Work in Progress: Back to the Future

A New Jersey mansion looks to 1950’s austerity Britain for inspiration

Here is a sneak peek at a project that has been on the practice drawing board for the last nine months.  It is a curious tale of childhood memory, migration, displacement and family connections.  It raises questions about the personalization of architecture and its potency as a concrete manifestation of ‘home’. But let’s begin with a story:

In the mid-1950’s the client’s father, a successful retailer, decided to build a contemporary home for his young family in the London suburbs. The appointed architects, Higgins Ney & Partners, developed a design that combined traditional brick construction with the then-fashionable Brutalist style. The house presents an entirely blank facade to the street, while a fully glazed living room to the rear faces the open countryside. This understated approach reflects the prevailing post-war mood when it was considered unpatriotic (or just bad taste) to flaunt your wealth while rationing and austerity remained the everyday norm.

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Fast forward to today and our client, now living in New Jersey, is ready to build his own contemporary home. For him ‘contemporary’ has a very specific meaning: it is that particular mix of English vernacular and European modernism that represented ‘home’ throughout his childhood.

His design brief was simple: to create a property that is discrete and imposing in equal measure, with an interior arrangement that lends itself to both grand entertaining and extended family gatherings. Architecturally it should draw upon key aspects of the original family home: it will have a blank entrance facade, like its 1950’s counterpart; a flexibly planned living room should form the primary space of the composition, also echoing the earlier house but on a much larger scale; the private areas of the house are to be strictly separated from the public realm, in this case by an internal courtyard. Other accommodation, including a swimming pool and a play room, are located in a lower floor which is largely invisible from the outside.  Here are some preliminary visuals that give a flavor of the current design:

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View from driveway with the Great Room window at center and blank entrance facade to right

Ext.2 smCorner view with master bedroom above and pool room below

Great Room comb. smViews of the Great Room

There are many points of similarity between the two houses, from the treatment of the windows and patent glazing to the use of identical bricks imported from the UK.  But equally interesting is how the design diverges from the original.

The distinctions are clear when comparing the two main floor plans side by side. The original house (shown left) has a pinwheel arrangement largely dictated by the topography and orientation of the site – in this respect the design closely follows the natural planning approach of Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra. The new house by contrast is an O-plan, focused on the interior rather than exterior world. The natural environment is visible but kept at bay, with the controlled environment of the inner courtyard acting as a counterpoint.

Heathbrow plan comparison sm

As in all residential commissions the home is ultimately a mirror of the self. Although this design draws upon the client’s childhood memories it really expresses a more developed attitude to the public and private realms of an individual’s life. Architects are not psychiatrists but they should be aware that the homes they create are ultimately representational of their client’s individual (and possibly subliminal) self-image; the design’s success may be more contingent on what is not said than on the initial requirements of the brief.

Stay posted for further developments.

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Spirit Chairs

A few years ago, when I bought the carved chair back pictured below left, I thought it was perhaps a Mexican green man image, or just a grotesque face from the carver’s imagination.

This week I was surprised to see a very similar piece (pictured right) being offered for sale here in the Bay Area as a ‘North Wind’ chair.  In this case the artist was named as Elizabeth Smith, who lived and worked in Los Gatos at the turn of the twentieth century.

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I was intrigued. What is the story of ‘North Wind’ chairs?

Well, it turns out that chairs of this type were very popular in the mid- to late-nineteenth century as part of the Gothic Revival period. The gargoyle-type face was usually known as “Old Man North”, although images of other mythical creatures such as ogres and the Celtic “green man” were also in vogue during this period.

Here are a few more examples from the web:

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Is the North Wind chair particular to California? They were actually made across the US, initially by European immigrant carvers, but the resonance of the gargoyle face with Hispanic carving and religious iconography could suggest a stronger tradition in the West and South-west than elsewhere. Is it possible that these chairs retained some vestige of their primary spirit-cleansing function for the native population?

Snapshot Paintings

Everyone knows how difficult it is to ‘capture’ the spirit of a place through photographs. And yet we still take a spontaneous snapshot because the scene or the moment somehow represents the character of that space and our experience of it.

A brief visit to New York earlier this year was hastily recorded with photos ‘on the go’. Later, when I had a chance to review them, I realized that I was actually trying to record textures, reflections, the luminosity of the architecture at twilight or at night, the blur of people passing along the avenues, and other intangible impressions.

Two of these snapshots were reinterpreted as paintings to celebrate  the qualities of light and materiality that I experienced in New York:

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A view of Broadway at night, with the Empire State building in the background.  I was drawn to the ethereal glow of the Empire State’s pinnacle, which appeared to float disembodied above the rest of the building.  The bright lights at street level accentuated the dark sky creating a strong contrasting band.

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Subway steps at twilight.  The warm colors of the concrete steps and cream-painted walls contrast with the blue twilight sky.  The surrounding buildings throw animistic shadows across the scene, lit by the muddy orange glow of the subway’s globe lights.