Architects’ Own Houses and Regional Ideas

Homework for Professionals

What houses do designers design for themselves? A fascinating exhibition at the College of Environmental Design at Berkeley titled “All Their Own” begins to answer this question by showcasing architects’ and landscape architects’ own homes in drawings and other documents. All the work on display is drawn from the extensive collections of the Environmental Design Archives. Here is  Earl Nisbet’s compelling rendering of a romantic modern stone and glass mountain cabin. He studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and you can see this in the strongly geometric house form, the characteristic fine-line drawing style, and the nature-derived color palette with the patch below the window wall that’s highlighted a favorite Wrightian shade of orange-red. This sort of presentation rendering is unusual because there is no need to”sell the client” when you are designing your own house. The preliminary sketch by William Wurster (one of the founders of the College) for his U-shaped weekend house at Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco, seems almost child-like: just a bare outline, a few scribbled dimensions and notations — like “SAND” for the courtyard. The house he actually built wasn’t very different — a kind of stable for people, with concrete floors, each bedroom opening directly to the sand courtyard though Dutch doors, and a main living/dining/cooking space — the very essence of simplicity. So in a way, the minimal drawing expressed the esthetic perfectly.

Often a designer’s own house becomes a kind of advertising for her or his work. This was especially true for folks like Frank Lloyd Wright, who never stopped adding to or tinkering with Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona; or ranch house popularizer Cliff May who took things to an extreme by designing five houses for himself and his family over the course of his career.

Some of the plans in the CED exhibit vividly show the designer’s mind at work. Here’s the first house that architect Jerry Veverka designed for himself on a steep leftover lot in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Jerry documented his thought process. His notes on the yellow graph paper indicate he tried out several different schemes to analyze flat roofs vs. gables, and a central vs. an off-center garage. The upper 3-D drawing shows a later, more fully worked out elevation. See how the “full height sun porch” from the yellow trace has morphed into the big window on the colored sketch and how he has settled on gable roofs and an off-center garage. The cutaway view below shows how he has conceived of the house as a loft with the master bedroom overlooking the main living space so both rooms can share the big window wall. See the stair-stepping fireplace and the broad steps leading down to the living area from the dining space: in fact the drawing shows how the whole design is about taking advantage of stair forms and large windows to make such a steep site habitable: the architectural imagination at work!

Another image captured my attention —  a 3-D drawing by Charles Moore for his own house in Orinda. This image shows the concept: treat the small house as a series of four-poster pavilions under one roof, like nested boxes. The bigger four-poster was for living; the smaller for sleeping and bathing. The idea probably came from Moore’s time as a teaching assistant for Louis Kahn — Kahn’s Trenton Bathhouse, shown below in a model (courtesy Wikipedia and not in the CED exhibition) is a famous example of pavilion design. Moore made the idea his own by miniaturizing it and packing everything into a single volume: a sort of architectural wardrobe.

One of the most revealing items in the CED exhibit is this letter from Moore to landscape architect Lawrence Halprin while both were working on the plans for The Sea Ranch community on California’s North Coast. Note the hourly rate in 1965 that Moore charges for his own time: $4! So…What will you have: a decaf latte or the services of an eminent architect for an hour?! (I guess coffee then must have been about a nickel a cup…) Though we cannot match that rate at we can be very reasonable; and we even offer the plans for historic Sea Ranch Cottages designed by Charles Moore’s partner Bill Turnbull. Hold the java and hire us!

Be Regional

One of my periodic rants is about regionalism in design — that is, the need for a connection to a place, culture, or time. Though I am a fan of Modernism in all its variations I also want to see a little regional relationship to help me know where I am. That’s partly why I’m so enamored of porches you can really live on — they allow outdoor living on balmy days and shelter from the weather on stormy days; they respond to the climate. Think of the houses along the Florida Panhandle, for example, like our Plan 443-10, with its expressive screen porches and sun shades over the windows. The outdoor spaces are designed to catch the breezes in a humid climate. To me it evokes a Florida style of building, while the interior layout is open and contemporary. Regionalism also has to do with materials — building traditions grew up around whatever materials were easiest to come by: bricks or concrete block in some places, wood in others. One of the exciting things about observing how home design is evolving is to see the ways modern and regional ideas can be combined. Look for more reporting on this topic. Welcome spring!

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