Monthly Archives: December 2010

Pixar and Other Points of View

Animate the Holidays

A recent visit with a friend who works at Pixar, in Emeryville, California (the remarkable animation studio) opened my eyes to the importance of organized chaos — which struck me as a fitting subject for a holiday homily. You approach the campus along a very orderly allee:

The forceful tractor beam that is the axial vista draws you inevitably toward the main entrance. It seems very corporate and somewhat anonymous. But then suddenly a shape that’s both familiar and fresh looms above you

and light dawns (literally) and we’ve arrived at a special place where imaginations can soar.  The company’s clever desk lamp symbol is itself animated while remaining stationary simply by virtue of its giant scale, and recalls work by the great pop artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. The rationally organized approach effectively frames the delightful disruption. Inside the main entrance is a similar relationship between order and activity.

The main space is geometric, divided into bays or modules, while a variety of occasionally random activities take place within it — from cafe and rolling carts

to relaxation stations. I like the way the building provides a structure for flexibility. That’s what I think a good house plan should do. In some houses, like ours, the Christmas tree does a good job of adding just the right touch of chaos, since it takes up a good deal of the room and drops needles everywhere and leans a little to the left, and has several gaping holes that my mind’s eye is always wanting to fill. Oh well — onward and upward!

Current Events

I’m excited to report that this modern courtyard design — Plan 488-1 by Houser Walker Architects in our Exclusive Studio —

is in the “Houses We Love” feature in the December Dwell magazine (unfortunately the image is not visible on Dwell‘s website). This week is also part of a very thoughtful article about the price of good design by Lloyd Alter on Treehugger. And two new plans have arrived from Italian architect Lorenzo Spano; one, Modern  Row House Plan 473-3

with a balcony running across the rear elevation, and the other,

Contemporary Suburban Villa Plan 473-2 that cantilevers over a small pool so that the water can be both shaded and  sunny. A good spot to dream about the future. Happy holidays!

Sears Stock Home Revival

Sculpting the Classic Home

Meet Michael Curtis — a sculptor who also designs houses — and the newest member of our Signature Studio. Here he is at the Supreme Court with his portrait of Justice Thurgood Marshall. 

His most significant sculptural commissions include The History of Texas at Texas Rangers Ball Park, Arlington, Texas, the largest US frieze of the 20th Century; numerous portrait busts for the Library of Congress, The Supreme Court, and other public buildings. Recent statues include General Eisenhower and The Shipbuilder, both in Alexandria, Virginia and his painting, sculpture, and architectural drawings are represented in over 250 private and public collections. He also designed The New American Home 2011, debuting at the National Association of Home Builders Show in Orlando this coming January (to be described in a future post).

Naturally Michael’s house designs are rooted in the classical tradition, as you can see in his Plan 492-2 The Philadelphia, which re-invigorates the Colonial Revival style while adapting it to modern living.

The symmetrical arrangement of windows, porches, and columns adds a sense of courtly elegance and poise. Lots of curb appeal here: “Knock, knock, Ben Franklin, are you home?!” Inside, the layout of the main floor follows a classic Georgian/Colonial plan, with central foyer and stair hall between living room and kitchen/dining room. The rooms are distinct yet connected to one another (guess what: no dead-rooms!). Space flows gracefully in a circular motion, making this a good house for playing tag with the family dog — something I do quite a lot — and my ultimate test for a good floor plan.

Both the island kitchen and the dining room open to the screen porch or sun room as well as to the central hall. The living room opens to the central hall and to its own spacious covered porch. Because each main floor room is so well defined even as it connects to other spaces, the house can feel intimate or expansive, depending on the occasion. Such a design immediately brings to mind the Sears mail order houses of the early 20th century, like this one,

called The Lexington, from 1927. Note the price, $4030 for the whole house, not just the plan! The almost circular layout (too bad the living room has only one way in from the hall), the side porch, the symmetry, and the shutters are very similar to The Philadelphia. According to the online Sears Archives (a treasure trove of information): from 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold 70,000 – 75,000 homes through their mail-order Modern Homes program and designed 447 different housing styles. Well, I guess you could say Michael Curtis’ plan is an improved late entry!

In Plan 492-3 Ann’s Arbor, Michael departs from the Sears model somewhat in opting for an almost geometric Greek Revival style design. He wraps a very simple gabled rectangle in a porch with Tuscan style wood columns, like a modest Greek temple.

The Greek temple form is also evident in the floor plan,














with a very straightforward arrangement of rooms. In good weather the front veranda becomes an outdoor living room, while the side porches allow master suite and dining area to expand as well. Upstairs














there’s space for three bedrooms and a game/media room. More Michael Curtis designs will be debuting shortly. It’s a pleasure to welcome him aboard.

Two New Design Books

The subject of classical design is handsomely explored in the just published Classic Homes of Los Angeles, by Douglas Woods, sumptuously photographed by Melba Levick (Rizzoli).

Many of LA’s most impressive eclectically styles houses from the 1920s and 1930s are here including mansions by Paul Williams (who also produced several important stock plan books), George Washington Smith, and Roland Coate, along with brief histories of each commission.

A new book of architectural criticism also caught my eye: Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, by Blair Kamin, architecture critic at The Chicago Tribune.

Most of the essays are about Chicago but several are especially perceptive about larger issues. For example, he describes the restoration and improvement of Paul Rudolph’s famously battle-scarred Art & Architecture Building at Yale, a building that suffered fatal flaws in circulation and ventilation — and even a fire — despite heroic sculptural ambitions.  (I remember that building from my own time at college — with its fortress-like ribbons of corduroy concrete; if you leaned against it you bled. ) Kamin applauds how the redesign solved the functional problems and says “It is fitting that the restoration at once celebrates him (Paul Rudolph) and sends the broader signal that no matter how disheveled they appear, masterpieces of mid-twentieth-century modernism can and should be preserved.” Another essay on the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (2,717 feet) shown on the book’s cover, praises the skill of its design while acknowledging the questionable nature of the tall for tall’s sake commission. I like his final punch line: ” Nothing succeeds, it seems to defiantly declare, like excess.”

Idea Patios, Ranch House, Architecture Essays

Space to Think

I think we all need a place to think (perhaps especially during the holidays). For me that sometimes means looking out the window or just finding a quiet place to read or write. Architect Jerry Veverka’s solution is what I would call a “contemplation courtyard” just outside his home office, combining elements from the house of Mexican modernist Luis Barragan and Japanese Zen gardens. It’s  in his new house in a fairly dense older neighborhood so outdoor privacy was important. The view is to a small, vibrantly hued but spare patio courtyard with its simple wall fountain pouring over a gravel floor pepppered with glossy bowling ball “stones.”

You walk through it to get to the study. Jerry’s desk faces it. His wife’s office faces the little patio from the other side; a very clever arrangement which can easily convert to a guest suite or in-law unit at some future date.  Here’s another view from the terrace off the living-dining area.

See how it draws the eye — you wonder what’s in there, and the sound of water adds to the allure. It’s a classic example of an “in-between space” that acts as a kind of a visual and mental palate cleanser, focusing the gaze to set the mind free. Even the sky takes on an artful aspect  when framed by such colorful walls. Such a simple idea — what a recirculating pump, paint, gravel, and a steel spout can do to make a  special “room with a view.” 

Speaking of frames (as I often do), here’s a quick update on our ranch house revival (Plan 508-1 by Nick Lee. I was worried that the water tank near the master bedroom would block the view but now I think it will be ok.  Here’s a photo looking through the window frame from where the bed will be, taken last week.

The tank becomes part of the landscape and doesn’t overwhelm it. The rest of the house is rising fast. The exterior walls are up.

And you can see the foundation for the long west-facing porch.

We are on track — though perhaps the pool will have to be postponed, for budgetary reasons. Next week the roof trusses should be up and I’ll have more to report.

Book Review

Shameless Self-promotion Department: I have an essay about San Francisco architecture between World Wars I and II (originally written for an exhibition at SF Museum of Modern Art) in a new book called Frozen Music: A Literary Exploration of California Architecture, edited by David Chu with a forward by SF Chroncle architecture critic John King (Heyday Press, 2010). The articles range from a chapter by 19th century novelist Helen Hunt Jackson to recent pieces by architecture critics Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp and include classics like Charles Moore’s “You Have To Pay for the Public Life,” which was one of the first architectural appreciations of Disneyland. Needless to say I recommend the anthology — perhaps an essay here will spark your own idea patio.

Tiny Houses and Architect Lester Walker

Small Is The New Big

It’s a special pleasure to welcome architect and teacher Lester Walker into our Signature Plans Studio. His Tiny Panelized Cottage (Plan 510-1) is particularly relevant for today’s economy because it’s compact (at about 250 square feet), efficient, and full of character.

The gabled micro cottage is essentially one room for living, dining, and

cooking (including an enclosed corner bathroom) opening to a screened porch, which can be used as a summer living room. A ladder leads to a sleeping loft over the kitchen. The design would work as a starter home, cabin, or even an in-law/guest house for the backyard.

Another favorite architectural type for Walker is the American farmhouse, as shown in his White Traditional Farmhouse (Plan 510-2),

which updates historical examples with a two-car garage and more open and contemporary layout that combines, kitchen, breakfast area, and home office.

The master suite is on the upper floor

and includes a study that is accessible both from the master bedroom and the hall (no dead-end rooms!).

A variation is his Very Small Farmhouse (Plan 510-3), shown below,

which has a storybook look with its simple porch, front gable, and double hung windows — easy to imagine at the edge of a cornfield or down a country lane.

The 1,000 square-foot plan is simplicity itself — a wide open main living area and kitchen; the bedrooms are upstairs.

Walker is the author of several influential architecture books including the indispensable classic American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home (Overlook Press).

It describes building methods and the characteristic features of architectural styles. I keep a copy by my desk. For example, the illustration below explains how a modern prefab is put together (courtesy Lloyd Alter on Treehugger).

The late great architect/educator  Charles Moore called it ” a genuine feast for the eyes and mind” — and I agree. Equally useful — and delightful — is Tiny Tiny Houses: Or How To Get Away From It All (Overlook Press), where Walker explores the world of living small —  from Thoreau’s cabin beside Walden Pond to a contemporary dune shack. (Image below courtesy Apartment Therapy).

Detailed perspective drawings explain how a wide variety of fascinating diminutive — even Lilliputian– structures are constructed. Two of my favorites are the historic 196 square- foot Sunday house  in Fredericksburg, Texas and the so-called “1950s Ranch”  in Virginia that’s  a mere 109 square feet — I guess it’s not a rambler but a squisher!  The book uncovers a treasure trove of historical and contemporary architectural novelties from across the country.

I admire Lester Walker’s ability to combine practical building expertise with an understanding of and enthusiasm for the diversity of architectural history. As he says: “Creating a home is a multi-faceted experience that borrows from the past, studies the present, and imagines the future. If owner, architect, and builder remain open-minded and resilient during the design and construction process, the result will be personal, comfortable, and exciting.” Well said. Welcome, Professor!