Monthly Archives: December 2011

Outside the Box

A house, angled on its site, has a special relationship to the street, its land use and its neighbors. It’s a geometry thing, and it’s a breaking-the-rules thing. Both things are seductive. And hip.

This house, built in a contemporary/modern style, probably in the 1980s, not only has a diagonal orientation, but it has a structural design that harkens back to Gothic cathedrals and their flying buttress supports, in this case, squeezed through a Modernist filter. The buttresses come out at the sides of the building supporting an almost free floating angled balcony that acts as a covered entry porch. An otherwise spare structure without decoration; it is minimalist, a rotated block with chopped corners. The result is a breaking up of the squareness, making it sculptural, faceted, almost cubist in the bisecting of shapes; as in origami, which takes a flat piece of paper, folds it and makes it planarly three-dimensional.

The buttresses give relief to the squarish form of the house, acting both as design and function – the function of dividing the front-most public areas from the more private rear ones. And because these large perpendicular rectangles could be heavy and dominating, their mass is offset by cutout holes, reflecting the windows, that lighten and enliven them as some sort of earflaps. The visual effect is one in which the house appears to be cupping its hands to listen, or perhaps, to whisper something from its skewed position. Also, these unusual extensions give the house an animated quality of dimensional wings or gills – like the frilled lizard with its ruffled collar expanded to scare off enemies. Nearly subversive in its context of ranchers and colonials, this is modern architecture that not only steps, but juts, outside the box.

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Walk with Us

What led us, over these past five years, to write our latest book, Hip and Hidden Philadelphia: The unexpected house in a city of tradition, was just our natural inclination to go wandering through our city – a city of neighborhoods, rich in history and the history of housing styles – in search of unique residences, the ones that intrigued us, the ones that went against the grain. There were a few here, one or two there, but, if not in profusion, they were to be found in nearly every part of town. We are sure there are such places in your town, as well. If you don’t know them, you really haven’t been looking.

We have always been drawn to these unique offerings because they were divergent and “outsider,” and successful in connecting with those characteristics, awake or dormant, within the viewer; also because they exhibited a kind of playful iconoclasm in contrast to their context. What we have been drawn to are those houses – single houses, or, at most, two or three together – that went up in places and at times when doing so wasn’t as easy or welcome or likely as it is today. They were built by architects taking a chance, or by property owners following their hearts, or their hare-brained schemes. We became so interested and amazed at what we saw – and so fascinated by the archival research that we conducted – that we decided to write a book about it.

In the coming weeks and months – along with discussions on past and current architecture, and on what is “hip,” and how urban structures can be considered “hidden” – we will post here some excerpts from Hip and Hidden Philadelphia, but, more, we will publish here many of the hip-and-hidden places we found but could not fit in our book; they are all worthy, and attention should be paid – they just didn’t make the final cut. We’re excited to show them to you.

But even more, we invite you to tell us about hip-and-hidden places where you live (and if you live in Philadelphia, and know of places we don’t, we urge you to write in). Contact us here, and, if we think they’re hip, hidden and a must-see for this blog’s readers, we’ll put them up here.

If there is anything that we hope will come out of this blog, it is getting you to get out wandering in your town, on foot, looking around not at your feet, discovering what’s all around you and what treasures have been left for you.

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