When A Building Makes You Who You Are: Leo Berk Goes Home Again
by Jen Graves
on Tue, Apr 12, 2011 at 1:14 PM
Leo Berk spent several of his childhood years sleeping under that skylight.
A house made Leo Berk an artist. It was a miraculous house. An impractical, leaky, flamboyant house made of steel ribs and gobs of discarded green glass and coal and wood and rope. This house is called the Ruth Ford House (great photos)—it was designed by not-quite-legitimate (in a good way) architect Bruce Goff (a onetime student of Frank Lloyd Wright) for the flashy artist Ruth Ford in 1950 in Aurora, Ilinois. So many people came to gawk that even attention-hungry Ford had to move out, and a series of owners followed. One of them was the Berks.
On the jump is the story of how the Ruth Ford House turned 6-year-old Leo Berk into the artist he is today, with pictures. Last month, Berk went back to his childhood home to live for a week, sleeping under his old skylight and making new art based on the formative place in a "residency" he invented for himself, with permission from the home's current owner, architectural historian Sidney Robinson.
One view of the exterior, with the exposed steel ribs.
So tell me about this residency you invented.
Well, I’d always stayed in contact with the owner who bought it from us in December 1987, Sidney Robinson. In 2001, I went and spent a couple of hours there and I started crying in front of him because it was just so overwhelming—I have a lot of experience tied up in the house. The house has changed his life in a parallel way to the way that the house has changed my life. Before he came to look at the house, he did not like the architect, Bruce Goff. He didn’t take him seriously, didn’t think he was anyone of importance. It is a really hard house to own in some ways. Before we sold it, we had had it for sale on and off for years.
You lived there how long?
Seven years, from age 6 to 13.
It was like negotiating the sale of an artwork instead of a house. The first thing my dad said was, the roof leaks, and Sid said, “I would expect it to.” And that’s the moment that my dad thought “Oh, we might actually have someone that’s going to buy this house.” The house is more sculpture than it is residence in terms of functionality and practicality.
How did your family find it?
I grew up in a tiny rural village in England, too small to be on the map. My dad worked for a construction machinery company, and he got transferred—my dad is American and my mom is British—to Aurora, Illinois, where the factory was. They sent my mom and my dad out to go house-shopping ahead of the move, and they looked for a house for two weeks and couldn’t find anything in their budget that they liked, and, like, the day before they left, they drive past the Goff house.
My dad sees it from the back seat out the corner of the window and sees the for-sale sign and the real estate agent tries to talk him out of it, but he wanted to go. And my dad then said that was the house they were going to buy.
My dad is a very practical person, but with these moments of spontaneity—and that was one of them. They decided to buy the house right then. I think it was in maybe foreclosure? It was in very bad shape, and they bought it for not a lot of money, and my dad did a lot of work on it to get it livable. So it was one of those moments that completely changed the trajectory of my life, I believe. I honestly don’t think that I would have been an artist had I not lived in the house. I don’t actually know what I would have done, but I don’t think I would have been an artist. That house shaped me, and that’s really what I was trying to think about when I was there, was how architecture can really shape someone, how it can transform someone in a positive way.
A collaged-together view of the 25-foot-diameter skylight Berk slept under.
When were you there? Did you sleep in your old bedroom?
The dates were March 22nd to the 29th. Yeah. I had two bedrooms in the house, and I slept in both. One of them I shared with my brother when we first moved there, and one of them was when my brother wanted more space and I wanted my own room—there really are only two bedrooms in the house—so I moved to the balcony which is kind of an interior balcony. So I had a room with no walls that was in the center of the house and this skylight, it’s like a 25-foot diameter skylight and that was just basically the ceiling to my room. So I slept there one night [last month]. Sidney left me in the house alone for two days and one night, so that night I slept out in the open, basically, in the middle of the house.
Coal wall with glass section.
What were you thinking would happen?
I woke up from a dream [months ago] about the house where I had an idea for an artwork having to do with the house —
Could you remember the artwork?
Yeah, I did. And actually I don’t know if I thought of the artwork after I awoke or while I was asleep, it was kind of in-between. But that’s not how I usually think of artwork. I thought, I could go back and make a whole show about the house. I’ve always talked about how the house has influenced my aesthetic, but I thought why not make a show that is directly about the house and how it shaped me and how architecture can change people.
So what are the hotspots in the house for you? What are the places that feel?
Well…there’s a lot!
The orange steel ribs are salvaged from World War II Quonset hut structures, they come together to make a skylight.
There’s the orange piano that came with the house, was made for the house, color-coordinated with the architecture.
There’s the floating stairs, these stairs that kind of climb up this I-beam.
There’s that central copper clad spire that is also the fireplace, and there’s all these structures in the house that—the way that everything intersects, all these pieces and materials, is really unusual. Like the floating balcony is almost suspended. The pie of the house, the interior/exterior part is separated by this 20-foot tall glass wall.
The exterior wall is made out of coal—this black masonry is coal. All the wood is cypress. On interior and exterior surfaces there are these World War II surplus hemp rope lines—navy surplus, so made to be exposed to the elements.
There are chunks of green glass interspersed in the coal. He sourced them from this plate-glass factory in St. Louis: They’d have their giant ladle for pouring out this glass, and then what was left in the ladle that didn’t come out, it would cool and then it would crack, and they’d take it out of the big ladle and put it into this giant pile of irregularly cracked chunks, and so that’s what the glass is.
And it goes all the way through, so when the sun is setting and the house is getting dark, these chunks of glass are shining brightly. In the evening and in the morning, it’s just, like, unbelievable.
There’s so much glass in the house that for privacy there’s these rubber and fig trees that are growing in planters alongside the glass. It’s really organic in the way that he created places for giant trees to be growing inside of the house, and you might see some growing into the skylight in different images of the central skylight.
In the bathrooms are these large terrazzo, cast-in-place tubs, and over them were round skylights salvaged from B-17 bombers—and the ceilings in the bathroom are rope that swirls around this B-17 bomber dome. While my family lived there, we managed to break both of the bathroom skylights, so that’s one of the projects that I’ve begun is finding replacements for those [working with the Museum of Flight in Seattle].
There’s a strip of neon that illuminates upwards at the herringbone ceiling. So that was a pretty innovative thing for 1949.
And there’s the radiant floor. That was what I was having the dream about.
It was kind of early on with radiant floor technology, so it had some kinks to work out and had these hot spots and cool spots. I have this memory of lying on the floor and trying to align myself with the hot spots watching TV.
A section of wall with rope.
What was the dream?
So when I went there I rented an infrared camera and I shot imagery of the floor. You can see hot and cool spots, so suddenly you can see where all of the copper pipe was inside of the concrete from heating the floor, and I shot imagery so that I could make something from that. My original idea was I wanted to make a rug with that image on it, the infrared image. That was my dreamt idea. I haven’t gone back to that piece yet, but so far that’s what I think I’m going to do. Just the memory of how that floor really defines the space in a way, like the cat would always sleep on the warm spots, and so you kind of developed a sense of the warm and cool spots on the floor in the house. So I went back and mapped them with this tool so I could depict them and really understand what was going on beneath our feet, too.
There’s not one opening window in the house. There’s just ventilation hatches all around the perimeter of the large dome and around the perimeter of the bedroom wings. There’s not one bit of drywall or plasterboard or anything like that, so everything has a material that is itself.
There’s concrete, cypress wood, rope, coal, glass, a little bit of painted wood but really very little of something that’s being altered as other than its real material quality. So that’s kind of like where I think I get a lot of my material sensibility as an artist, too.
Not masking things.
Right. All of the doors and, well, there’s very few straight lines in the house, so there’s these closet doors and cabinet doors that are all curving, so the craftsmanship in the house is insane.
When I went back, I just couldn’t imagine owning the house and having to maintain the level of the craftsmanship that the house was built to, it was really high. So I’m sure I get that from the house.
A lot of Bruce Goff’s houses have kind of, like, disintegrated, and this one has not—it really depended on who built them. He didn’t do a lot of detailed drawings. He really relied on the builder to figure out a lot.
I’d always known that this house was built by someone who studied under Bruce Goff for a little while, but I didn’t know that when he built the house he was 26 years old.
Wow. What’s his name?
So he was the general contractor and he was 26. And I know back in the 1940s, people grew up a little bit faster, but this still floored me that he did that when he was 26 years old. It was built for I think $60,000 and built in 17 months.
Did you and Sidney talk at all about the work and the show you’re working on?
Oh yeah. The three nights he was there, we went out to dinner and talked for four to six hours each night and had breakfast together on two of those mornings and hung out for at least three hours talking.
He knows everything about the house. He knows everything about prairie modern architecture. He knows everything about Bruce Goff. He’s a 67-year-old architecture professor who has a lot to talk about.
It was such visual and emotional stimulation from being at the house, from being back in this place, and then I got intellectual stimulation from this professor, from just talking about the place.
Have other artists worked at the house?
Stephen Prina shot a film in the house a few years ago. [The Way He Always Wanted It, 2009.] It premiered at the Tate Museum [London]. I haven’t seen it because I did write Stephen Prina a couple years ago wanting to see if there was a way that I could get the film to show at the Henry [Seattle], and he didn’t respond. Sid has even tried to get in contact with Stephen Prina because he thought he was going to be getting some kind of copy of the film, and Sid is not hearing back, either... I’ve had the film described to me, there are long, tracking, curved dolly shots in the house that are sequenced with live music being played in the house and Stephen Prina singing.
Do you know why he [Prina] chose the house?
Originally he just wanted a house that had a curve in it that could match this track that he had for this dolly. And then when he found the house, the piece started becoming more about Bruce Goff and about the house, and I think some of the lyrics he wrote for the song come from love letters between Bruce Goff and his lover. So it sort of became about the architecture and the architect.
There’s also a John Cage piece where you play the living room of a house, so Third Coast Percussion are going to be doing that on the 100th anniversary of Taliesin—I think it’s this summer. They’re making a video of that. I do have this idea that I could have a show about the house and also screen that Cage video and also the Stephen Prina film.
When you make work about the house, do you think of it as documentary or fiction?
Fiction. Fiction in that it’s my experience of the house, I’m not trying to make an objective depiction of the house. And so I did that infrared photography and then I also shot some videos there that were pieces that I thought of while there.
You’re a sculptor, even when you’re working on paper. Have you ever shown video before?
Yeah, I did, long time ago, when I was in the Bumbershoot show that Michael Van Horn curated. It was a video that I shot at the same time that I was going to the veneer mills and doing the veneer pieces. I set up a camera over the veneer conveyor and shot video of the veneer shooting past, slowing down, stopping, starting ,and then there’s steam coming out of it, so it’s kind of a seductive image. I did kind of a poor job of capturing that image and wished I had done better.
Leo Berk and Sidney Robinson
What were the ideas you came up with at the house, and why video?
I shot some videos that were just documentary, like I need to remember this. But then I shot one video that was just a moment, kind of like an epiphany moment, where you see something and it leads to all these connections happening in your mind.
Acoustically the house is insane, you can talk quietly and hear somebody all the way on the other side of the house because it’s a giant dome. At one point Sid started playing piano and I shot video right then.
What’s the next step for you?
Well the first thing I did was go to the Museum of Flight [looking for B-17 dome windows to replace the original skylights], and I edited these two videos, and Scott [Lawrimore] is working on exhibition possibilities for this show, because it’s not going to happen in his current space. I’d love to have a show in that space but this isn’t going to be it. And then, I want to make some sculpture out of some of these materials.
I forgot to mention the smell of the house, which is powerful and as soon as I cross the threshold of the door it’s the first thing that hits me. It’s this smell that I have never smelled anywhere else, and smell and memory are really connected. I’ve done a bunch of research on what that smell could be, and I think I’ve figured it out, and I’d like to get that into sculpture somehow too. There’s so many good materials, you know, to work with, that are associated with the house, that I just want to try out making sculpture with them, see if it looks good, see if I can do it. So that’s the next step.
In the house, did you dream?
Yeah, all my dreams happened in the house when I slept there. And I’m also not, like, a big rememberer of dreams, but all of the dreams I had, I remembered dreaming about the house. It’s one of these things where there’s a risk of sounding really corny and ridiculous when talking about the house because I’m not normally a person that—I’m pretty practical and not really someone that really gets caught up in sentimentality. Really, I usually don’t like artwork that is in any way nostalgic. But I have this belief that the house made me who I am, and that’s kind of a crazy thing to believe.
Most architects you talk to today would not give Bruce Goff much thought or kind of think that he was a wacko. And I understand that, because when you look at his architecture, it’s really different than the current convention of, like, white-walled glass boxes, really pared-down minimalism of today’s steel and glass. I wouldn’t be able to really argue with someone, with an architect, about whether or not this is good architecture, academically good, or theoretically good. But what I would be able to argue is that I lived in that house for 7 years and it changed my life for the better, and that seems like a pretty ambitious, amazing goal for architecture, and if that’s possible, then to me the house is really an enormous success.
I’ve been thinking so much about the house—it was built at the same time as the Mies in Plano. But that one is floating above the ground, and this one is sunken, literally, into the ground. That one is facing all outwards and this one is facing inwards into the center spiral.
There’s a not very good Goff house in Seattle. I think it’s on Queen Anne. I drove by it years ago and can’t remember what it looked like. He also composed music—he would compose player piano music directly to the roll, so not writing out music but actually cutting out little squares with an X-acto blade or whatever, each square, four sides, punching out these holes to be read by a player piano, so they have this visual character as well as this musical character. Creatively, he was kind of an enormous person.
How many residents have lived in the Ford house, and what will happen to it next?
It has been landmarked, so it’s protected, and Sid has set up a foundation to pay for any repairs into the future beyond standard maintenance. I think there have been 11 residents. It’s an experience. The house leaked like a sieve. I remember this Hills Brothers coffee can we had, that we put out to catch water—I found it in a closet when I was there, completely rusted. I recognized it right away.