The American House

March 27-28, 1998, Charlottesville

By Vernon Mays
[Reprinted from Inform 1998 issue 2]

They came from faraway places, these half-dozen architects who assembled at the third Virginia Design Forum to examine The American House. A seemingly narrow theme—the house—was more than ample fodder to generate widely diverse opinions and interpretations. Through a series of excerpted remarks by the speakers, this article seeks to capture the essence of the animated weekend conference.

Twentieth-century canons

Presentation by Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University

Frampton is the author of the acclaimed Modern Architecture: A Critical History and, more recently, the American Masterworks series book The Twentieth Century House.

Gwathmey Residence

In selecting the houses to include in my book, American Masterworks—basically an anthology of the American houses of this century—I allowed a vague concept of “canonical” guide my decisions. My definition of canonical had three points: One, programmatically precise in terms of proxemics, heirarchization, and finishing of the interior space; two, formally articulated in terms of rhythmic mass and modeling of exterior form; three, topographically integrated in terms of land, landscape, orientation, site—the nature/culture interface. I suppose there should be a fourth that wasn’t really a definition of the term canonical, but was there as a kind of butterfly in my head, that being the representation of a certain intense moment in the evolution of the 20th-century American house.

On Frank Lloyd Wright

Pope-Leighey Usonian House

I think Wright’s Usonian houses remain some of the most remarkable, really democratic, American contributions to world architecture. Sadly, they are not used referentially by architects today. But look how they distinguish between the private and the public, the L-shaped house as an almost quasi-courtyard house enclosing a garden. The continuity of the living space and the continuity of vertical doors in relation to the terrace, embedding the pipe in the concrete floors, the staining of the floor in Cherokee red, the use of built-in storage, the centralization of the services. All of this is Wright at his most brilliant.


On Philip Johnson

Glass House

This, of course, will get me into a lot of trouble, but I feel that Philip Johnson—who’s a brilliant person, without doubt—but Johnson’s Glass House, in my opinion, remains the master work of his life. In many ways, given all of the stuff Philip has built since, he might as well have stopped right there and never built another thing. And it is not just Mieseanism, it is a different rendition. It is particularly New England and very American—and Johnson will never equal it.

On Sea Ranch

I don’t personally feel that there’s a single Charles Moore building that equals Sea Ranch. From the point of view of accessibility and the point of view of a belief in collective life—Sea Ranch is it. And in terms of the nature/culture relationship, it seems to me that Sea Ranch is impeccable.

On Charles Gwathmey

Charles Gwathmey’s house for his parents, completed in 1967, exploits the interplay between the house and studio. This is, of course, neo-Corbusian, but it is filtered through Edward Larabee Barnes and through a kind of American minimalism, a kind of American barn construction. The play of the geometries between the two volumes and the kind of space they create is among the best—Gwathmey’s most sublime house.

On Recardo Legoretta

One of the sad things is that North American doesn’t look to Latin America. Given the production of Latin America, we know nothing of the last 25 or 30 years, and we seem to be indifferent about whether we know any more. Ricardo Legoretta is an exception. Legoretta is an incredibly important architect because he has somehow been able to do three things. One, to make modern work that is unequivocally of its own time. Two, to make this work in such a way that it can be read at many levels and is accessible to the society at large. And third, to be able to do it rather economically.

On a Mission: Affordable Housing

Presentation by Donald McDonald, FAIA, principal of MacDonald Architects, San Francisco.

McDonald believes passionately in the concept of every human’s right to a home—not just a shelter.

America’s middle class has been the real glue of our society. But making the climb up to the middle class is very difficult today and there is an architectural piece to that puzzle. It is what I call affordable housing, which goes back to the basics of building a house and doing it simply. That’s where I come from: What really makes a home? It’s a place that is safe and secure, a place that has privacy—privacy in the interior of the home and on the exterior with its relationship to other homes.

Flexibility is very important because it’s a multi-generational thing, as well as a matter of customizing your own home. The idea is to build a house that can change so you don’t have to leave the community as you get older. You can stay in that house and you can rent a part of it or use the whole space. It can be bought by one person, subdivided into two pieces, or sold off. It would have a long-term life to it.

You also need a stable neighborhood, so I’m interested in community. Then we go even further. You have to have a city that has a clear boundary. By clear boundary I mean you can’t allow the city to continually grow and let the middle of it decay. My work focuses on these issues.

There are about 100 million Americans who can hardly pay their rent or mortgage. Or they’re homeless or in some different stage of living with two families to a unit. So we as architects have a tremendous job ahead of us. In our society, at least in Western culture, the 45-degree roof with plants in front of it and windows and two stories high is really an icon that says: “I am a home.” I have used that icon in most of my buildings, especially in communities that aren’t affluent and are missing a real sense of community.

I approach affordable housing by asking: “How do I build housing that is inexpensive at high density?” I try to stick with the square. Fundamental elements such as that help make housing affordable. What I call my Rubik’s Cube House is one where the floor plan can work in any direction. You can blind some of the walls and the roof itself can be turned if you want solar. So it can be changed at each level.

The idea here is to maintain the mentality of a detached house. Survey after survey prove that 85 percent of Americans want to live in a detached house. The trick is to achieve that in high density. I do it by using a two-inch air space between each of the houses. This maintains the house as a symbol of detached home: yard, front door, not attached to anybody else. To do it, we got condominium laws rewritten so they describe the space people are buying: to the outside of the house, the top of the building envelope, and the underside of the foundation. It’s an unusual twist, but it makes it so you can sell it fee simple and the person can make changes without going through a homeowners’ association.

To give the houses individuality, we made a kit of parts. The idea is to change the elements on the house. They are small units and all have a garden. In providing this variety, giving individuality, changing the shape, and using vertical space instead of horizontal, it gives an opportunity to play with very tight space. In these houses, the living room is 12 feet wide and 16 feet high. You get views of the street scenes and vignettes beyond because you’re up on the second and third levels and not living on the first floor.

The future—particularly in urban spaces—will be more and more complicated. Architects have to take a different role. They have to be much more aggressive. They have to solve problems creatively. We are the profession with the ability to take the bull by the horns. We have to go beyond architecture. We can’t just wait for someone to walk in the door and say: “We need you.” We have to lead by example.

Soft-Spoken Steward of the Earth

Presentation by James Cutler, FAIA, principal of James Cutler Architects, Bainbridge Island, Wash.

Cutler has shown an equal dedication to design excellence and reverence for the environment.

I grew up in a coal town in northeastern Pennsylvania. I actually grew up in a place where I thought, and didn’t find out differently until much later, that snow automatically turned black after two hours of being on the ground. I had slag heaps in my backyard. The hills and the mountains on either side of me had been on fire underground, they smoke. It’s a totally devastated environment—totally. Then in 1974 I moved to Bainbridge Island in the state of Washington, and it was paradise.

Bridge House, photos by Peter Aaron/Esto

Eight thousand people lived on the island then. It’s about the size of Manhattan. It was just wonderful, beautiful beaches, great vistas to the mountains. And although it rains a lot, I’ve learned to love rain. So I started a practice, and I biked from my house to the office most every day. And it started to happen, after a while, that I’d go down a road and some area would be clear cut and some architectural masterpiece would be placed on it—and the land would be insulted. It would be devastated. Every year I’d end up changing my route because there was some new insult.

It all came to a head about 1983, when I received my first big commission. It was on a 200-foot-wide, about 2,000-foot-deep waterfront property, and I used to go out with a transit and spot trees and survey. I just liked being outside. I did it intuitively, there wasn’t any logic to it, but I’d go out there and shoot grades and spot trees.

This particular piece of land had never been cut. It was a fine old-growth forest with six-foot-diameter trees everywhere. It was like being in a cathedral, it was so beautiful. And I went out there and spotted the trees, came back to the office, and did a design where I fit the building into these massive trees.

Disturb nature as little as possible.

Then the owners came in for the first presentation and they said: “You’ve got all of these trees still here. Why are you doing that?” And I said: “Well, I’m going to fit it in. I’ll make the building feel like it’s always been there. It’ll be flawlessly fit.” And they said: “It’s going to be dark! You’ve got all these trees.” And I said: “No, you’re on the water. And on the water you always get double light quality, because the light comes up off t he water almost as strongly as it comes down from the sky. I’ve never done a dark building. It’ll be fine.” And then they said: “Well, we were talking to the logger, and we can get $4,000 for those trees, and we can get better draperies.” And I said: “No, really. I’m going to make this work, please. This is going to be terrific.”

And I bickered with them, particularly with the wife. I really was making the case for saving the trees, because I thought they’d be good for the design, and I just couldn’t imagine cutting them. So she called me up about two weeks later and said: “Jim, could you come and meet me out at the site?” I immediately started to smell something, so I borrowed one of the cars in the office and drove out to this place. I came around the corner and here was a gap 2,000 feet long by 200 feet wide of dirt sloping down to the water with about four smoldering burn piles from the roots of these trees and the logging trucks just leaving. I’m being truthful in saying I was stunned. I got out of the car. I was vaguely aware of the owner’s wife yelling at me, wagging her finger. But I couldn’t catch my breath. It was like watching a murder or a holocaust. So finally, I started listening to the owner and she was saying: “Jim, this just shows you shouldn’t argue with us. We’re going to do what we want to do.”

For about two years after that we didn’t do any work. It was like waking up one morning and finding out that you’re the enemy, that you’re part of the system killing everything you love. Then one day some people came in who had some land on a little stream running into the next harbor south of my office. South-facing, real beautiful land. They came in and said they’d been working for a year and they’d gotten a permit to fill the little stream and clear cut the property. Could I design a really nice little colonial for them? They had only heard that I was kind of a good designer, so I explained to them I couldn’t do that. I told them why, nicely, and they left.

About a month later, they called up and said: “You know, we found a nicer place. What do we do with this land? You’ve made us feel really bad about getting this permit to fill the stream.” I went out and got a developer. I had this idea. Have any of you read Barry Lopez? He’s a naturalist writer, and I had just finished reading Arctic Dreams; it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, a great book. It’s about the food chain. And the one thing you get out of that book is that people treat land the way they perceive it. That sounds sort of silly and circular, but the fact is if you perceive a place as beautiful, pristine, full of life, or full of food, you treat it that way. You respond to it. If you perceive is as a junkyard, you treat it like a junkyard.

And we thought, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to design a building with so little impact on the land—that kills so little—it’s going to be a great example for the next person who comes and buys the next lot over, from California or Texas or wherever they come from. And we’ll teach them how buildings are built here, how it should feel. So the developer and I bought the property. And we designed this little speculative house as a bridge over the stream, knowing we would kill the least by bridging over the stream.

Glass block hearth welcomes stream spirits.

The other thing that I had learned at that point was what happens on construction sites. That is, that you dig a hole, and when you dig the hole you put the spoils somewhere. And that kill everything around it. And then you’ve got to get around the spoils, so you kill all that. And then you’ve got this other killed ground, so you stack lumber and materials down on that and then you’ve got to walk around that pile. I found that our construction areas were growing at the rate of maybe one, two feet a day. So by the time we were done, we were getting these wonderful architectural monuments in the middle of small nuclear blasts. We decided that we would design the staging of the materials: how they came in. We sat down with the contractor and then we talked to the workmen. We just talked to every single one of them and said: “Hey, this is a really beautiful place. It’s sort of sacred to us. Can you just help us and try to keep it alive.”

And they wanted to. They took it as their job. It wasn’t a burden on them, and we find that on all of our construction projects now people willingly want to do this. They want to help. It probably costs $500 to stage this sort of just-in-time delivery of materials.

As an aside, the developer felt that he had saved the stream and that there were spirits in the stream. He had us do a glass block hearth so the spirits could rise up into the building. Since doing this building, he became an “undeveloper,” where he buys crippled land and restores it and gets the government to pay him to do it as mitigation for other damage elsewhere in Puget Sound. He just did a 20-acre wetland that had been filled in the 1920s, restored it as mitigation for some racetrack in south Seattle. So this experience was helpful for him, too.

Neotraditionalism: ‘It’s a façade—a stage set.’

Presentation by Barry A. Berkus, AIA, founder and president of Berkus Design Studio and B3 Architects + Planners, Santa Barbara, Calif.

Berkus and his teams have long been recognized for innovative approaches to urban planning.

Let’s talk about subdivision America, about the place that we debate a tremendous amount and why neotraditionalism has gained a foothold. The neotraditionalist zealots are speaking to ears that are open, because universities are sending students out into planning departments all over the U.S. with the idea that there’s only one answer—and that’s to recreate a turn-of-the-century town fabric.

I have gone to visit most of these places, because I wanted to know why they’re good and why they’re bad. I went to the Kentlands, to Celebration, and to Harbortown. I looked at the street, then went to the alley and I tried to figure out: Is that where I want to live? Why does it work” Why doesn’t it work?

It’s a façade. It really is a stage set. It really does talk about a place that existed before, but it doesn’t have a hand of contemporary society on it at all, and that bothers me. If anybody could have created a city that brought the contemporary visions of architects forward into a community, Disney cold have. One thing that disappointed me about Celebration was that the backs of the houses don’t fit the site. You end up with garages that are 15 feet lower than the house. There are stairways down to platforms that are not places to be. There are places where the doors in the back of the houses don’t reach the yard, except by using very tall stairs. It’s because this place was plotted in a way that the grid looked great on paper but never was thought about on topography. So land will tell you what the buildings should be, even in subdivisions.

I love to go back to the images of Olmsted, who, as you know, was a landscape architect in the mid-1800s. He did Central Park in New York. He did Riverside in Chicago. Remember, as we were becoming an industrialized society, the cities were becoming places where we couldn’t live any longer because of disease, because of odor, because we were living next to the smokestack. The place to go was the suburbs. Olmsted believed that we had to have a romantic street, that we had to have landscape. We should live in a park. I still think that’s very important today—for people in a community to understand that they live in a park.

In the mid-1970s, we did a project in Irvine, Calif., called The Highlands. The streets were laid out as cul de sacs, the ends of small neighborhoods. There are about 20 houses on each one of the streets. The neotraditionalists and the New Urbanists say that’s a leap, that they want cross traffic. They want multiple choices for how you enter to a community and how you leave it. They say that the grid works for you by offering a variety of ingress-egress opportunities.

But I believe that most people really want to live in a quiet area, that they’ve had the noise all during the day and want to come home to a place that’s quiet. If you can live in a neighborhood where you can entertain on the street, where the kids play street hockey, where there are barbecues, where the street itself ends up in the greenbelt system that takes you to the school or to the parks—this is something that modern communities began to explore and then wasted because the streetscapes became so redundant. The cookie-cutter patterns of house took away from some of the great ideas and the land planning done in the ’60s and ’70s.

The organic edge to me is very important, because in a subdivision, or in any development, it’s important to have a sense of density in the center that comes apart on the edge. Predictability is something we get bored with. When I travel with my wife, if she gets to Paris and finds the river, she can get anywhere. If she gets to Venice and finds St. Mark’s, she can get anywhere. She needs a point of reference. And I think in our design we’ve lost that point of reference in new community planning.

Ruminations on House and Home

Presentation by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA

Jacobsen established his architecture practice in Washington, D.C., in 1958. Since then, his buildings have won 110 awards for design excellence, including six national AIA Honor Awards.

First I’d like to clear up a few terms, ones that are batted about a lot. There’s a difference between “housing” and “houses.” Housing to me is masses of tract housing, repetitive, built to the market—housing. That’s opposed to houses, which are one of a kind. Architects design houses. Mom makes “home.”

Photo by Robert Lautman.

There are so many things to know about houses. Everybody is born, lives, and dies in houses—and therefore they know all about them. Then in come the professionals, like ourselves, who spent our entire career, our entire education, our absolute dedication trying to solve and improve that trinity of the w.c., the sink, and the tub in order to make a better bathroom. And in comes Mrs. America and tells you how it should be done. Then you’re right back to where the plumber was years ago. I’ve always believed if the plumber can do a better job, let him do it. Our job is to design something that, hopefully, will be an improvement, a contribution. Houses must survive mumps, measles, chicken pox, and the onslaught of popular tastes. Good houses are still out there—that four-room, center-hall plan of the 18th century is still there, not because it’s quaint, but because the bloody plan works. It’s a good house.

James Renwick said in 1871 that the purpose of American architecture is to build a building that will last, give or take, 25 years. Now when you look around at our cities you realize it was very prophetic to say that as you watch our skylines go up and down and you watch this marvelous urban sprawl wipe out our cities’ downtown cores and the countryside. We have yet to do anything about it.

As far as urban and regional planning, we are in a terrible dilemma—a kind of retro phase, going backward with the New Urbanism and the charm of Windsor and Seaside. I remember a marvelous debate between Andres Duany and Peter Eisenman. And Peter said: “What in God’s name are you guys doing down there in Florida?” And Andres said: “We are doing cutting-edge planning and architecture.” And Peter said: “If that’s cutting edge, I’m a crypto-Fascist.” And Andres said: “I’ll accept that.”

One of the questions I’m often asked is why do I design houses? I have three children, a wife, and a family, and I need work. I was trained, like all of us, as a generalist. There is not a building type I have not designed and not built. But you get typecast like Lassie in this profession and right now 80 percent—no, 90 percent—of my work is single-family detached houses. Prior to the great crash of ’88 to ’90, 80 percent of my work was in university buildings. I have not had a jingle on the telephone since. I remember a number of years ago, I was introduced: “Jacobsen has chosen to remain small.” What a crock! I am doing houses because that is what I have to do. But I do love doing them.

Regionalism, Texas Style

Presentation by David Lake, FAIA, principal of Lake/Flato Architects, San Antonio.

Since 1984, the firm has been constructing practical buildings whose ingenuity and craftsmanship merge tradition with new technologies.

Ted Flato and I met in O’Neil Ford’s office in 1980. O’Neil Ford is important to me and to Texas not only because he was the first preservationist, but he was also a Modernist. He pushed the limits of his Modernism as he saw it. And we took his cues. When I think of houses and what thy mean to me, I think of what thy meant to O’Neil Ford. When others might start considering where the bedrooms go and the bathrooms belong, he would stop and say: “Why don’t you think of this house as a ruin? Why don’t you go down the timeline a bit and see what this house would be like as a ruin? If it’s a good ruin, I like it. I don’t care about the bathrooms.”

Really that’s what he meant by premodernism. The permanence of our shelter takes us all the way back to the visceral experience of the old adobes. The reason they make you feel good is because you get this sense of being in a cave. All five senses are really challenged by great, old premodern structures.

In our design work, one of the things that inspires us are the great architectural and industrial buildings sitting out in the Texas landscape. The silos especially are a very powerful element. About eight years ago we had an opportunity to work directly with one of these buildings. We had a client who had no money—but he had a Butler building. He came to us and said: “Can you make something out of this Butler building?” I said: “No, but we do know of a cement plant down the road that is being salvaged and sent to Mexico. All the steel is being melted down.” So he went down and talked to the demolition guy and worked a deal. This client is a great scrounger. He traded his Butler building for the Alamo Cement Plant. Not only did he trade for this building, which had great girder trusses in it, but he worked out a deal where they would go out to his ranch 30 miles away and erect it.

One we worked our way into getting this building, we had no idea what to do with it. We never dreamed he would really get it. Then he called us back and said: “I’ve got it.” And then we thought: “Oh my gosh, now we’ve got to figure out what we’re really going to do with it.” This is a situation where it was nice to have somebody who didn’t care about convention. We took the building and broke it into three pieces. The trusses are 40 feet wide and the span between them is 12 feet.

The largest screened porch in Texas.

So for about $125,000 we built this house, and it is still on of my favorites. The building is screened and the stone building floats within it. Part of the reason we did that is the cold winds come out of the north, so we use the stone portion like a baranca, a way of diverting the winds so the screened porch becomes living space.

We used a myriad of industrial materials. Whenever you turn the corner to go into the building, you go from corrugated metal to sheet metal. It’s a way of addressing that tricky corner detail you always have with corrugated metal. And on the screening, we came up with a detail of doing an angle and running the screen laterally. Screening comes in 48-inch widths and any length you could possibly want. So the screening runs continually down the length of the building.

It’s the largest screened porch in Texas, which of course makes it the largest screened porch in the world. The lights, the stair, the angles are all from the original cement plant. We took the old clinker kiln brick, which is curved, and made an inglenook from the cement plant. So you hang out around the fireplace. The floors are concrete and outside is paved with Mexican brick on sand. They really use this screened porch. Central Texas has a very mild climate, if you know how to design for it. They can live out there literally 10 months of the year.

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