I Got Rhythm

context viewA townhouse, from 1860, was torn down on this site, which then became a vacant lot. In 1957, Metal Masters Company Inc. erected a one-story building for the manufacture and storage of toys – Herman H. Kline was the architect of record for the steel, wood and corrugated structure. In 1972 the then-vacant warehouse was demolished and in its stead was built this three-story, single-family dwelling with garage, by Nick James Chimes & Associates.

Simple and yet not so simple, unique in form but, in its use of brick and dark green trim, referential to its 19th-century rowhouse contextual neighbors. There is an architectural rhythm to the facade and, compared to its neighbors, an unusual balance of space.

in situ

 

Each story of the house has its own ratio of positive to negative space: the long, narrow, vertical windows with openings the same width as the spaces between them create a second story as a colonnade; the first-floor openings line up with those above, but having only two spaces creates the illusion of piers at the ground level; and the third story is recessed almost into nonexistence for a set-back deck with a single-plank railing, resembling a cornice, giving a narrow building on a narrow lot a wider feeling.

The minimal decoration between floors is a brick banding that enhances the horizontality as well. There is a playing with space – the openings are not just functional openings, but design. The language spoken here is architecture, giving us not just a practical building but a building with design intelligence, structural and subtle, not trying to be more than what it is but doing it in a very appropriate and sensible way.

facade view

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Stable-ity

This is one of a few remaining 19th-century stables in the city – a historical city that seems hell-bent on building suburban-y townhouse modules on every vacant lot – and there is every likelihood that something as unique as this will be dematerialized for that very reason.

site

But here it is, and someone liked it enough to play with its original form and update it simultaneously, with a raised roof accommodating a clerestory row, and a whimsical, geometric use of roof shingles as a facade design feature. It is a hybrid of its multiple pasts: a shelter for animals, a contractor’s warehouse, a storage shed, a produce and fish market, a parking garage, a polling place and an artist’s studio. Besides age, it has attitude, which the new buildings often lack, and it especially has spunk. It is as hip as it is hidden, squeezed in between the newly constructed suburban-ish boxes that occupy what had been the farmland it existed for, and the now-old-school-but-once-new interloping houses that resent the presence of the current ones.

detail

This old-timer has seen it all in terms of land use and is now the most venerable of fixtures in the neighborhood. It has an independent soul and refuses to give up its proud history. In its own quiet way, it is jaunty and free-spirited. Given a chance, it will outlast everything that surrounds it.

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Citadel in the City

These adjacent, mirror-image townhouses together create a kind of gatehouse, signifying your entry into a section of town that is both old and new, changed and changing. Built in 1975 by Benjamin Martin & Associates, the two three-story houses have brick book-end towers that are chamfered, revealing a bit of the same stucco of the inner, recessed arched entrances.

Shock-ing as they were when they became among the first-built of the new gentrifying structures in the neighborhood of mostly 19th-century rowhouses, these geometric citadels seem almost classic now. The towers are like modern interpretations of pruned or shaved rowhomes, monumental sentinels that, although a little heavy handed, are stylistic landmarks having, along with the connecting arches, overtones of classical Roman architecture – a modern reference to an aqueduct or an arched bridge with massive piers. Their overall resonance is that of the ancient tradition of the walled city and its limited entry, and how that can often make life tolerable in a densely packed area.

The houses have set-back courtyard entrances (always an urban bonus) with decorative metal louvered gates – practically the only ornamentation on fairly plain structures – and the plant material within the courtyards provides some relief from an otherwise hard-surfaced world.  Without their brick towers they might have looked more like odd and encroaching West Coast housing and been misfits in their midst, but they recede and at the same time stand out as contemporary takes on city housing.

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RoboPlot

James Rose, a landscape architect, chose a neighborhood in a far northern part of the Garden State to build his nature/nurture opus in 1953. Ridgewood, New Jersey, originally a village, became an upscale suburban enclave in the early 20th century.

 

Situated on a relatively tiny corner parcel is Rose’s experimental vision, an intermingling of manmade and nature, structure and plant life – all looking as if they have grown together into one new hybrid species of manufactured materials and native ones – a kind of RoboPlot.

So hidden, on first viewing the property from the street, we thought it was an abandoned site since it appeared overgrown and indistinct as a recognizable house and yard, especially in comparison to the coiffed neighboring lots: the usual suspects of small-scale British-style country estates on half-acre lots. The thing is, the other properties are the ones out of place; it’s just that they are the majority.

 

Rose was influenced by Asian design, and the openness of the house to the garden makes you think that you are in Oahu rather than New Jersey, the overall effect of his efforts is a bit surreal and theatrical with a blurring of the edges of where nature begins and built environment ends, because the two are so inextricably linked in this domicile.

It’s such a pleasant surprise, a gift in an otherwise cookie-cutter environment; the small lush estate has a playful seriousness, a fascinating use of building materials and the magician’s hand when it comes to a happy merging of architecture and landscape. His sense of space and how to use it is impressive because, after walking in and out of the house and garden, you feel that it is a much larger place than it really is. And his pipe-dream-made-solid does achieve a true and improbable balance. Hip hip hooray!

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Flight of Fancy

This skeletal structure, the Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is a non-native invasive in its simple riverside setting. And that would be just fine with modernist Mies. It is unforgivingly minimal in design and lovely in contrast to its context, although Mies would not care a wit about the relationship.

It’s difficult to imagine living comfortably in something akin to a fish tank, but it would be almost impossible to find an unnecessary element in its bare-bones presentation. The materials used in the interior, wood and travertine, add a simple beauty and warmth to a sketch of positive space, leaving a kind of negative space to be filled.

But that also works for the exterior to good effect. It is a death-defying dance between man and nature, but they manage to coexist so well – one forcing the other to recognize its best attributes. Despite the fact that the clever design of its floating is a result of practicality, in that the Fox River floods frequently, the proportions of the lift from the ground and the size of the terrace all interplay to create a theatrical result – a magic-carpet playhouse in the woods.

In comparison to Philip Johnson’s Glass House, there is no comparison. Farnsworth levitates whereas Glass sits clunkily, ham-fisted on the ground. If you are within striking distance of this isolated burg called Plano, the home of the McCormick Harvester in the heart of farm country, driving through fifty miles or so of rolling fields, the Farnsworth is a must-see diamond in the rough.

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Zenadu

A most hip and hidden house can be a house that was never intended to be lived in. Teahouses have a function but not for dwelling in the sense of sleeping. A teahouse is a respite from the world, a place of refreshment and harmony. It is often hidden in the woods and is a small, simple space. It can take many forms but it has essential characteristics of Japanese wooden-house architecture, built specifically as a place for the mind to be freed from worldly cares. Its simplicity, its small scale, its thoughtful arrangement of space, light and design, make it programmatic on the one hand and, on the other, an aesthetic object to be revered.

This teahouse, at the Humes Japanese Stroll Garden, on Long Island, N.Y., is magical. As you meander through the hillside moss garden, encountering stone steps, steep grades and compelling overlooks, one of your final destinations is the teahouse. It is diminutive, geometric, beckoning – much like a folly or gazebo in a European landscape. But it has a higher purpose, as a spiritual way-station, a place of contemplation. Its grids and formal shapes structure your experience; and, yet, there is something freeform and suggestive about its feel, its textures calm and welcome: an empty vessel to be filled by whomever encounters it.

O, that residential architecture were so loaded with feeling as this teahouse is. This one is generous in its interaction with its site, welcoming and embracing the landscape around it and adding a bit of style and simple geometry to its natural world. It is a perfect pairing of natural and manmade, contrast and conjunction, yin and yang.

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Shadow Boxing

Updating and “contemporary-izing” a 19th-century vernacular rowhouse in a late 1960s style, this home has had its facade transformed by the addition of a modern light brick reface, new windows, wood slats and some paint. An application to the city was made in 1966 to remove the front wall and reconstruct it with cinder block and stucco, then add new window frames and doors. 

The result gives a plain and flat facade some interest using larger, more vertical windows, and, with the attachment of full-width dual brises-soleil acting as spandrels, a dimensionality is created along with some interesting shade patterns on the facade. The slatted wooden structures have the resonance of a picket fence raised off ground level encircling the house. Both vertical and horizontal elements are strong and graphic and are even carried through to the furrowed lines on the front door. So, too, the extra-wide window box at street level increases horizontality, gives the building added dimension and makes it more homey with its narrow container “yard.” All of these elements together cleverly reinvent a deconstructed house reassembled for the latter half of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, sometime toward the end of the first decade in the 21st century the elements that made this house a stand-out disappeared. Its three-dimensional facade with picket fence awnings was denuded and flattened, leaving just a bare-bones version of its neighbors. The shame of it is that it has had a character-ectomy; once hip and hidden, but now just plain. No artful shadows now, merely a shadow of its former self.

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