Archive for the ‘Good home’ Category
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The classic modern home is known for its lack of decorative touches: the absence of crown moldings at the ceiling, the elimination of elaborate trim around windows or doors, and so on. This is not to say that those who design modern houses are uninterested in making things pleasing to the eye. bar from it. They recognize (hat the most beautiful aspect of the modern home may be the structure itself. The structure, when well designed and well executed, can be breathtaking. The interior is often designed so that the construction is exposed rather than concealed within the layers of the walls or hidden above the ceilings. Exposed structural parts such as beams and posts do not have decorative classical details added to them or carved into them, but they are detailed to be attractive to look at and to add character to the entire interior.
The modernist is often obsessed with the way the house is put together. After all, the origins of modernism lie in new construction technologies such as reinforced concrete, steel beams, and structural glass. The classic modernist is known for employing a universal approach to construction, whether the construction of a house or the construction of an airplane hanger.
Modernists, however, have become less dogmatic over the years, and there is now considerable diversity in the approaches they take. The architects whose work is presented here share a passion for beautiful and innovative construction, but they employ much humbler materials, such as wood and masonry. For most of their houses, they use methods of building that any skillful carpenter can execute. The results, though far less industrial than those associated with orthodox modernists, are no less impressive and are more suitable to the creation of comfortable homes in the countryside. Visible structure may be as rough-hewn as logs or it may be smooth and regular. It may consist almost entirely of wood, or it may use metal or other materials. The exposed structure not only adds drama to the interiors, but also helps establish the character of the home or express the nature of the surrounding landscape.
A romantic architect makes a house expressive not only by designing the house according to lay of the land but also by controlling the way you move through the land to get to the house and by controlling what you see of the house as you do. Like designers of picturesque gardens, romantic architects prefer to keep the house from revealing itself in its entirety until a magic moment arrives; the buildup is almost like a striptease. A small part of the home is revealed from a distance; then a bend in the driveway may reveal a different, slightly larger part; and finally at another turn, the visitor sees the house in its entirety—dead on or at an angle, depending upon the results desired.
The seemingly pretentious movie scenes that feature an architect crouching down, wandering this way and that, and climbing a tree, trying to get the “feel of the land,” are less exaggerated than you might think. A romantic architect wants to gain an intimate knowledge of the contours and qualities of the site and to control the approach. Ultimately, the approach is often laid out according to one of two models. The formal model calls for the entire house to be seen head on; in this method, the entrance is obvious. The picturesque method calls for the house to be seen from an angle or to be partly obscured. The entrance has to be searched for or is revealed subtly.
The picturesque approach is cinematic, and it enhances the qualities of the home and the property as a whole. It calls for imagining all the different experiences that a person could have on the way in. This might include giving the visitor a view of a garden gate with no house in sight, followed by a path that seems to lead to just a corner of the house, and then a spot where a big tree blocks the path, forcing a turn that reveals the front porch. Such experiences can be orchestrated on surprisingly small parcels of land leading to the most modest of homes.
The quintessential romantic house is a cottage nestled in the woods or over look in the sea. It might have a steeply pitched roof embellished with dormers, and it may feature old-fashioned adornments such as window shutters and porch posts—perhaps even a weather vane. Most of us are drawn to a house of this sort because it appeals to something deeply rooted in our emotional makeup: it arouses feelings that we associate with a good home. Romantic homes can be sentimental; they do not shy away from allegorical details. But they are not defined by those elements either. The defining feature of the romantic house is its ability to stir people’s senses.
How to create a romantic house should not be the big mystery that it currently is for most people. In this section, I lay out a series of techniques you can use to design a house that’s expressive and emotionally satisfying Ideally, you would build the house in a setting that intimately relates to nature, since natural scenery—particularly a view of a valley, mountains, shoreline, or luxuriant vegetation—always stirs an emotional response. The house ought to seem at ease in its setting, which means it might lie partly concealed in earth and vegetation or might have only its roof and chimneys visible above the tree-tops as you approach. It might be positioned so that a visitor glimpses the house first from one direction, then from another; the path toward the entrance can tantalize the visitor with a succession of skillfully circumscribed and choreographed views. “The approach is like the roll of the drums,” says Hugh Newell Jacobsen. In a conventional urban or suburban location, the possibilities are more constrained, yet even a small site often has the potential to incorporate a garden, an area left to grow wild, water, rocks, or some other feature that will summon up associations with nature and help create an enticing and not entirely predictable entry sequence. Wherever it’s placed, the house should be imbued with sentiment.
Irregularity and surprise are important parts of the picturesque approach to design. The irregularity may take the form of unusual proportions—an exceptionally tall roof, or thinner-than-normal windows, or porch posts larger than structural necessity would dictate. The surprise may also come when a cozy entrance leads to a soaring interior, which in turn contains a diminutive alcove or an unusual staircase. There should be things that spark curiosity. Most houses oversell the big door and the grand facade—features that are not essential for stirring a response.
If a pair of shutters flanking a window will make the homeowners or their guests feel joyful or contented, the designer may well add them, regardless of whether they’re necessary to protect against the weather. Materials, both inside and out, should be seductive; they should have a sensual quality, causing people to want to touch them or gaze at them. Natural materials such as wood and stone are especially effective at achieving this effect.
You can bring portions of nature indoors, either literally or figuratively. A house with a log wall is one example; the logs link the home to trees outdoors; at the same time, they give the house a hardy, rough-hewn personality. One advantage of materials from nature is that they open up the potential for many varieties of expression. Natural materials left rough and primitive generate one sensation; natural materials that have been smoothed and refined create quite another. Stonework might consist of chunky, odd-shaped boulders if a rustic atmosphere is the objective. They might be rocks that fit precisely together if you want a sense of order and sophistication. The feeling differs, but in each case, the inhabitants of the home will revel in a connection to nature.
Just as the approach to the house should be carefully orchestrated, movement through the interior should be manipulated to stir emotions or establish a mood. In many houses today, you open the front door and all the living areas are exposed to your gaze. Poof, the effect is finished. It’s much better if you orchestrate a sequence of experiences. In a house by Obie Bowman, you may find yourself enveloped in a forest of gigantic log columns, then led into a cave-like space, and then—bang!—comes a stunning view, maybe a view of the ocean, perhaps just a graceful old oak tree. A good home doesn’t have just one kind of space; it has a variety of them, organized so that movement from one to another is full of interest and incident.
Jacobsen, Bowman, and Peter Bohlin, the architects of the homes featured here, have collaborated with their clients to create unique designs that are both modern and romantic. Their homes have few, if any, traditional details, yet they convey as much sentiment as houses composed of more old-fashioned elements. The power of these homes to bring forth a broad range of emotions—from delight to curiosity to tranquility—comes from romantic techniques such as a carefully planned approach, thoughtful manipulation of how you move through the interior, and a reward at the end of the journey.
The romantic modernist will often tap into the seductive quality of natural materials such as wood and stone and may also find expressive character in raw construction materials such as metal and untreated concrete. Unlike the picturesque movement of the nineteenth century, which used decorative details and motifs to represent nature, the modernist uses the real thing, either by capturing expansive views of the natural surroundings or by incorporating boulders, tree trunks, and other specimens of nature into the house’s construction. Bohlin’s own home in northern Pennsylvania rests on a large stone. “It would have been so easy to move the house or cut the stone,” Bohlin says. “But the house is so much better, so much more interesting, by accommodating the stone.” Romantic techniques can make people sigh with delight or cry with surprise. They go a long way toward creating the good home.
Good homes only get better when they take advantage of light. Sunlight is often employed to create an image of perfection. A minimalist, modern interior lined with beautiful materials depends on the sun to achieve its purposes. Without the distrac¬tions of decorations, the light of the sun, ever changing through the day and across the year, brings to life magnificent and ani¬mated interiors. The power of the sun has a similarly magical effect on simple mod¬ern exteriors composed of strong volumes and clear profiles. Owners are known to walk outside at dawn or at sunset to observe the perfect lights effect on their homes, just as other people would head out to view the ocean.
Windows in a modern house can be strategically posi¬tioned, sized, and detailed to bring the right effect to bear on the exterior and interior and to manipulate the flow of sunlight into specific patterns and environments. Unlike traditional houses, modern dwellings allow almost com¬plete flexibility in the size, type, and placement of windows. The ability to create the sense of perfect light does not depend on expensive materials or complicated construction. The progression of light across a yellow pine floor, as modulated by the pattern of the windows, can be enough to make a simple room look and feel wonderful. Rooms that are positioned and fenestrated to radiate with the dappled light of a woodland setting will be no less wonderful whether they are lined in birds-eye maple or plywood.
The evening sky, with the light of the stars and the moon, can make homes even more enchanting than they are in the daytime. Artificial lighting can make every home a jack-o-lantern. Striking compositions of windows that please or challenge the eye during the day can present a fascinating display of planes of light at night. The archi¬tecture of a romantic home is often defined by a few dramatic details that are blended into the overall composi¬tion of the house by limiting the colors and materials. With perfect lighting, these details can be highlighted at night, allowing them to stand out as theatrical sculpture.
People generally think of modern houses as having little trim or ornamentation, lots of glass, and flat roofs whose proportions are exaggerated—sometimes extremely long, sometimes dramatically cantilevered, and sometimes exactly the opposite: hardly visible at all. The image of the modern house took root some seven decades ago, and although the avant-garde gave up the prohibition on sloped roofs more than half a century ago, the sense of what is “modern” has remained fairly consistent.
In contrast to modern houses, traditional houses are generally thought to have old-fashioned windows—either double-hung or casement—with multiple panes of glass. Instead of flat roofs, traditional houses tend to have gable or hip roofs, and on the interior and exterior, they often display classically-inspired trim and ornamentation. Many architects once expected that modern houses, which appeared on the scene around the dawn of the twentieth century, would eventually replace all the older styles of dwellings everywhere. And yet the revolution stalled. Modern design made an enormous impact on offices and other workplaces, but it never achieved its goal for the domestic side of life. In the eastern portions of the United States, you need only visit a few new residential developments to see that the traditional styles have remained firmly established. In the Northeast, where I live, the center-hall colonial remains the single most popular form of house, generations after the passing of Wright, Le Corbusier, and other heralds of new ways of designing.
When so much of life has changed, when four or five generations have passed since Americans traded in horse and buggy for a vehicle with a gasoline-powered engine, why hasn’t the appearance of the modern house ever really caught on? One reason may be that many people find modern houses cold and alienating. A house needs to resonate with peoples emotions if it is to be considered a home. Some people, it’s true, get a thrill from the rigor and the other attributes of modern homes. They love their shapes, which can be unusual (they don’t have to resemble a cube).
Admirers of modernism tend to like industrial materials, and are happy at the absence of details that have already been used millions of times. These same attributes strike other people as harsh or downright intimidating. Novel or unfamiliar forms drive many people away, especially when the house’s colors, textures, and finishes are also severe or out of the ordinary.
In my view, the techniques and details of good modern design can achieve tremendous beauty. When a modern approach is rendered in warm materials and is shaped into a romantic composition, the results can be more endearing than is the case with many traditional houses. A modern simple column made of exposed cedar can, in a woodland setting, be far more pleasing than a porch post designed in a classical style or one that’s been ornately painted to mimic those of historical houses.
The architects whose work is presented here—Peter Bohlin, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, and Obie Bowman—all build modern houses employing modern details and modern techniques. The houses they create may not look nearly as familiar as a center-hall colonial, but they are not cold or alienating. These houses are built of wood and other materials found in their regions. They appear so natural in their settings that it is often difficult to tell when the houses were constructed, even though each is clearly modern in style.
These houses have interiors that may be warm or cool, but are always sensual. The living quarters of these houses are filled with natural light, refreshed by cool breezes, and blessed with fantastic views, thanks to the modern use of glass and the decision to use open floor plans. Their unusual shapes and dramatic roofs give these houses a unique character, one not available in a traditional dwelling. Consequently, they can express something about their homeowners or their location and the inspiration that brought them into being. A traditional house can be tweaked, with a change of layout, to suit the site or the occupant’s lifestyle better, but it cannot be as imaginative, as wholly creative, as a modern house can be. These architects whose work I examine in the pages that follow create houses that have the comfort and warmth of traditional houses, but that deliver the sometimes breathtaking advantages of modern design.
Modern houses are built with exciting shapes, with interiors that are not ornate, and with ample areas of glass. They wield dramatic assemblies of volumes; in some instances the volumes themselves are not out of the ordinary, but they are always bold. Detailing of the interiors spans the entire spectrum from highly traditional moldings to little or no trim, yet all of these houses emphasize a restrained palette; they are purposely limited in color and texture. They are built with a modern appreciation for the artistic qualities inherent in construction—the structure, joinery, and detailing not only hold the building together; they serve as compelling decoration.
The ample expanses of glass typically are organized into a grid pattern of window panes, a signal of their modernity. The way the glass is arranged, proportioned, and divided gives the interior its comfortable atmosphere and enhances the view of the outdoors, at the same time preventing the occupants from feeling overly exposed. Properly handled, modern techniques are not cold or alienating; they are bold, artistic, and sensual.
By the 1840s and 1850s, thanks to Davis and Downing, the Picturesque Movement had started to influence American houses. The movement encom¬passed a number of styles, including Stick Style, Queen Anne, and—the mode that architectural historian Vincent Scully identified as a high point of American domestic design—the relaxed and relaxing Shingle Style. A picturesque house is not shy about incorporat¬ing irregularity and expressiveness or about arousing sentiment. The designer may exaggerate the shape and prominence of the roof, give windows unusual dimen¬sions, or prolong the experience of entering the house. A room may rise surprisingly high, to generate a sense of expansiveness, or its walls may slope down, to create a cozy, enveloping refuge. Picturesque houses allow exper¬imentation and departures from the norm. It is these departures, exaggerations, surprises, and mysteries that invest a house with feeling and give it soul. The pictur¬esque is a form of romanticism, an approach that prizes emotion and imagination. So in this book 1 sometimes call these three “picturesque architects” and at other times call them “modern romantics.” They brilliantly combine romantic traits and modern methods.
When I first proposed presenting the work of these three architects, the reaction was always the same: Why Hugh Newell Jacobsen, and who is Obie Bowman? Peter Bohlin was the only identifiable modern romantic of the bunch. When I met Peter at his home in Waverly, Pennsylvania, he was as confident as I that he would belong in any book on picturesque homes. Architects have a great fear of being misinterpreted (because it happens so often), and Peter Bohlin’s initial concern was that I would show only his projects that had cottage-like profiles. Peter is a renowned designer, but many of his most published projects have traditional attributes: gable roofs, wood-frame construction, and common house parts such as columns, double-hung windows, and porches. The traditional projects have the virtue of being the most affordable of his designs; the cost is nat¬urally higher for nontraditional buildings made entirely of custom-made components. Despite the quality of the work he’s done in a relatively traditional vein, Peter didn’t want readers to get a skewed view, one that would ignore his more nontraditional designs.
This book therefore features diverse projects of Peters firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Some of the houses shown are relatively simple, with fairly tradi¬tional profiles, whereas others are more complex, exhibiting modernist elements such as flat roofs. Regardless of the budget or the character, the genesis of a Bohlin house does not vary. Peter starts, as each of these architects does, by intensely studying the property’s potential to take advantage of natural features: sun¬light, vegetation, and views, to name a few. The next step is to work out a simple geometrical organization of the house on its land. What that generally means is that Peter takes the plan of the house—which is based on the size and functions required by the homeowner—and incorporates it into a diagram of lines and rectangles showing where the views are, how people approach the house, how large the parking area or the patios should be, and where any special landscape features should be situated. The lines and rectangles are laid down accord¬ing to an academic set of proportions. The goal, though, is not academic. Peter wants the house to please the homeowner with its beauty, and he wants the house to be well suited to its landscape.
Inside and out, Peter’s houses exude warmth that tran¬scends the nature of their materials. Why some of his houses feel warm is obvious—he’s been known to line a home’s interior with wood on nearly every surface. A preferred wood for Peter is clear Douglas fir finished with satin polyurethane that glows, like a flame, with the littlest bit of light. Other homes are constructed with rough concrete, metal connections, and sheetmetal sheathing, industrial materials all, yet as Peter assembles and details them, they take on the same warmth as their wood counterparts. The best way to describe how he accomplishes this is to refer to agricultural buildings. Farmers have rarely been shy about using crude or industrial materials to build the structures they need, such as grain silos, milking barns, and storage sheds. As these structures have aged, they have blended into the agricultural landscape, coming to look as natural as the crops and the livestock. Peter uses these same materials in ways that recall their practical and unpretentious application by farmers. They initially appear to have been chosen mostly just to get the job done, but the final result is enchanting.
No one could imagine Hugh Newell Jacobsen employing the warm palette of Peter Bohlin, which is why bringing these two architects together into one book surprised many of the people I spoke with. The fact is, both Jacobsen and Bohlin restrict themselves to a very limited palette in order to create beautiful houses; the palettes are simply different. Where Bohlin covers floors, walls, and ceilings with Douglas fir, Jacobsen makes all the surfaces white. That difference has made an impact on how the two architects are regarded. Being known for all-wood homes has made Bohlin touchy about not being thought of as a mod¬ernist. Being known as a master of all-white homes has made Jacobsen sensitive to being seen only as a mod¬ernist. When I spoke with Jacobsen, he complained about potential clients who avoid him because they think he is too much of a modernist.
In truth, few designers have a more romantic orienta¬tion than Jacobsen. His homes may be ail-American in shape—perfect profiles of gable-roofed New England houses are part of his repertoire—yet he straddles two worlds, finishing those traditionally shaped homes with white-painted brick and sheets of glass: materials and details more often associated with modern office build¬ings. Whereas photographs of Bohlin’s interiors easily exude warmth, presentations of Jacobsen’s struggle to avoid appearing cold. “Warm and cozy” is a maternal attribute possessing undeniable appeal, but we should recognize that bright, airy, and clean are equally sensual attributes. Jacobsen designs homes that are meant to be loved for a lifetime, and he makes a point of telling his clients so. Many people feel at peace in a comfortable mess—a fact sometimes used in arguments against the purity of Modern design—but just as many, if not more, find peace in tidiness, orderliness, and Puritan principles, essential parts of Jacobsen’s lasting appeal.]
Jacobsen designs homes to be successful in their effi¬cient use of space, in their spareness and avoidance of frivolous details, and in their no-nonsense relationship to the landscape. The effect is nevertheless romantic because efficiency, in Jacobseri’s hands, achieves the char¬acter of poetry.
When Jacobsen chooses the site for a house, he finds the sweet spot that will make a striking impression on visitors and that will allow the landscape to change con¬stantly as the visitors take each step toward it or around it. Jacobsen’s houses do not need the assistance of a screen of foliage or the curve of a hill to make them vig¬orous. The shape and the layout of the house are dynamic in themselves. The house’s profile may consist not of a single, simple gable form, or of the even sim¬pler flat roof form, but of multiple volumes assembled like cards—one lapped over another, partly concealing and partly revealing the next. These are then arranged into V-configurations or into courtyards or rambling compounds, depending on the light, the topography, or the views. There is no dogmatic reason for laying out a house this way. Jacobsen simply knows that a design of this sort will be satisfying to live in and that with this layout, the house will make the best of the land it sits on. Jacobsen’s compound layouts serve more than one purpose; they enliven the approach to the house, dram¬atize movement through the interior, and enhance ordi¬nary experiences such as sitting at the dining room table—all good picturesque reasons for designing in this fashion.
Then there is Obie Bowman. Visiting Bowman at his office, you are not surprised that few people have heard of him. Nestled into beautiful countryside in northern California (where wealthy families start vineyards for the fun of it) lies a aluminum Airstream trailer small enough to be pulled by a Volkswagen Beetle. This is the main office of Obie Bowman Architects. All the brava¬do of Peter Bohlin and Hugh Newell Jacobsen com¬bined would not be enough antimatter to negate the modesty of Obie Bowman. Yet just like those two, Bowman has the skills and the power to bring nature to its knees. The Pacific coast, Bowman territory, is far more fierce than places like the shores of Virginia where Jacobsen’s clients have settled down in his troupe of colonial shapes. In settings where the wind refuses to let trees grow taller than flag poles, Bowman’s structures wedge themselves underneath the landscape’s skin. Permanently embedded, they are impossible to move.
The forms Bowman uses are not entirely unfamiliar, and they blend remarkably into the scenery. From the outside, they appear reclusive. A Bowman design may be a courtyard house on the coast, or a three-story dwelling with a tiny footprint squeezed between the trees in a for¬est, or an earth-bermed house with ground cover grow¬ing up and over the roof. Visitors must find their way to the front door, yet they are subtly led by what seems to be some mystical force. This is an aspect of good pictur¬esque design. Like the view to the house itself, the view to the ocean, the distant hills, or just to the evening sky is held back, then revealed, then taken away again, to give the lucky homeowners more pleasure than any ordinary home would render. The exterior is visually forceful yet it seems less rigid or organized than Bohlin’s or Jacobsen’s designs, gwing Bowman houses a deceptively hodge¬podge composition.
All three of these architects inject a bit of levity into the mix. Jacobsen’s prim and proper clapboard houses have big holes cut into them. Bohlin’s houses have giant window boxes globbed on like big warts. Bowman leans absurdly large posts against a house; the house would cave in from the weight if it weren’t for the hidden structure. The textures, colors, and scale of the building parts that make up the exterior may seem organic, but they’re actually a bit affected, considering their location. For example, a closer look at the hefty column of tree trunk used to frame the entry to a Bowman house would reveal that neither is it structurally essential nor is it cut from a tree that could be found on that land. As with all romantic architects, the possibility of creating a delight¬ful or humorous composition is sometimes the only rea¬son Bowman needs to add one more bracket or beam to a facade.
On the interiors, ordinary house-building becomes extraordinary, because nothing is taken for granted.
Waste not, want not is the best way to describe Bowman’s interior wall construction. What homeowner could not use another set of shelves for books, trophies, or family photos? Wherever possible, Bowman exposes the wood members that hold up interior walls, and he assembles them into a beautiful matrix of cubbyholes. Rooms are positioned up and down, here and there, as if they had built on uneven ground so that there is a nat¬ural flow throughout the house. Bowman uses inventive construction techniques to make fantastic interior spaces that the child in everyone would love. The fami¬lies that inhabit them enjoy enchanting, cave-like cor¬ners in seemingly impossible places. Some Bowman houses have fully suspended platforms large enough for an entire master bedroom, even if the home is tiny.
All three are master architects. One purpose of this book is to demystify what makes them astonishing, so that their work can be admired more widely. My other purpose is to present modern homes that embody feel¬ings, expression, and a love of nature. It is important to see these architects together, for it is through compari¬son that their common threads—their approach to the landscape and construction technologies, and their use of memorable forms—are revealed. This is the only way to recognize the picturesque techniques and principles that are the foundations of their practice, since they take many different final forms. That says a great deal about the potential of the picturesque. What I have tried to illustrate here is an approach that allows the individual homeowner and the architect to invent a completely unique residence without abandoning all those things that are sentimental, poetic, and familiar.
These three architects never tire of the art and craft of home-building. They push humble, affordable materials into mimicking the much more costly substances of which castles and monuments are made. Every detail from the nosing on a stair tread to the flashing of a chimney is for Jacobsen, Bohlin, and Bowman another opportunity to pursue a better way of building. Like old cobblers, they fret about whether their houses are com¬fortable to live in and whether they are built well enough to last. Their concern with how people respond is what makes these designers romantic and sets them apart from architects who detail with only the sculptural qual¬ity of construction, rather than feeling, in mind. I had the pleasure of seeing first-hand that their obsession with seeking and applying the newest technologies is not aimed at being avant-garde but at being sure they are producing good homes.
Each of the three adapts to the site, whether on the shore of an ocean, at the edge of a precipice, or in the middle of a farmer’s field. All of them manipulate the landscape’s attributes in conjunction with the home’s layout, hiding a view from the visitor until just the right moment. They meticulously fit the home to the site and wrench out every possible attribute the loca¬tion can offer. These are architects who know that a single tree can be a wonderful landscape. They can make the most of exceedingly humble properties as well as magnificent ones.
Their buildings are not shelters whose sole purpose is to contain life. They are homes that let life in, let nature in. The three do not build “glass houses”; they frame nature with windows. The patterns of the glass trans¬form views into portraits that are capable of revealing nature’s complexity. They harness the sun so that it brightens corners, casts deep shadows, remains neutral when it ought to, and makes the homes richer and more complex. There is no doubt, though, that each of the architects in this book is his own person. Each of these architects has a flair for the picturesque.
The meaning of “picturesque” design I use the word “picturesque” differently than most peo¬ple do. Today picturesque is often taken to mean “pretty”—or pretty with an overlay of quaintness. I instead use the term the way art historians do—to refer to an aesthetic approach that emphasizes irregular and unexpected features that catch people’s attention and engage their interest. That was the sense of picturesque that prevailed among many Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century, when architect Alexander Jackson Davis and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing ranked among the nation’s most prominent tastemakers. Davis and Downing disliked the strictness of the Greek Revival; they rejected houses modeled on temples from the classical world, and they insisted that American houses should aim for a more informal and expressive character. In The Architecture of Country Houses, Downing wrote that domestic architecture “should exhibit more of the freedom and play of feeling of every-day life.” In my first book, The Good Home: Interiors and Exteriors, I made the case that houses today should be designed in a picturesque manner, and presented several homes of my own design as examples.
Modern houses shy away from traditional embellishments. Instead they rely on bold shapes to make an impression. The more dramatic the shape, the more expressive the design is likely to be. A greatly simplified version of a traditional house shape can, for instance, make a strong visual impact and yet convey associations with the past. In New England, one possibility would be to use the shape of a colonial-era saltbox, without any of its historical trappings. Even when stripped of old-fashioned details such as small, multiple-pane windows, the saltbox form powerfully communicates a sense of “home” and affinity with its region.
The design of a modern home may be composed of a number of minimalist shapes. The bold shapes could be drawn from residential architecture, but they don’t have to be. They might be fantastic, almost surreal; in some instances, they appear to defy gravity or to be unrelated to the house’s construction system. Bold shapes can make for a house with a unique relationship to the landscape. Dramatic shapes have the ability to float over their adjacencies; a house with a large roof and giant overhangs can appear to hover above the first floor and the landscape. A crisply shaped house may seem to sit lightly on the land, looking as if it could easily be removed.
Boldness may also be achieved by giving a traditionally detailed house a remarkably steep roof or an oddly shaped footprint. You might enlarge the scale of traditional details, for instance employing an oversized chimney or extra-large dormers. The strong shapes used in a home’s exterior and interior are often symbols that can relate to the house’s setting. A towering chimney may remind you of nearby trees or of the history of the region. Dormers may have shapes that are exaggerated versions of a local tradition. They may also reflect the predilections of the owners for a particular profile, such as that of a barn. The modern romantic will balance the composition to consist of just a few strong shapes so that the house is expressive without being too confusing or showy.
One of the finest compliments a new house can be given is that it appears to have always been there—that it looks “natural” in its setting. Looking as if it belongs is universally understood as a good thing. Yet most houses do not give that impression at all. Conventional building practices more often go in the opposite direction. Many builders go to great lengths to keep natural elements away from houses; they tame unruly landscapes, they raise the floors high off the damp ground, and they do their best to block the effects of hot sun, cold air, snow, and rain.
Romantic designers, by contrast, want to provide all the comforts of shelter while bringing the homeowners as close to nature as possible. Some romantic homes take the notion of being in touch with the landscape literally. Obie Bowman has designed grass-covered roofs, or tucked the house into the side of a cliff, or squeezed the house in between stands of trees. The aim of many romantic designers is to achieve a seamless connection between house and ground. In this approach, mature existing plantings are preserved wherever possible; they become focal points visible from the interior and, in some instances, elements around which the exterior is composed. A romantic architect may engineer the house to allow stones or trees to remain in their original locations, with the house built around them.
Another way of fitting into the landscape involves choosing colors and materials that blend the house into its setting. The design may not be subservient to the shape of the land, yet coloration and texture tie the house to the site. Still another technique involves positioning and laying out the house and designing its silhouette in relation to the existing or intended landscape but letting the house read as a clearly independent object. Hugh Newell Jacobsen’s all-white houses often do this. When seen from the landscape, they clearly belong even though they stand out. There is no one single way to blend a home into the landscape; a variety of techniques can achieve that result.