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.

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.

Two Old Rockers

Not Mick and Keith, but two examples of that quintessential American invention, the rocking chair. At first glance these are not the most attractive, nor even the most comfortable, but each has elements of formal design logic that make them interesting.

The first one, dating from the 1870’s, has a fluidity that draws inspiration (perhaps) from the organic form of a tree.  It also reflects, in its curving form, the experience of movement. The most striking feature are the arms, executed in a wave that anticipates a favorite motif of the aesthetic movement.

The second example dating from 1900 takes an entirely opposite approach – fluidity and organic design are rejected in favor of an elemental composition. As an assemblage of ‘sticks’ it is virtually a constructivist piece, a woodsman’s version of Rietveld’s de Stijl chair.  It is an uneasy design that almost challenges the sitter to try rocking without the frame collapsing like a stack of kindling.

The rocking chair offers a wealth of design approaches that could draw upon metaphors of movement or instability, fluidity or rigidity, comfort or unease.  It is curious that the modern movement has left this form behind or, as in the case of the weakly designed Eames rocker, failed to recognize the distinct nature and dynamic of the rocking chair.

The Dreaded Nest of Tables

As a design concept the ‘nest of tables’ must have fallen further out of fashion than almost any other furniture category.  And yet there are lessons we can learn from actual examples that could be reinterpreted to produce an exciting result.

This set is difficult to date, possibly 1930’s or immediate post-war.  The interesting feature is the pictorial finish to each table top:

The grouped image infers that the scenes are part of a greater, vertical composition, each table occupying an aspect of the visual field from near to far. In fact they are not interlinked, but this could be adopted in a reworked version to make a direct connection between the diminishing form of the nested tables and the diminishing horizon line of the image.

These tables from the 1950’s are matched rather than nested, but echo the first example through the use of color:

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Again, a reworked example using triangular nested forms could extend the theme of interconnection through the sequential use of complementary colors or shades.

The key design element for the nest of tables is surprise – as each table is revealed the surfaces have the potential to create a larger visual narrative.

‘King’s’ Chair

Here is an intriguing chair being offered through SF Craigslist. Described by the seller as a ‘king’s chair’ it combines a triangular leg configuration with circular or ovoid arms and a plank-style back. The proportions are equally unusual – 51″ high by 17″ deep by 23.5″ wide.

The design style is a peculiar hybrid of gothic detailing, modernist proportions and craftsman materials (quarter-sawn oak). The piece could easily be reworked to give the impression of a mid-century modern piece or even a Memphis-style offering from the 1980’s.

Major Update to Website

The CODA Projects website (www.codaprojects.com) has been entirely redesigned for easier navigation.  We have also added an ‘Elements’ section summarizing our recent product design work, specifically furniture and building components.  All feedback is very welcome.