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Friday, October 12, 2007

But Is It Art?

posted by on October 12 at 10:24 AM

A what point does a home become a work of Art?

I knew nothing of architecture growing up, like many Americans of my generation, in a subdivision filled with nearly identical 1960s and 70s cracker boxes. Then one fateful day as a young teenager I walked into the Fay Jones designed Nance Residence and it’s no exaggeration to say that my view of the world was transformed.
My best friend in high school lived there, and I got to know the house very well. Over the years, I was amazed to constantly discover new features of the design. The glass walls, fountains, metal sculptures, and built-in cabinetry all integrate seamlessly with the house’s natural setting and their relationships to each other. Even more sublime is the way that Jones wove both natural and artificial light into the composition. In the interior photo, you can see the clerestory window in the gable allowing soft sunlight to filter through, while a complex system of soffit lighting and hand-made recessed lighting covers shield the eye from the glare of light bulbs. The massive stone hearth (one of three in the house) along with the stone floor evoke powerful primitive feelings of shelter, permanence, peace and security, while the residents watch the colorful, ever-changing seasons from the comfort of the interior. Like his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jones preferred very low ceiling heights in entries and hallways as a psychological method of pushing people out of those transitional areas and into the more grand living and entertaining spaces. Jones’s style has at times been called neo-craftsman but is more broadly considered to be an example of Organic Architecture.

When most people think of modern design, they often picture Bauhaus/International style white surfaces, minimalism, rooms that are only to be looked at –never touched, and 2001: A Kitchen Odyssey. Organic design celebrates colors, shapes and textures, especially exotic ones.

Organic Architecture emerged as a reaction to the mechanization and de-humanization of the Industrial Revolution. As a style, it’s characterized by designs inspired by forms and materials occurring in nature, integration of the site within the overall composition of the home, an informal arrangement of interior spaces, and a deep personalization of the home to the needs of the owners. The purpose of the structure is often to soothe the soul and provide inspirational beauty as well as shelter. Louis Sullivan is frequently credited as the father of the Organic Architecture movement in the late 1800s, but it was his master apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright, who brought the practice into the mainstream. Wright’s influence on American architecture is well documented (perhaps overly so), and even the generic ranch houses of my youth were simply poor copies of Wright’s most popular designs. It was the generation that studied and learned from Wright who created some of the most memorable residential architecture of the 20th century and an enduring school of American design.

Lloyd Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s son (I’m sure he never got tired of being introduced that way), lived in Los Angeles and further refined many of his father’s concepts. Free of the tyranny of cold winters in this mild climate. Lloyd created some of LA’s most recognizable masterpieces, including the gorgeous, copper clad Samuel-Novarro House:
And the Meso-American temple inspired Sowden House:
While the Samuel-Novarro House is slightly more traditional in concept, the Sowden House eschews tradition entirely and features concrete blocks on the fascia which have been imprinted with stylized leaves, branches and grass on the columns and abstract cloud formations on the eaves. The rectangular shaped house wraps around a central courtyard creating its own little world; an oasis in the heart of Los Angeles.

John Lautner was another architect who became widely celebrated late in his career for his unusual and unorthodox designs, including the Sheats-Goldstein Residence seen in many, many films and commercials.
Some Organic modern homes don’t even look like homes at all. Such is the case with Bart Prince’s Sun Valley House:
Or the recently completed Desert House by Kendrick Kellogg.
And before you think that Organic Architecture only applies to energy-inefficient, single family homes, it should be noted that Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, British architects Foster and Partners, and America’s own Frank Gehry have created truly stunning examples of commercial, multi-family residential and civic spaces that are on the cutting edge of 21st Century Modernism and follow many of the tenets of Organic design.

Truly the most striking feature of these creations is their originality, their independence from the vast majority of the architectural world in which they inhabit, and the fact that they existed solely in the mind of the architect, who was then able to transcribe these imaginative flights of fancy into drawings that builders, artists and craftsman made real.

The main drawback to this style of design, especially in residential construction, is that it can be prohibitively expensive due to the fact that most everything in the home, including doors, windows and so forth, must be assembled and constructed onsite, and the often complex design requirements may require pricey materials, costly engineering and consultations with specialists. Anyone with enough money can build an expensive house or building, but all it takes is access to real estate websites to prove the hypothesis that bad taste knows no price-point.

It takes vision, trust, a willingness to take creative risks and a passion for the highest quality of craftsmanship to create a home that is a work of Art with a capital “A.”

RSS icon Comments


Lovely entry.

Nitpick: Would you call Gehry Canadian or American? He holds citizenship in both countries, and grew up in Canada but studied in the States.

Posted by Gloria | October 12, 2007 10:53 AM

Awesome counterpoint to Charles' boring boxes. Thanks!

Posted by NaFun | October 12, 2007 10:55 AM

when you subtract the purely utilitarian and the knee-jerk imitation/trendy from a house, what's left is art, imo.

Posted by ellarosa | October 12, 2007 10:56 AM

A personal, passionate, and dignified slog entry? Freaky Friday, indeed.

Posted by JMR | October 12, 2007 11:00 AM

Gloria @ 1,

Re: Gehry

I didn't know about Gehry's Canadian roots, my apologies as I absolutely adore Canada. I would say American only because his practice primarily operates out of the US.

I've only studied his work over the last 10 years or so, since he went through a rather nasty Deconstuctionist period in the 80s and early 90s, but seems to have turned it around.

Posted by Original Andrew | October 12, 2007 11:12 AM

Long-ass post. Dude, put it under the fold.

Posted by Judah | October 12, 2007 11:12 AM

thanks for the great post.
Is it art? Yes.
Many things are art. Whatever can be presented as art is art. Is it worthy art? That will always be open for debate.

The west coast style of architecture that existed in the 60's, 70's in B.C. Canada is worth a note. Homes by "Arthur Erickson".

Many of these homes built into the rain forests of B.C. still exist but have been over shadowed by poorly designed developments with no respect for their surroundings at all, as with most newer developments.

Posted by -B- | October 12, 2007 11:20 AM

Original Andrew, have you read "Devil in the White City?" What's your opinion on Larson's characterization of Louis Sullivan?

Posted by arduous | October 12, 2007 11:24 AM

it would be great if there was a turn around in home building and a style that took into consideration the surroundings and local materials was to show up in new developments. But mock Tudor mansions always seems to spring up.

Posted by -B- | October 12, 2007 11:29 AM

This post gave me a full-body designgasm.

Posted by It's Mark Mitchell | October 12, 2007 11:44 AM

Nice post. That's some of the nicest residential architecture around, and it does tie into to locals like Roland Terry (who built Canlis restaurant) and Paul Kirk.

Sadly, the "Northwest Style" is long gone, and the tasteless rich fuckheads of today, like Craig McCaw, build tragic copies of several different Euro chateaux at once ("Cyberbaronial style) instead of having something beautiful and appropriate. You can see their hideous mansions from the moon.

I think the organic style was played out by 1980, and your man Gehry, whether he's Canadian or American, should have been smothered in his crib. That's not organic; it's CAD. He's just one of many philistines using the power of computer design to explore the outer reaches of hideousness in what is possible to make metal skins do. EMP is the ugliest building in the history of mankind, and destroys the soul of all who look at it.

Posted by Fnarf | October 12, 2007 11:56 AM

Thanks for a great post! There just so happens to be an (relatively affordable) architecture awards presentation next month where one can AIA Seattle (the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, where I now work) is hosting the 2007 Honor Awards for Washington Architecture. Details here:

Charles, I think you might have a field day with this one.


Posted by Stephanie Pure | October 12, 2007 12:13 PM

Okay, most of that post didn't make sense. Let's try again and forget you ever saw that other post:

Thanks for a great post! There just so happens to be an (relatively affordable) architecture awards presentation next month. AIA Seattle (the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, where I now work) is hosting the 2007 Honor Awards for Washington Architecture. Details here:

Charles, I think you might have a field day with this one.


Posted by Stephanie Pure | October 12, 2007 12:15 PM

arduous @ 8,

I've not read it -I'm so ashamed.

It's Mark Mitchell @ 10,

I've done my good deed for the day : )

Fnarf @ 11,

I agree about NW Modern -but there's always Cutler:

The high period for organic architecture was really 1925 to 1975 roughly, but it's still going strong in pockets. I think most people balk at the cost, and construction times can occasionally take years because of all the cabinetry and details. Maurice Jennings is carrying on Fay Jones's work.

Stephanie Pure @ 13,

Thanks, I'll check it out!

Posted by Original Andrew | October 12, 2007 1:10 PM

Call it cold and modern, but my favorite fancy schmancy architect masturbation residence is Hamura Shoei Yoh's "Another Glass House Between Sea and Sky"

(I suck at hyperlinks...sorry)

Posted by thaumaturgistguy | October 12, 2007 2:00 PM

I went back and did a bit of reading on the Samuel-Novarro House. Of course it WAS the actor, Ramon Novarro, who built it. It's show business pedigree is perfect, with Cedric Gibbons as the original interior designer, Comden and Green using it while they wrote on the town, and more contemporary stars Like Diane Keaton and Christina Ricci taking ownership. Yummy. I'd love to see the inside.

I'd consider giving up my little Pagoda cottage for that, but only just consider.

Posted by It's Mark Mitchell | October 12, 2007 2:02 PM

I meant to say "On The Town", the stage musical...

Posted by It's Mark Mitchell | October 12, 2007 2:03 PM

and pardon all my fucking typos.

Posted by It's Mark Mitchell | October 12, 2007 2:04 PM

Original Andrew @14 -- it's not that they're balking at the costs. McCaw spent something like $40 million on his faux-Tuscan pile of shit. It comes down to this: do you want solid gold faucet taps in every single one of your twenty bathrooms, and a toilet seat chipped out of Michaelangelo's David, or do you want something made with style and craftsmanship? Billionaires today invariably choose the Trump Option and build shitty -- but far from inexpensive.

Posted by Fnarf | October 12, 2007 2:26 PM

@ It’s Mark Mitchell,

I know! It’s so glamorous and has a sordid Hollywood history, too! There are lots of high-quality photos of the interior online, both before and after interior remodels. I’m at work so no time to find links, but they’re out there : )

Posted by Original Andrew | October 12, 2007 2:31 PM

I'll be checking up on that place. Who knows? Someday I might NEED an art deco LA hideaway.


Posted by It's Mark Mitchell | October 12, 2007 3:38 PM

You know what building is art? The Titan missile silo complex in Moses Lake.

Posted by Greg | October 12, 2007 3:53 PM

For those interested, the Novarro house has been featured in Architectural Digest twice in the last few years--Once showing Diane Keaton's remodeling of the interior and once in one of their annual "Hollywood at Home" issues showing a bunch of B&W photos of Novarro in residence with his Warren MacArthur furniture.

Posted by Hoyt Clagwell | October 12, 2007 4:50 PM

The Library of Congress has digital photos and plans of the Sowden house available in their American Memory online collection here:

Posted by Hoyt Clagwell | October 12, 2007 4:52 PM

ya know, I used to be a bigger Gehry fan but am not so much lately--everything just looks the "same." Contrasting the EMP with the Seattle Central Library for instance is a pretty illuminating exercise: the Library is exquisite and function follows form. EMP is not so much.

These houses are awesome though! Very Wright-esque in many ways. I've never seen the desert ones before... they look pretty alien and cool. :)

Posted by Brian | October 15, 2007 12:12 PM

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