm Arup devised a filtering membrane that makes the clean water possible.

And the four-part configuration allows for a variety of swimming styles.

Through a Kickstarter campaign they have raised enough money to test the filtering system. Ingenious. Part of the power of design is thinking outside the pool.




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.