A Bau to this Haus

It might seem odd to speak of Modernist theory and its resulting architecture in a hip & hidden way; after all, the idea of Modernist thinking was to relate to nothing except pure function and formalism, rationalism uber alles: a utopian visionary truth-finding in the creation of intellectual theory derived from knowledge and mastery of nature, resulting in the building of a perfect machine. Doesn’t sound so much like hip as it does structured and rule-bound.

Racing down a country road, completely by accident we happened to spy the Gropius House, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Talk about hidden! It was easy to miss, tucked casually back on a small lot, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. This iconic object was built by the icon himself (of the Bauhaus School) – Walter Gropius designed this home for his family in 1938, and the hipness of his design still holds with its simplicity and functionality as well as its diminutive size. The then-shocking use of industrial materials, positive and negative spaces, asymmetry and geometric forms all come together to stake their claim; and eighty-four years later, are still hip and standing.


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Not Fade Away

Sometimes, instead of a house being modernized, it can be “ancient-ized” to great effect. Context, too, is a large part of the equation when determining the Hip & Hidden–ness of a residence. Here is an unusual find, one that transports the viewer to another place and time – resembling an aging Tuscan townhouse.

First, it is rare to have stucco covering a brick facade in this East Coast city’s inner core.

And then to have a kind of pentimento, a layering of paint and cement colors revealing an almost time-lapse portrait of the building. The ghostly lavender with its whitewash effect and water marks, remnants that render a depth and imagined life of the structure that appears much older than the neighboring houses. It has the sage wisdom of the ages; embattled, weathered, cracked, peeling and still standing.

Possibly once vine-covered, it is still a living, breathing, more-organic-than-most dwelling that removed its front door from the street during its lifetime, leaving an imbalanced facade and a courtyard entrance. But what is not there is much of what makes it all so compelling; a relic, a survivor, an old world charmer, a tease with a misty past. Not an update, but rather a post-date.

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In a Nutshell

We were in New York City recently, strolling through the venerable Upper East Side townhouses that infill the quieter numbered streets. It was a meditation upon magnificent classic brownstones, peppered with occasional modern replacements or re-facements. We were noting a lack of authentic personalization … when suddenly we saw it.

It was a grayish brownstone house, somewhat less regal or commanding or rich-looking than many of its neighbors. But it had a band of something, some design, stretched across its front, just above the first-floor entry door and windows. It seemed like something extra, but nothing special. We almost missed it. But we looked again and saw it: what that perhaps 18-inch-high strip of dark metal had punched out of it was a series of squirrel shapes – a long row of them, as if in a conga line. As if this was the leftover from someone having cut paperdoll squirrels. And, more, we then noticed that atop the newel posts flanking the front stoop were sculptures of, yes, squirrels.

Why? Who knows. But all of it was too expensive, too thought-out, too well-done an act to have been merely a whim – although whimsical, indeed. The metal band, the squirrel statues – these meant something to the people inside who designed them or paid for them to be designed and installed. Was it a tribute to the second-most widespread wildlife form in the city? (Perhaps somewhere, maybe in Greenwich Village, there was a similar homage to the pigeon?) Was it a play on someone’s name? Or was it just a work of subtle, friendly, individualistic, idiosyncratic art, symbolic of something or nothing, fashioned to catch the eye of people walking by, and make them stop, and smile, and wonder? 

We don’t know. And, frankly, we don’t care. It broke up the monotony, it brightened our day, it personalized a city that can drub the spirit of anyone. It was, in its way, a buried acorn, happily discovered when needed.

Here was a decision to express something in design and to truly personalize one of the little shelters we call home. To create placeness, or arslocii, an operating concept in all our lives. To find our inner squirrel.

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Sometimes there is a generalized bowing to a specific style. This alteration, refaced in 1954 by Pepper Associates, replaced the brick front wall in a joining of two 19th-century rowhouses, now four bays wide. In 1959 this was a two-family residence, but in 1994 it became a single-family with a deck added by the husband-wife design build firm, Foster-Willson.

Dark turquoise paned windows and iron balcony, Japanese-style shoji-screen wooden entry door covered by a copper roof with wooden brackets – this is a quiet design, and modest … and snazzy. The effect is aided by the perfect natural elements: a less than straight tree, a stone slab rendering an entry porch, a cloud-like foundation planting that one might see pictured in an Edo-period scroll painting. It is a simple alteration in a simple style, a kind of “Japonism” applied to urban architecture, embellishing a plain building. It is, also, a perfect enhancement that does not overwhelm the adjacent houses.

New ownership altered the design making a vague gesture toward Georgian-Federal styles: its entry now a simplified pediment and pilasters, new panel door, black painted shutters; sacrificing all the hipness to create a faux standard issue in the cradle of democracy. Lost, too, are the cloud-like shrubs, replaced by black-box window planters. Hard to imagine why. The tree may go next, erasing all the Asian traces. Sayonara.

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City Deni-Zen

This house is so hidden that it can’t be easily photographed. Situated behind the other houses on the street, its front is 70-plus feet back from the sidewalk and blocked by some ominous but design-y gates with slots resembling machine gun emplacements. On second thought, maybe the gates look as if someone rolled flat the alien robot, Gort, from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and made something functional out of him.

The plans were drawn up in 2000 by architect Marc Pinard, and construction began in 2001. The plot plan shows how here, unseen and to the left, there is more outdoor space than indoor – a rarity among city houses, where lots are small. So, the protective stance of this house is all the more meaningful because of the inclusion of exterior living space built into its design.

But, what is really remarkable is how out of place this house is and, at the same time, how perfectly in place it is. First, it was not newly built. It is a reworking of an old dairy barn that is two stories high with a mere 800 square feet of space. Repurposing aside, the simple but stylish addition of a corrugated metal wrap-around roof gives it the look of a small train station. The clean lines and lower roof, in addition to its unusual gate, resemble something that one might see tucked into a tight space in Tokyo – there is a definite Asian vibe to this small manse: the wooden fence, the metal work, the simplicity and functionality. The whole has a Modernist Medieval quality of a tiny monastery situated in a late 19th and early 20th century urban neighborhood. The 21st has landed.

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Outback in the City

Our Hip & Hidden credo is that we focus on residential architecture; one reason being that commercial buildings, by their very nature, are invested in attracting attention. In this instance we are on a fence of sorts. This original building was residential and is now a school and performance venue. Given its history, its life has had full and varied use as well as design influences.

This striking facade is actually a rear addition, on a narrow back street, among 19th century carriage houses that are now dwellings. The Second Empire main building, which faces onto another larger street – and which is what most passersby see – was a house built in the mid- to late-19th century by Furness, Evans & Co.; the interior underwent a few renovations by Furness & Hewitt as well as Hewitt & Hewitt, who added a decorative music room in 1902-03. After a makeshift stage was added in 1938 this complex property became the Academy of  Vocal Arts, and has housed a theater and school of vocal training for more than 65 years.

A two-story rear addition by architects McCauley/Sperr in 1981, then Otto Sperr Associates in 1982-83, allowed for partial demolition of an existing garage structure and created a professional chamber theater with stage lighting, comfortable seating and a performance space large enough for a 30-piece orchestra. And the result is this fascinating rear facade: a Postmodern stucco and tile structure with a jutting bay and double porthole doors (that parody the standpipes to their left). 

What draws the curious and intelligent eye are the points of green, the sly reference in its shape to the surrounding houses that are in normal scale with the street, and the opening at the top that lets one “see through” the building. All these elements try to deflect the mass and scale of the addition. The roofline shape is mimicked in the bookending gates, returning one’s focus back to a more human-scale street level.

Almost seditiously out of place among its staid and conservative neighboring structures, it refers directly to the backstage door of Art Deco movie palaces. Not only does it house a stage and sets, but also there is something stage-setty about it itself, something almost illusionistic (very Potemkin Village-y). Within its formality it is far-out. For what it is, and where it is, it didn’t need to have been so clever, but it is that sort of quietly bold thinking that not only typifies the architect but which also makes Philadelphia a hip and hidden haven of risk takers.

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Keeping an Eye Out

There is something eye-like about this cyclopean porthole that draws our own eyes to it – we stare, it stares back – as if the house were wearing a monocle. Yet, it’s not easy to see. In fact, you have to be walking past a certain downtown church, and gaze across its parking lot, because this place can best be seen from the lot; the house hovers above it, and just beyond it, separated by a tiny street. There is a sense of unreality about it, as if it were one of the trompe l’oeil murals that are painted over old building walls.

Not exactly the rose window at Chartres Cathedral, but similar, at least in scale, this circular light is the dominating feature of a renovation made to the back of a mid-1800s rowhouse. The entire building was converted from one- to four-family in 1951, creating a separate unit in the rear of the building which architect John C. Kohlhas, in the late 1980s, altered from one story to two – presumably adding the window at that time. The structure sticks out like a lighthouse, or like a castle tower sitting high on a hill, overlooking its domain … which happens to be churchgoers’ cars.

It is graphic, planar, vectored: the deck above with horizontal railing, the slashing angles, the notches. The roof lines seem to be at opposite angles to the railing but the rail almost seems to hold the pieced house together, finding a balance, a rhythm. It’s a lesson in geometry. Much of the hipness, besides the design in general, is that it didn’t have to be done – there was no need to have made a huge porthole at the back of a house, in a location where very few people would see it. It is gratuitous, it is eccentric. It is cockeyed. And it is appreciated.

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