Stanley Hallet, FAIA, learned his first lesson in housing design the hard way. As a Boy Scout on an overnight camping trip, he cut boughs from a fir tree and lashed them into a soft bed. Then he pitched his tent, laid down and went to sleep, only to awaken hours later in a puddle outside the tent, in a drenching rainstorm. "The experience left a great impression on me in terms of weather protection, geology, and how you drain around an entryway," the architect says. "Many years later I realized it had an important effect."
Some 40 years after that incident, the design and building of Hallet's own house, perched on a steep wooded hillside on the edge of Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek Park, provided equally important, if more sophisticated, insights. In some ways the tall, austere house with its slender posts is a triumphant culmination of the perspectives Hallet has gleaned from a lifetime of world travels, ideas he's carried around in his head for years. During the building process, the construction site also became a real-life lab for Hallet and students at The Catholic University of America's School of Architecture and Planning, where he teaches and served as dean from 1991 to 1996. And now that he's lived with the house for four years, able to observe how it ages and to indulge an architect's penchant for obsessing over the details, its ongoing lessons help refine his private architectural practice.
The house's high vantage point gives Hallet and his wife, Judith Dwan Hallet, an independent filmmaker, a bird's-eye view of the rolling terrain. Built on a semi-suburban lot near one of the city's main thoroughfares, the cypress-clad box has a glass street facade that glows at night like a lantern slipped between pin oaks. Steel columns anchor the house and front porch to earth, while the upper ends support a high-flying deck and finish in "fishing rods" that disappear into the sky. Inside, an exposed structure of pine posts lift the living room ceiling to 22 feet. The first floor has few interior walls, so the kitchen and dining room on the rear of the house look across the living room to landscape views, as do the perfect cubes of his-and-hers offices on the mezzanine above. Three bedrooms, including the master suite with its treetop deck, form a penthouse retreat on the third floor. And a finished basement houses space for Hallet's part-time architectural practice and for Judith's film production.
Ancients and Moderns
At first glance, this house appears to be another pristine example of Modern architecture, but a closer look offers up clues of something more: elements that come from ancient cultures and the vernacular architecture of remote outposts.
Hallet has never struggled to find his professional niche. Spurred on by winning a high school design competition, he enrolled in the architecture program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. Like many students of that heady era, Hallet often fought with the faculty over the politics of architecture. He railed against the star architects who weren't addressing the larger issues of civic space. "I was more concerned with what the proletariat was building than with what individual architects acting as prima donnas were building," he says.
Instead, Hallet took refuge in simpler works that were equally beautiful, opting to study vernacular housing systems. And so, in 1964, with a fresh undergraduate degree, Hallet chose to go with the Peace Corps to Tunisia rather than accept a cushy travel scholarship to Italy. "I was anxious to look at housing problems in developing countries and felt that looking at the great treasures of the past would get in the way," Hallet says. "So I struck out naively. It took time for me to fully appreciate the masters."
His Peace Corps experience gave him a chance to explore the relationship between architecture and such other disciplines as anthropology, geology, and filmmaking. "In these areas of the world, houses were dug into the sides of mountains or into the ground," he says. "The opening scenes of Star Wars showed a combination of building types I had studied in Tunisia. I still lecture about the material we explored." And it was there he met his future wife. During breaks designing hotels for the bureau of tourism, Hallet traveled thecountryside with Judith, documenting the Berber architecture of southern Tunisia on paper as well as through the lens of a camera.
The Road Less Traveled
In 1967 Hallet returned to MIT for graduate studies, writing a master's thesis that studied settlement problems in Third World countries. The degree led him to a teaching post at the University of Utah, and, four years later, to a Fulbright fellowship that involved setting up an architectural school in Afghanistan. Then, on a fateful trip to Nuristan, an ancient mountain village in the northeastern part of the country, Hallet came upon an extraordinary sight. Stacked against a steep hillside was a whole village of interlocking, row-house-like structures with tall decks supported by spindly-looking posts. The shared walls were a fortress against attackers and the decks a lookout for the tribesmen, who would scramble up ladders and across each other's decks to get to their own homes. "I was struck by the remarkable complexity, beauty, and appropriateness of traditional architecture and its ability to house a culture and express not only its needs but its aspirations," Hallet says.
Those elevated decks and their slim supports are reinvented on Hallet's own hillside perch. They're part of a rigorous layering exercise that organizes the site and structure. The front plane--the found landscape, Hallet says--is formed by two 80-foot-tall pin oaks, followed by a group of steel columns that march across the site, holding up their end of the decks. At intervals, jasmine climbs a mesh screen stretched between the poles, intertwining landscape and architecture. The third plane is the mostly transparent front wall of the house. Inside, four parallel pendant lights suggest a more ethereal separation of space, followed by 2x6 pine posts placed 6 feet on center at the edge of the foyer and central corridor. Then a thickening starts to occur, with narrow walls separating the kitchen, dining room, and stairwell. The house's rear wall and another wood-and-mesh fence with vines draw the final lines in the landscape.
"The planes thicken and thin with respect to the front or back of the house," Hallet says. "And as you move up, the house lightens. I enjoyed that logic." The front porch moves up to a balcony suspended over the third floor, and finally to a glass roof that covers the balcony. Even the column tops dematerialize into thin pieces of metal that flip around in the wind. "You don't find fishing rods on houses but you do see weather vanes or TV antennas--something that tells you the roof is a different world than the ground," Hallet says. "I was trying to recognize other ways of exploring those differences."
Poetry in Motion
Logical, layered, and utterly consistent, the house does have its own visual poetry. The large living room with smaller rooms rotating around it borrows from the Islamic notion of a covered court surrounded by more intimate spaces. So does the raised music room, which evokes a sitting area in a Middle Eastern bazaar. But Hallet also composed his design with a playful sense of theater and film. Window openings reveal carefully cropped views, and shafts of light falling through a row of small, square clerestory windows remind one of the light emitted from a movie projector.
The first floor's transparency also lets each room become a stage set that can be lit or dimmed on cue and viewed from many different directions. When lights in the living room are low, for example, one has more of a sense of the dining room. "The stage keeps shifting," Hallet says. "One can be totally caught up in the space one is in, but with a change in position or gaze, take in other parts of the house, becoming a spectator."
The metaphor fits, given the number of students, colleagues, and community members who gathered to observe the drama of design and construction. During Hallet's tenure as dean of the architecture school, he introduced an award-winning design/build program, so it was appropriate that he served as the general contractor on his own project. "This house was my design/build," he says. "It was an extraordinary experience because it got me out from behind my desk, out of bed extremely early every morning, and brought me closer to the elements of rain, sleet, freezing weather, and lots of snow."
Early on, Hallet became aware that his neighbors in the predominantly Tudor-style community were quite concerned about the structure going up. The idea of building anything is always a disappointment to neighbors who have enjoyed the greenery of an empty lot, but what happens when a modern house is built in a traditional community? "You like to be able to live with your neighbors and with yourself as a designer," Hallet says. In a gesture of goodwill, every other Sunday he taped off the dangerous areas and opened the construction site to the community, serving up coffee, juice, and desserts. During the visits, Hallet would move through the site and explain what he was trying to do. Some of the children considered it a second summer camp, building miniature versions of the house on and off site and even acting out little plays on its imaginary stages.
The children, of course, intuitively understood something Hallet has long believed--that buildings are more interesting before they're completed. "The expression of all the pieces, the interplay of light and shadow, does have an aesthetic and texture to it," he says. "With my students I tried to keep up the discussion of how to regain the poetic at different stages."
Hallet's students explored the building at many stages during construction. Twice a month they helped with cleaning, sanding, painting, and landscape work. "It was gratifying for both them and me," the architect says. "They began to understand the relationship of design decisions to actual implementation, and how a building weathers during construction and must be cared for."
For his part, Hallet relished the opportunity to play and build. He says he realized architecture cannot be thought of as an immaculate, precise art but requires a more fluid give-and-take.
"You understand the limits and the potential of craftsmen you're working with and acknowledge that architecture is highly dependent on many people's input," Hallet says. "What I loved was being in the middle of that dialogue, being able to recognize opportunities as we were working on things and to make adjustments. Those things are more difficult to do when you have a client with a fixed budget where everything has to be signed in triplicate and you need elaborate change orders."
For example, during framing Hallet took the opportunity to shift a window to frame the limb of a tree--a view he couldn't have noticed until the shell was built and he was sitting high up off the ground.
The process also gave him a chance to become far more intimate with materials and their assembly--say, how a piece of metal is attached to wood to protect the end grain from weather. "It might seem mechanical, but I can get deeply excited about that range of decision-making and its impact on the character and poetry of the building," he says.
And as he's lived with his decisions, observing how the design and materials age, he's become more sensitive to them. "Does the house grow older gracefully or with trepidation? Do materials rusticate with a certain character you can live with, or do they decay and fall apart?" asks the architect. "You can read about light, space, volume, and materials. But it's another thing to live with them and understand intimately the outcomes of the decisions you've made. I've learned a lot about the limitations of materials, regardless of the claims manufacturers make."
Right after the Hallets moved in, members of the community association called to ask if they could have their annual meeting at the house. Although he planned for 20 people, 100 came. And after the meeting, Hallet gave a multimedia presentation that explained the house's design and construction. "They loved it," he says.
Perhaps most satisfying for Hallet, however, is the realization that this venture represents not just his own background of ideas and experiences but also the interaction he has with the students and faculty in his own institution, where "I am as affected by what they're doing as they are by my discourse," Hallet says. "It's like a chess game where we keep getting better.
"We aren't always original; we're borrowing," he adds. "That's how we grow. Most of us are devouring each other, and that's good. In making it your own, it will become different."
Cheryl Weber is a freelance writer in Severna Park, Md.