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potter house 1949-1950

cape elizabeth, maine
marcel breuer, architect 1902-1981

The exact circumstances of Marcel Breuer being chosen to design this house for the Potter family are not entirely clear, but it is assumed there was a relationship established between architect and client in Cambridge some years earlier.  By 1949, Breuer had moved from Boston to New York and had established his practice there, but was still interested enough in this commission to take it on from a distance.

Concurrent with its construction, Breuer had a full scale house that he designed installed in the courtyard of MOMA in New York, which elucidated many of the concepts at the heart of his residential work.  He was starting to build an international reputation.  Throughout his career, he maintained an interest in residential architecture, considering it a laboratory for concepts subsequently investigated at a larger scale in his public commissions.   The Potter House fits into this pattern of experimentation.

A brief review of Breuer’s biography is a narrative of the strong influences reflected in all his work.  Educated at the Bauhaus under Gropius, he returned there shortly after graduation—still in his early 20s—with the role of master of the woodworking shop.  The robust quality of his architecture, strongly rooted in the material at hand, no doubt had its roots in that woodworking shop.  During those years, he produced his first pieces of tubular steel furniture which were received very favorably by the design elite, and proved him to be a serious designer.  Later, he practiced in both London and Berlin before coming to the U.S. where he taught with Gropius at Harvard and collaborated with him on several projects before starting his own practice in 1941.   His work always maintained a sense of Bauhaus clarity and reduction, even as he developed his own place within a de rigueur modernist vocabulary.

As with many brilliant architects who produced innovative work, it can be difficult in decades-later retrospect to recognize the uniqueness of the work.  But in the house we have at hand here in Maine, even a brief examination will remind us of his contributions to an architectural vocabulary which influences us even today.  The Potter House has many elements typical of his work, and exhibits both consistency and specificity, two conflicting concepts he masterfully integrated in his houses.

The consistency comes as he repeats certain architectural devices on several projects, including this one.  Like many of his houses of this period, it is a fairly simple wood structure that sits atop a stone wall which engages with a sloping site, and the materials and execution are similar to other projects of his outside of Maine.  The butterfly roof, the strong stone walls, the cadenced entrance sequence, the bi-nuclear plan concept, large planes of glazing and solid wall, the interest in simultaneous grounding and floating forms:  they are all here.

We can see the specificity of Breuer’s design solution by looking at just one of these devices:  the stone wall.  The site slopes up from the street, and Breuer uses the slope to maximum advantage by positioning a long stone wall parallel to the road.  It is a dramatic gesture that creates a sectional solution:  The U-shaped driveway comes up from the street and runs along the stone wall, under the living spaces above.  This creates an earth-bound, sheltered arrival experience, and allows the main living spaces to hover comfortably above the street on the arrival side and spill out on grade on the back side.  As one enters this space by car, there is a powerful contrast between the stone wall (with areas of exposed ledge) on the right, and the open side—supported by light columns—on the left.

This stone wall, however, has even more significance in the house.  It imbues the house with a sense of earthiness that was rare for this generation of modernists.  The Glass House and the Farnsworth house, constructed almost concurrently with the Potter House, use natural materials in a much more limited and controlled manner.  The Potter House, as many of Breuer’s houses of the period, embraces the rough and organic quality of stone and contrasts its heaviness with the lightness of the wood structure above.  The stone remains very much grounded to the earth, and the wood structure and planes of local white cedar float above.

Finally, the stone wall, despite the seeming simplicity of its gesture, sets up a datum on the site that allows for several complex relationships between interior and exterior.  It has a different relationship to the wood structure on each of three sides:  It follows the footprint of the house on one end, turns to create the aforementioned sheltered entrance sequence, and extends past the upper story on the other end, returning and engaging with the sloping grade.  This extension of the wall into the landscape makes it feel independent of the wood structure above it—as if it were an archaeological ruin on which a new house was placed.  It also allows for a terrace garden at one end of the upper story of the house.  The scale of the garden has been somewhat reduced by a later addition to that end of the house, but it still retains its feeling of independence.

The Potter House rarely appears in books on his work, and it’s not clear why this is the case.  Some sources suggest that Breuer did little construction administration on the house, and there is the possibility that the design was somewhat modified during construction without Breuer’s approval.  Apparently there were also conflicts around construction costs and water leaks, which may have damaged the relationship between client and architect.  Nevertheless, almost 60 years on, the house tells its own stories, and still retains an experimental vitality that few houses of this age possess.  Recently purchased by a new owner, it is being restored and renovated in a manner that both respects its original concept and yet recognizes it as a family house as appropriate for life in 2009 as it was in 1949.