Stand with me in this meadow...

The excitement one feels at the prospect of designing a new house is really the promise of an adventure.  Adventures, by definition, take us beyond the world we know, beyond the world we can easily predict.  Adventures bring us face to face with new challenges that expand our universes to give us new perspectives on ourselves as individuals.  And architectural adventures are no different.

With this in mind, pretend for a moment that you are standing with me in this meadow.  We are studying this antique mansion from 1885, which sits on 43 harborfront acres.  We have been asked by the new owners of this estate to make recommendations for taking it into the next century.  And as we talk the question of this house's fate looms large.  We have looked at it closely and it is truly unsalvageable.  Even our zealous historical consultant agrees there is nothing here worth restoring.  But the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the new owners appreciate and respect the way this well-known wreck triggers memories within the surrounding community and animates our historical imaginations.  The original owner had been a great and benevolent lady in her day, and since her death the house has been a convent and a local day school.  So there is much more to consider here than just the weight of its rotting Victorian parts.      

As architects, when we examine structures of this type a conventional logic clicks in.  It’s a binary math with only two possible outcomes: restoration or demolition.  And it is a very convincing math to the modern mind.  But when I first stood here in the fall of 2004, I found myself wondering if that logic wasn’t too pat, even self-serving, and if it wasn’t precluding the possibility of a very special architectural adventure, one that might immerse me in history rather than erase or whitewash it.  I was keenly aware that demolition would reset the historical clock to zero, precluding any possibility of a new house here maintaining some connection to the previous 120 years of this property’s history.  So we decided to look for a different logic.

The course we set for ourselves was initially more archaeological than architectural.  We measured and documented the building, and researched its personal history and era.  We got to know the story of the first owner, a society woman who had commissioned this design from a workmanlike architect at a time when, unbeknownst to her, her peers and their architects -- H. H. Richardson and Charles McKim -- were creating the Shingle Style in Newport, RI.  We examined the history of the site and its neighborhood, and, noting the evolution of views over the past century, proposed a new location.  Then we started slowly to dismantle this building, piece by piece, while planning its transformation into an entirely new house, one better suited to our era and sensibilities.  We raised the eaves to increase the views; we reconceived its fenestration and porches; we hollowed out a great space at its center by combining six rooms on two floors into one grand hall; and we challenged ourselves to create an architectural language for its interior detailing.  In the course of this journey we essentially demolished 90% of the original.  But we did so over a period of two years instead of two weeks, and that seems to have made all the difference. 

On a regular basis my clients ask me questions that presume a similar duality, one they frame as “modern” vs. “traditional.”  And on the surface of it this project would certainly be called “traditional.”  But consider this fact, which I only learned after accepting the commission: all the traditional architects interviewed for the project had recommended demolition.  Their math, it seems, was identical to that of their modern colleagues.  Over the years I have thought about this unanimity within my profession, and I have wondered if such "choices" don't disguise a hidden agenda.  After all, restoration or demolition, modern or traditional -- these paths all lead back to the shore, to terra firma, and to design processes that can be more familiar and automatic than adventurous.     

Since this house was completed in 2007, it has won a number of design awards, including a national Palladio Award.  These awards were given in the categories of “Restoration” or “Traditional” design, but in light of the full story here perhaps you see an irony.  In order to retain some connection between this house and its history we had to venture beyond the thinking defined by categories.  

Every project promises an adventure, if we choose to look for it.  But the time to look, and to ask ourselves what we really want from our houses by way of an experience or adventure, is at the very beginning when we are standing in that meadow, before the conventional math clicks in.

JM

 

The excitement one feels at the prospect of designing a new house is really the promise of an adventure.  Adventures, by definition, take us beyond the world we know, beyond the world we can easily predict.  Adventures bring us face to face with new challenges that expand our universes to give us new perspectives on ourselves as individuals.  And architectural adventures are no different.

With this in mind, pretend for a moment that you are standing with me in this meadow.  We are studying this antique mansion from 1885, which sits on 43 harborfront acres.  We have been asked by the new owners of this estate to make recommendations for taking it into the next century.  And as we talk the question of this house's fate looms large.  We have looked at it closely and it is truly unsalvageable.  Even our zealous historical consultant agrees there is nothing here worth restoring.  But the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the new owners appreciate and respect the way this well-known wreck triggers memories within the surrounding community and animates our historical imaginations.  The original owner had been a great and benevolent lady in her day, and since her death the house has been a convent and a local day school.  So there is much more to consider here than just the weight of its rotting Victorian parts.      

As architects, when we examine structures of this type a conventional logic clicks in.  It’s a binary math with only two possible outcomes: restoration or demolition.  And it is a very convincing math to the modern mind.  But when I first stood here in the fall of 2004, I found myself wondering if that logic wasn’t too pat, even self-serving, and if it wasn’t precluding the possibility of a very special architectural adventure, one that might immerse me in history rather than erase or whitewash it.  I was keenly aware that demolition would reset the historical clock to zero, precluding any possibility of a new house here maintaining some connection to the previous 120 years of this property’s history.  So we decided to look for a different logic.

The course we set for ourselves was initially more archaeological than architectural.  We measured and documented the building, and researched its personal history and era.  We got to know the story of the first owner, a society woman who had commissioned this design from a workmanlike architect at a time when, unbeknownst to her, her peers and their architects -- H. H. Richardson and Charles McKim -- were creating the Shingle Style in Newport, RI.  We examined the history of the site and its neighborhood, and, noting the evolution of views over the past century, proposed a new location.  Then we started slowly to dismantle this building, piece by piece, while planning its transformation into an entirely new house, one better suited to our era and sensibilities.  We raised the eaves to increase the views; we reconceived its fenestration and porches; we hollowed out a great space at its center by combining six rooms on two floors into one grand hall; and we challenged ourselves to create an architectural language for its interior detailing.  In the course of this journey we essentially demolished 90% of the original.  But we did so over a period of two years instead of two weeks, and that seems to have made all the difference. 

On a regular basis my clients ask me questions that presume a similar duality, one they frame as “modern” vs. “traditional.”  And on the surface of it this project would certainly be called “traditional.”  But consider this fact, which I only learned after accepting the commission: all the traditional architects interviewed for the project had recommended demolition.  Their math, it seems, was identical to that of their modern colleagues.  Over the years I have thought about this unanimity within my profession, and I have wondered if such "choices" don't disguise a hidden agenda.  After all, restoration or demolition, modern or traditional -- these paths all lead back to the shore, to terra firma, and to design processes that can be more familiar and automatic than adventurous.     

Since this house was completed in 2007, it has won a number of design awards, including a national Palladio Award.  These awards were given in the categories of “Restoration” or “Traditional” design, but in light of the full story here perhaps you see an irony.  In order to retain some connection between this house and its history we had to venture beyond the thinking defined by categories.  

Every project promises an adventure, if we choose to look for it.  But the time to look, and to ask ourselves what we really want from our houses by way of an experience or adventure, is at the very beginning when we are standing in that meadow, before the conventional math clicks in.

JM