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the enigma of arrival: the elusive essence

I could describe the specific steps that led us from attending a quiet open house to the day, barely two months later, when we moved into this 1948 gem by A. Quincy Jones.  Suffice it to say, we knew we wanted it within sixty seconds of walking in, and we’re more sure of it every day.  But the task I’ve set for myself is to use words to deconstruct this physical artifact, to a degree that attempts to objectify its essence.  Here goes.

The simple description of the house is this:  It’s barely changed from its original 1950 condition, it’s a modest size that feels manageable, and it has a floor plan that is perfect for us.  In 1200 well-choreographed square feet, there is a spacious living/dining room, a kitchen more functional than anything we’ve previously experienced, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a gracious entrance hall.  For Los Angeles, it sits on a large lot and has several mature trees.  There is a strong visual and physical interior/exterior connection.  None of this, however, describes the essence of this house.  Why does it feel so good to be in it?  Why does it appeal to architects and non-architects alike?

I believe it’s because the design of the house is a studied, conscious collaboration of intuition and intellect, two concepts that are rarely successfully integrated by one architect.  Both aspects of a house can be appreciated by anyone, but in general, I define intuitive those physical aspects of a house that might be found in any good space from any era, may or may not bear the mark of a specific designer, and are typically appreciated more universally.  Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language was an attempt to catalog those aspects in the built environment.  Intellectual aspects typically come with the territory of design education, and they are initiated in a desire for consistency and reason.  They may be appreciated by non-architects (and are high on the list of what makes life worth living for us architects), but they can be obscure and hard-won.

I’ve recently visited several houses by prominent architects built within 5 years of this one, and each one leans toward the intuitive or intellectual end of the spectrum.  Included in that group is the Payson House by Chermayoff (1952), the Potter House by Breuer (1950), the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe (1951), and the Glass House by Johnson (1949).  Each of these houses is an investigation of larger tenets of modernism and specific interests of its architect.  Each has its own character.  Breuer’s Potter House may be the “earthiest” of all of them, with its robust stone walls and informal massing techniques exemplifying an intuitive manifestation of modernist principles.  The Farnsworth House, on the other end of the spectrum, is a fastidious intellectual exercise, gets an A for its flawless logic, and was, unfortunately, a difficult house for its owner to live in or appreciate.

In this house, there are several aspects which simultaneously enhance the intuitive and intellectual experience.   Transparency through the section of the house is one example.  Many visitors notice this right away—“wow—it’s so airy—you can see right through it.”  Which is true, and oddly remarkable, since it seems so simple, and yet so little architecture accomplishes this.  (A Pattern Language, Pattern 159, “Light on two sides of every room”.)  Upon closer examination, that is indeed what’s happening, but it’s happening in an usual, sophisticated manner:  diagonally through the section of the house.  On the private side, there are large panes of glass at a human scale, extending up to 7’-0”; on the street side—which is incidentally uphill—the large windows start at 7’-0”, bringing in light, maintaining privacy, and drawing one’s eye up the hill from inside the house.  This ability to “do” several things simultaneously—bring light and views in, mark private and public, develop a section that responds to the specific topography of the site, and solve it with a reductive, rational architectural solution—is the result of the hand of a sophisticated designer who can simultaneously solve multiple design challenges.

Another aspect bridging both intuitive and intellectual realms is in the structure of the house, which is based on a post-and-beam concept. Its visual expression is something that almost everyone notices and responds to.  In a built environment predominated by vast surfaces of gypsum wall board hiding any and all expression of what holds the building up, there is a structural revealing to post-and-beam which is appealing, as well as being visually complex.  Here, the post-and-beam system has been reduced to a very economical assembly.  Columns are built up of smaller pieces (typically a 2” x 7 ½” core with 1 ½” x 3 ½” stiffeners on each long side).  But the consistency in this system, along with how it is adapted for particular joints on the house is quite remarkable.  Nothing is wasted.  At doors, for instance, the stiffeners are also the jambs for the French glass and screen doors.  Every column assembly is integrated perfectly into doors, windows, cabinetry, wall finishes and concrete block walls.  The mental process of the architect, working many hours to refine these details to make them consistent and economical, is evident.  Indeed, it is an elusive look into the mind of a talented and fastidious detailer.

A third example of intuitive and intellectual success of the structure is evident in the big, compositional gestures of the house.  A desire for complexity is typically a common interest of my clients, although it’s defined differently by each client.  For architects, the desire for consistency can sometimes conflict with a desire for complexity.  I believe architects are accused of desiring emptiness and reduction simply because they love seeing the architectural concept when it’s clearly expressed, without extraneous details obscuring it.  In this house, they both coexist:  Order reigns, in the insistent structural grid, the clear expression of shear walls, the use of a specific material always perfectly suited for the task, the form of the house never arbitrary.  These attributes would be clear to a second-year architecture student who had learned to diagram building concepts (and to other architecture fanatics).  But still, there is much complexity that appeals to others, as well.  In a limited palette of just a few primary materials—including concrete block, redwood post-and-beam, douglas fir plywood, tongue-and-groove redwood siding, and glass—a matrix is created with a seemingly infinite number of intersections occurring, each one perfectly resolved.  Similarly, an interior division of space with a very limited number of partitions yields a rich suite of spatial experiences:  contained, open, ambiguous, defined, et al.

Still, the house continues to reveal its wonders in layers.  As I learn one aspect of its logic, I discover another to be examined.  The essence as well as a comprehensive understanding of the design remains elusive.  And in the intuitive realm, each season interacts with the house in a different way, imbuing the various spaces with evolving moods depending on the quality and angle of the light.

Next:  the demands of living with perfection