Stuart Narofsky loves a clean sheet of paper. Like most architects, he relishes the freedom to solve problems entirely as he sees fit. But he's been around long enough to know that without the friction of client needs and wants, a clean sheet of paper can become awfully slippery. In designing this Long Island, N.Y., residence, he enjoyed perhaps the ideal balance: clients with a clear program who were completely open to the architect's direction. The result is a building that strikes the eye like sculpture yet lives like a home.
"They didn't show me magazines, they didn't show me books," Narofsky says of his clients. "They really sort of threw it out to me." The owners needed a family house that would accommodate frequent large parties, but they were remarkably unprejudiced about how to approach their goal. What traction the architect found came from the clients' taste for materials from their native India and the need to build interest on a flat, relatively featureless suburban lot.
"The house needed to create an environment on the site," says Narofsky, who defined outdoor spaces with projecting wings and walls that splay like fingers from the core of the house. He varied the contours of the site by digging a sunken garden off the family room and using the excavated material to berm a 90-degree section of the drum-shaped mass that contains the living room and master bedroom.
The drum exemplifies Narofsky's rather schematic approach to this house. In his more formal projects, he plots major plan elements in rough shapes directly on the site plan, gradually working loose gestures into more orthogonal forms. Here, however, he was free to project plan elements into three dimensions while they were still in a somewhat abstract state.
That sounds like fun, but, as Narofsky is quick to point out, "It made my job harder, because in reality you have to find a way to connect all these things." The drum shape evolved from an arc he drew to screen the master bedroom from the south. After making the gesture on paper, he decided to keep it and, later, to expand it. Instead of an arc, he thought, "make it a pure circle, then erode and dissect the circle."
The stair tower that flanks the drum like a miniature skyscraper reflects the owners' preference for a modest, enclosed main stair, a taste the architect has come to share. "There is something magical about leaving the space and then coming back to it," he says. Rather than simply hide the stair, however, Narofsky heightened the magic by cladding the tower inside and out with Kalwall, giving it the translucence of a paper lantern.
A New Vocabulary
Such local solutions triggered global effects. Narofsky's decision to cant the stucco wall over the entry door--creating visual distance from the stair tower--yielded a motif that, like the drum, would show up elsewhere in the house. The emerging design was now generating its own raw materials. "It kept giving me new forms," Narofsky says.
The house echoes forms from this new vocabulary, wrapped in materials that echo the owners' personal history. The master bedroom and a secondary stair repeat the shape of the main stair and mirror its rotation from the orthogonal grid. The curve of the drum shows up again at the son's suite. The canted wall inspired the wedge of the fireplace wall. Clad in 72 hand-cast aluminum panels, the fireplace wall was itself inspired by a set of stamped silver temple doors the owners saw in India. The wall that separates the drive and parking area from the entrance is clad in red Indian sandstone (its four enigmatic pillars house garbage and recycling containers).
The theme of concealing function within sculptural forms comes to a point at the center of the first floor plan. Here a maple box, another rotated square in plan, stands like a room-size cabinet at the intersection of the entrance hall and kitchen wing. Canting one wall, Narofsky says, "made it a three-dimensional object, not just a plan object." Into this box Narofsky packed all the utility of a Swiss army knife. At its core is the powder room; its four outside walls offer up a kitchen counter, a pantry, a coat closet, and a fold-down serving counter.
Narofsky has collected design awards for the house from local and state AIA chapters and the Society of American Registered Architects and enjoys touring it with prospective clients. He relishes in particular the double response the house elicits. Struck first by the energetic composition of forms, visitors are surprised to find warm, livable spaces inside. Going in, "They say, 'I love the house, but I could never live in it,'" Narofsky says.
Coming out, many have begun to see the beauty of a clean sheet of paper.
When Sharon and Don Greco were planning their new home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., they hesitantly thought of their childhood friend-turned-architect Jerry Horn, FAIA. "We did wonder if working with a friend would be such a good idea," says Sharon. "Plus, he was in Chicago and we were here." But Horn, who specializes in designing offices, museums, and university buildings at Chicago's Holabird & Root, was eager to take on the project. "I hadn't done a house in 30 years, except for my own," he says. "It's such a fun scale." The taste for Modernism the empty-nester couple shared with Horn, plus the allure of working with an architect they knew and trusted, convinced the Grecos that Horn was the man for the job.
Compared with many clients, the Grecos were hands off about their home's design. "We gave Jerry input on basic spaces, but more than anything we trusted his judgment on the design issues," says Sharon. The couple's few requirements included an ocean view (the tear-down that previously occupied the site had none), outdoor living spaces, and plenty of privacy.
Horn designed a two-pronged, 3,400-square-foot floor plan to fit the irregular corner lot. He placed most of the main living spaces--kitchen, living and dining rooms, and master suite--on the second floor. Assigning these rooms to the upstairs satisfied both the view and the privacy stipulations; the second floor's height and liberal use of glass afford the Grecos views of the Pacific Ocean from both wings of the home. The upper-level location also lifts the couple up and away from the eyes of neighbors and passersby. "It's like being in a tree house," says Sharon. To further ensure his clients' privacy, Horn surrounded the first floor with a concrete wall.
A deck just off the kitchen and a first-floor courtyard give the Grecos an ample amount of easily accessible outside space. And the steel-supported pedestrian bridge connecting the house's two wings is enclosed in frameless glass, adding to the sense of proximity to the outdoors. But the most striking means of interior-exterior integration lies in the visual connection between the two wings: Standing in the south wing, one can see through the courtyard and the north wing to the picturesque beach community beyond.
Aside from its obvious aesthetic benefits, the setup has practical advantages. "It's great for entertaining," says Sharon, a frequent hostess to visiting family members and friends. "I never feel like I've gone off into some room --I can see everything that's going on in the courtyard and in both wings of the house."
The floor-to-ceiling windows that line nearly the entire second floor also lend the house a sense of lightness--an important factor for Horn, a confirmed Mies van der Rohe fan. (In addition to his duties as a partner at Holabird & Root, Horn is a professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a veritable shrine to the German Modernist's philosophies.) "I try to base my work in structure, per Mies," says Horn. "I used steel framing to express the structure of the Grecos' house and concrete to add a natural aspect, but I didn't want it to get too heavy. All that glass helps balance it out."
Glass, steel, and concrete make an ideal materials list for the commercial and institutional projects Horn usually designs. But he knew he'd have to mix in another strong element to attain the higher level of warmth and livability a house requires. The windows' wood frames--low-maintenance teak on the outside, silky mahogany on the inside--help considerably. So do curved mahogany ceiling beams, spaced 3 feet 4 inches apart on center. Held in place by steel brackets and trusses, the beams substantially balance out the interior's other, more industrial materials. Mahogany also appears underfoot, as floor beams. But it stops there. "We didn't want too much wood," Horn explains. "We were careful to fill in the spaces between the ceiling trusses with white-painted drywall to maintain that weightless feeling."
Designing a Modern house in Southern California represents a homecoming of sorts for Horn, who grew up in Inglewood, Calif. He began his career at Los Angeles' Craig Ellwood Associates and spent four years during the late 1950s working with Ellwood on the ground-breaking Case Study houses. He seems to have caught the bug for designing homes on the West Coast--he's also completed a vacation home for his own family in the San Francisco Bay area, and is working on preliminary drawings for another residential client in Pasadena, Calif.
Happily for Horn and the Grecos, any misgivings they may have had about a long-distance relationship quickly vanished. "Working at a distance actually had some advantages," the architect says. "During the times that I was able to visit the site, we got a lot done in a short time simply because we had to." He and his clients worked closely with their contractor, John Katnik, also of Manhattan Beach, to modify and refine the design as it was built. "Jerry and I talked daily," says Sharon, who visited the site every day. "And we faxed a lot. It was a wonderful collaboration."
The owners of this brick-clad ode to simplicity in Midland, Texas, presented Mark Wellen, AIA, with a fairly standard list of floor plan requirements. They wanted a secluded master suite, with bedrooms for their two young children to be located in a separate wing. They asked for a family room that adjoined an open kitchen and breakfast room. And they requested a home that would be easy to expand or modify as their needs changed. So far, nothing too out of the ordinary for an affluent young couple.
But when it came to choosing their home's style and character, the couple proved themselves risk takers after all. "The husband said he wouldn't be happy unless his house made half the people in the neighborhood mad," remembers Wellen. "So we departed a bit from the area's mostly traditional elevations."
Depart they did--and with a result that may arouse jealousy rather than anger among the neighbors. Wellen used classic vernacular structures--the sheds, barns, and industrial buildings that dot the flatlands of central Texas--as his design inspiration. "We prefer our work to be more reductive of classic Texas forms," he says. So he distilled a few of these forms down to their most basic incarnations, then shuffled them together to create a layered effect. As a result, the 5,600-square-foot house doesn't crowd to the front of its lot as area residences are apt to do; instead, it gracefully cascades back on its half-acre site.
In addition to using the forms typical of Texas regionalism, Wellen also stayed true to the genre's weather-responsive nature--albeit in an unorthodox fashion. The home's U-shaped floor plan protectively wraps around a central courtyard from which the residents can look out to the swimming pool and pool house beyond. While a wraparound floor plan is unusual for Texas, the ideas behind it--melding outdoors with indoors and bringing natural light and ventilation inside--aren't. And though the project lacks the long roof overhangs that help cool so many of the region's native structures, its artfully assembled, shade-creating massing serves an identical purpose.
The architect wanted the home's exterior as uniform in texture and color as possible, to increase the visual impact of its orderly repetition of forms. The client had specified brick as the dominant cladding material, so Wellen selected bricks from St. Joe Brickworks, in Slidell, La., one of the country's few remaining wood-mold brickmakers. "St. Joe bricks have a more handmade feel than average bricks," he says. "Also, their color variation is minimal."
He even had the mortar tinted to match the bricks and made sure all mortar joints were flush, for an even look and feel. Clean-lined, standing-seam metal roofs and galvanized steel lintels contribute to the house's uncluttered aesthetic. As a bonus, brick and metal's ability to resist tough weather makes the home's exterior virtually maintenance free.
Variations on a Theme
In planning the home's interiors and landscaping, Wellen and his staff were given free rein by the client. "Of course, that's the way we like to design," the architect says. "But we don't always get the chance to. We were lucky in this case."
With the help of staff interior designer Shawn Higgins, Wellen devised a scheme that subtly reinforces the exterior themes without seeming contrived or superficial. Square bookshelves and display cases organize the home's inside much as square, shutterless windows do its outside. In addition, a sliding wood-framed pocket door divides the living and dining rooms. Paned with translucent squares of laminated glass, the door partners with two other exteriorlike elements: an exposed St. Joe brick wall and an unpainted steel beam. Waxed black concrete floors and inconspicuous custom light fixtures also maintain the spare, polished tone set outside.
In accordance with the owners' wishes (and with regional design tradition), Wellen maximized the house's capacity for outdoor living. A front terrace on the northeast side of the house, a central terrace built around an old oak tree and bordered on three sides by indoor rooms, and the pool and pool house provide plenty of sheltered outdoor space. "Entwining the terraces and pool with the house means the children and their friends can play in a safe, secure environment," Wellen points out. "Their parents can keep an eye on them from most of the inside rooms." The various exterior spaces work nearly year-round for outdoor entertaining. Hardy native plants fill the landscaped areas, ensuring that the residents don't spend all their time watering and mulching.
It's probably safe to say there's no house quite like this one in the entire king-sized state of Texas. But, just to make sure, Wellen designed a unique touch--small, house-shaped lanterns that appear in several places on the home's exterior. The lanterns were fabricated 280 miles away, by Austin's Two Hills Studio. "We have the studio create fixtures like this for every house we do--no two are alike," says Wellen. "I guess you could say it's our trademark."
It's an original idea, and a well-executed one. Much like the house itself.