The Architect’s Imagination
I recently attended a private benefit for U. C. Berkeley’s Environmental Design Archives at an extraordinary Mid-Century Modern house. Designed by architect Ernest Born for himself and his wife Esther in 1951, the simple board and batten exterior (shown at left, photo by Morley Baer, courtesy EDA) literally draws a redwood curtain across the front of the house. See how the top rail reaches across the driveway to complete the geometric composition — like a curtain rack itself. The house is in a windy location near the ocean so the wall functions as a wind break as well as privacy fence. But what a surprise inside! You pass a galley kitchen under a balcony (that’s part upstairs hall, part study) and enter a sensational loft-like two story living room overlooking an expansive rear garden — this view is from the balcony. The monumental two-story square window wall functions as a gigantic lens for looking out and looking in and effectively doubles the size of the indoor world. The fireplace is treated as a geometric sculpture — — the brick firebox resting on a cantilevered hearth and fronted with vertical wood strips below the cylindrical chimney. It’s clear that Born was influenced by Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City of 1948 with its iconic square window, mentioned in earlier posts, but there’s also a strong resemblance to the loft-like living room of the Charles and Ray Eames house near Santa Monica of 1949, shown at left — though in the Eames house the window wall is treated as a more complex grid, steel ceiling ribs extend outside to form a canopy, and a wall of books extends along one side (image courtesy Gabriel Ross Blog, which covers modern furniture, lighting, and home accessories). Experiencing the Born house — which also has a beautiful and deftly composed contemporary addition by Aidlin Darling Design — see the three-story addition on the left in the photo above (by Dwight Eshliman, courtesy the architects) — made me look for significant modern houses that you can tour by appointment. Spring is the best time to explore — here are my current top five (not including the Eames house and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, discussed in previous posts).
Los Angeles, California. The Schindler House (part of the MAK Center) by Rudolph Schindler of 1921 is really two living units and was built for Schindler and his wife, and his engineer colleague Clyde Chase and his wife. The tilt-slab concrete-and-glass construction was both forward-thinking and historically minded, with outdoor fireplaces and roof decks. The entry fee includes a visit to the Fitzpatrick-Leland house of 1936 also designed by Schindler (however, only on the first Friday of every month — photo courtesy MAK Center).
Dearborn, Michigan. Futurist-engineer R. Buckminster Fuller’s famous round steel Dymaxion House of 1947 (though initially conceived in the late 1920s) is one of the exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum. The name was invented by a publicist who followed Bucky Fuller around and eventually combined parts of words that he seemed to use a lot as he was speaking about his inventions: “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension.” The shiny metal structure — a sort of cross between a spaceship and a souffle — was meant to be a prototype for efficient modern living, though only one was built. Two prefab bathroom units and a kitchen pod are at the center, ringed by living areas and the two bedrooms.
Norman, Oklahoma. An organic original. The Bavinger House of 1950 by the brilliant and eccentric Bruce Goff, who studied for a short time with Frank Lloyd Wright and developed new versions of the quonset hut during World War II, is one of the most unusual modern houses in the U. S. In concept it’s a spiraling stairway under what feels like a tall tent. A series of living and sleeping platforms are suspended on cables along the stair like giant candy dishes. The modernity is in the openness of the interior, the free-form structural conception, and the novel use of materials.
Plano, Illinois. The levitating, mirage-like, glass and white steel Farnsworth House, by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, takes modernity to an extreme. As Marc Myers wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal piece: it’s “part fishbowl, part tree house, and part transparent time capsule.” It was built for doctor Edith Farnsworth as a country retreat; only the bathrooms are enclosed.
New Canaan, Connecticut. Architect Philip Johnson’s justly famous Glass House of 1949 was heavily influenced by the Farnsworth house, but here, instead of floating over the landscape the structure is firmly grounded in it — in fact becoming an artful rearrangement of it. Again, only the bathroom (the cylinder) is enclosed. Johnson told the story of a visit by Frank Lloyd Wright: Philip met Frank at the front door. “Well, Philip” said Frank. “Am I inside or am I outside? Do I keep my hat on or do I take if off?” Johnson kept the building/landscape dichotomy front and center by prominently displaying an important 17th century landscape painting by Nicolas Poussin in the living room. Now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house is open for tours by appointment from May through November. The house is one small part of Johnson’s large estate, with many other buildings by him, including an underground art gallery and a lake pavilion, which can also be toured. (Photo courtesy The Glass House.)
It’s interesting to note that few of these landmark modern houses have garages — apparently architects didn’t like dealing with the automobile (some still don’t). But spring is a good time to think about reorganizing. I saw these garage storage systems by Gladiator Garageworks in KBHome’s Greenhouse at the Home Builder Show and was envious. The units free up the floor space so there’s room for all kinds of tools and sports gear as well as cars. Brackets supporting the shelving click into horizontally grooved wall panels. Cabinets on casters add flexibility. Gladiator also has a new 66.5 inch bamboo-topped modular workbench with leveler legs for uneven floors.
So maybe this is how a modern architect would at least organize a garage, if not design one from scratch!