architecture

Contemporary Architecture: Constraints Are Your Friend

Frank Lloyd Wright once said “constraints are your friend” and although one would think that limitations of creative thinking would be counterintuitive in the design world, it actually makes a lot of sense. Constraints define the character of the solution.
Besides the obvious constraints of topography, sun, wind, budget, etc., there are also constraints imposed by the properties of materials and systems; it’s from all of these constraints one can tease out meaningful solutions that are not arbitrary or faddish but are a thoughtfully considered response.
At Stilllwater Dwellings, modular construction is integral to the aesthetic language we have developed without dominating or overpowering it. For instance, the structural expression of the roof beams at the module ”marriage lines” create a secondary scale that define individual spaces within a larger room, giving a human scale to balance the overall dimensions.
In the Living Hall, the kitchen, dining, and sitting areas are given identity by the structural expression of the exposed wood beams which are regulated by modular dimensions.

The Forerunner of Prefabricated Semi-Custom Homes

I have always loved Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonion homes, but I hadn’t thought about them for quite some time. Recently, I noticed the influence on our Stillwater designs; see the first elevation below. Maybe the Usonion home would have been more successful if it had been prefabricated?
“He called his modest house “Usonian,” after the United States. It was a single story built on a monolithic concrete slab and joined to a carport and not a garage. Wright believed that it could be replicated all across the country.
His main desire, which no contemporary architects pay any attention to whatever, is shelter for ordinary people…he got it down at one point in 1940 to $5000 per house for a family with children and a kitchen and gardens…and openness and a real milieu in which it was a highly civilized way to live. He thought about it all the time; he took commissions from the poor as well as from the rich, something unheard of in 1995, 1996… We’re not like that anymore and this was very important in any appraisal of what his work represents because he hasn’t had the following that he should have had in respect to shelter.”
—Brendan Gill, Writer
“What would be really sensible in this matter of the modest dwelling for our time and place? Let’s see how far the Herbert Jacobs house at Madison, Wisconsin, is a sensible house. This house for a young journalist, his wife, and small daughter, is now under roof. Cost: Fifty-five hundred dollars, including architect’s fee of four hundred and fifty. Contract let to P. B. Grove.
To give the small Jacobs family the benefit of the advantages of the era in which they live, many simplifications must take place. Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs must themselves see life in somewhat simplified terms. What are essentials in their case, a typical case? It is not only necessary to get rid of all unnecessary complications in construction, necessary to use work in the mill to good advantage, necessary to eliminate so far as possible, field labor which is always expensive: it is necessary to consolidate and simplify the three appurtenance systems—heating, lighting, and sanitation. At least this must be our economy if we are to achieve the sense of spaciousness and vista we desire in order to liberate the people living in the house. And it would be ideal to complete the building in one operation as it goes along. Inside and outside should be complete in one operation. The house finished inside as it is completed outside. There should be no complicated roofs.”
From An Autobiography, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Middle Class Modern

A recent New York Times piece on Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park complex in Detroit belies the notion that the ‘average homeowner’ simply doesn’t like modernism. In fact, there’s nothing simple about it. Taste in housing is influenced by many factors including:
•          Sentiment; where you grew up, and the architectural roots of the family home
•          Professional aspirations, aka ‘keeping up with the Jones’
•          Need, as with a large, perhaps extended family
•          Or just proximity. You might not know a craftsman from a Chrysler, but you want to live near the #5 bus line.
“We wanted to hear how residents — especially people with long-term, intimate knowledge of living with Mies — think about this unique modernist environment and how they confront and adapt it to meet their needs. During our research, we were struck by the casual attitude that many residents have toward the architecture. Then again, Detroit has an abundance of beautiful housing options: one can live in a huge Victorian mansion, a beautiful arts and crafts house or a cavernous loft-conversion space in a former factory. Living in a townhouse built by a renowned architect isn’t as noteworthy as one might think. At the same time, such nonchalance is a mark of success: the homes are great because they work, not because they come affixed with a famous name.”

Contemporary Is Not An Option

Planned communities like Celebration, Florida have proved well-planned towns designed to higher densities – enabling walk-able neighborhoods and public spaces – are very well received and successful. As Witold Rybczynski notes on Slate, 10 years after Disney’s town was completed, the planning works well; and the residential architecture is not bad, just a bit bland.
Disney’s Controversial Town, a Decade On
By Witold Rybczynski
“To avoid cookie-cutter uniformity, Disney gave builders the choice of several architectural styles such as Colonial Revival, Victorian, and Craftsman. “Modern,” given the preferences of American home buyers, was not an option. Yet an impression of sameness persists, for the houses share the same contemporary building materials and details. All too often they also share a bland, middle-of-the-road civility. This is understandable, since builders can’t afford to antagonize buyers, but too much politeness can be a bore. The happy exceptions are the bumptious “Mediterranean” houses that occur here and there. They exhibit a good-natured Floridian vulgarity that is refreshing among all the good taste.”

Why Stillwater?

I often get asked how we came up with the name “Stillwater”.
First, we new we wanted a name that dissociated itself with architectural service since for our clients, most of the design has already been completed. People come to us for a home, not a long, drawn out process, so naming the company after ourselves, as is the typical architectural convention, was a non-starter.
On the surface, we build affordable prefab housing; just beneath lies a wealth of detailed knowledge and a full-spectrum, sophisticated housing system that might not be apparent at first.
Channeling this thought in a brainstorming session with Bart and Brad, I mentioned a favorite proverb of mine, “The still water runs deep”. Bart, an avid trout fisherman, agreed that he’d always loved the term “still water” because it’s the best place to cast a fly and it sounds sweet.
That was it, done.
Photo credit:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/joshcon/4450007889/in/photostream/
Joshua Conley

Contemporary Prefab Houses

Stillwater Dwellings has been included in a just-released publication from Braun Publishing on prefab design. Beautifully produced, Contemporary Prefab Housesemphasizes design by architects who incorporate a modernist aesthetic, sustainable production and deliver high-quality, affordable dwellings. The author explores the challenges in combining sustainability with building designs that appeal to the discriminating tastes of the average prefab client. Galindo also examines the efforts to overcome the negative stereotypes that arise when prefab is mistakenly associated with manufactured housing.

 

The featured Stillwater Dwellings home, model sd231, was installed in Bend Oregon in 2009.

 

Architecture that succeeds without showing off

There are some “show-off” buildings that I love; the uplifting Bilbo is one such building, but all too often signature buildings that overreach can become a self-indulgent mess. In the world of prefabricated homes this is probably even truer as a decadent display will seem even more pretentious when repeated in multiples.
Witold Rybczynski’s succinct article in Slate makes the case for a little more restraint:
In Praise of the Anti-Icon
By Witold Rybczynski
“Painter Paul Klee once wrote that while painters could make wheels square, architects had to make them round. Not any more. In the past, public and institutional buildings were expected to convey a sense of solidity and order; today they can just as easily suggest collapse and disharmony. In his forthcoming book, Architecture of the Absurd, John Silber takes aim at architects such as Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and Daniel Libeskind, who, in a desire to create iconic architecture, frequently make their wheels square.
Silber, the outspoken president of Boston University for 25 years, excoriates these architects—and, by implication, their clients—for disfiguring, as he puts it, what should be a practical art. His spirited, if sometimes perfunctory, essay raises an interesting question: if not architectural high jinks, then what?
The new addition to the Seattle Art Museum, which opened last summer, provides one answer: an anti-icon. Instead of architectural pyrotechnics, the designer, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, opted for what, at first glance, appears to be almost corporate blandness. Almost, but not quite. The dull stainless steel suits the often overcast Northwest light, and the sliding shutters that control light entering the galleries create changing patterns on the exterior wall. The upper floors of this loftlike building, currently leased as offices, can be converted into gallery space in the future, when the museum expands. This pragmatic approach gives the museum maximum flexibility, although at the price of somewhat uninspired interiors.”
To read the full article, go to:
http://www.slate.com/id/2175080/