Surrounded by Sculpture: The Joy and Value of Organic Architecture

IMG_1160(Originally published in the online version of Journal of the Taliesin Fellows, winter 2012)

I just turned off the lights in the house to let the moon in.  While I type at the kitchen bar, the half moon shines insistently through the highest windows at the top of the arched ceiling.  Even as October clouds veil its intensity, that moon shines a path across the living room table, and the cool night air settles like a clean sheet.

I built this small sculptural home 25 years ago, when my late husband and I were in our 20s and our photographer friend Scot Zimmerman introduced us to his architect friend Arthur Dyson.  I had drawn a floor plan we liked, but I couldn’t imagine the elevation; I couldn’t begin to foresee the possibilities that Dyson would introduce—the glass and light and curve and shadow that would tickle my brain when I lived in the space.

On a summer morning, I lie in bed watching a half-circle of sun stretch invitingly across the curved ceiling.  The sun shines in, hits glass below and repeats overhead.  The trees outside shimmer.  It’s going to be a hot day—time to close in the cool and get to work. Dyson, reflecting Wright’s philosophy, says architecture shouldn’t separate people from their environments, especially at home, but I’m glad the double-paned windows protect us from the heat. It’s a small space, just 1800 square feet, but every inch is as alive as the forest that surrounds it. The living room spills onto the deck, but a deep canvas overhang shades the table and chairs.  We have an air conditioner, but rarely turn it on.

My grandmother gave us the riverbottom land for a wedding present.  A tangle of blackberries and willows covered the creek and cloaked the forest as in a fairy tale, and it took more than magic or love to clear a path to the center where we correctly predicted we’d find high ground.  But it’s not that high–perched in a flood plain, we learned we’d have to build up three and a half feet. So the house is propped up because of zoning, and Dyson formed that sculpture of a house you see to make sense of the interior shape—the interior informs the exterior.  The shingled front of the home offers privacy and allows for the south-facing two-story wall of windows in the back.

Surrounded by forest and water on both sides, we have no visible neighbors, so we have nothing covering the massive south-facing windows. In winter, the house is warm and embracing—really, a sensual home. As the sun shifts, we remove the summer awning.  There’s a wood stove, but usually, to avoid the smoke, we use the heater.  Our power bills are slim.  We who live here, live intimately; we generally breathe in unison.  There are few interior walls; only the bathrooms, office, and laundry room are completely closed, so when my daughter is home, she and I can talk sotto voce from her room to mine (although we can’t see each other).  When her boyfriend calls, she ducks into the bathroom to Skype out of earshot. My son, more private, sleeps in the office/guest room when he visits. My husband writes music; to sequester himself, he writes in that room.  But when work is done and it’s just the two of us, we drift from activity to activity, apart or together, in a mostly shared but compartmentalized space.

My children were born here, so this is their gestalt memory of a house.  Al Struckus of Bruce Goff’s Struckus Residence asked me, “Do you feel your children are more creative growing up in a house like this?” I accede that they are creative, but I think all children are creative; perhaps an organic home prevents the stifling of childhood imagination.

I have sat on the porch of this house during the Pleiades and watched shooting star after shooting star.  It’s true–I could sit on the porch of a mobile home to watch natural phenomena, but from this porch the full moon or the evening sun casts a voluptuous light on the curves and lines, and then we climb up to a bedroom whose ceiling slopes down to meet the floor and catches the shadow side of that sheen.

Spring is the season my family visits.  Honeysuckle scents the yard and seeps into the house; adults drink coffee on the deck while the children hunt for Easter eggs.  With the kitchen in the center of the house, the smell of roasting lamb and rosemary wafts into every room.  Open windows admit the sounds of the forest—hawks and owls, trees shifting in the breeze.

In any season, the details of the house enliven us:  the graceful kitchen window fringed with wysteria, the stair railing, which my late husband, a blacksmith, lovingly named the Berthas for their heft.  The front door is round and not unlike a peace symbol.  (When we said as much to Art, he shrugged and said he could design something more militaristic if we preferred).  A sweeping curve visually unites the interior.

In a new season of my life, I have married Greg Lapp, a musician. I had agreed, in theory, that we should have our own home; but, having lived in this space, I couldn’t blithely revert to right angles, so we are building a Dyson home 12 miles upriver.

Even before it’s finished, the Lapp River House is joyful.  The builders laugh constantly.  The subs take extra care and brag about their work.  Both teachers, we are on a strict budget, so we’ve had to make some judicious choices.  But when we told the cabinetmakers we couldn’t afford to curve the kitchen island, they volunteered to curve it anyhow and use it for their portfolio.  Similarly, the drywall is smooth for the price of texture because the guys agreed it would show off their skill. The first house took 18 months to build; this one will be two years by the time we move in.  I figure there are three variables in the home construction equation:  quality, cost, and time; we’ll sacrifice time.  Sidney Mukai, our contractor, has been on the job every day, usually armed with a laser-level.  Having apprenticed under Dyson as an architect, he’s loyal to the design.  Sid’s perfectionist tendencies may have cost us some time, but we will likely stay within budget–more than a tract home, but affordable. In the end, the first house went over-budget by 20 percent, but it’s utterly worth it.  It’s my patronage of the art of organic architecture.

The River House is just 2,000 square feet, but over half is one room with the grand piano at one end, where the ceiling curves down to 8 feet.  It curves up to 18 feet at the highest point; the elevation resembles the Sierra Nevada foothills that flank it. The north wall, which faces the Kings River, is all storefront glass.  It was a little battle passing that by the county building department, but the inspector was happy when he saw it.  Likewise, the County balked at the 15-foot minimally-supported overhang that shades the terrace and porch, but, with hidden buttressing fit for a hurricane, they relented.  The great room includes space for a 60-guest concert; the chairs are housed in a cabinet built-in for that purpose.  There’s also an alcove with a windowseat that faces the river where I’ll read and write.  The kitchen with the curved bar is at the other end of the great room, and the dining table can settle in a different place every day as bamboo covers the whole floor. The master bedroom is tucked in the back of the house with its own private terrace overlooking the river.

With the constant breeze off the water and deep overhangs, cool roof, ceiling fans and a whole house fan, we chose not to put in AC (although we plumbed for it).  Since we have radiant floor heating as well, there is no ducting, so the arc of the ceiling is completely revealed, especially since, above 8 feet, most of the interior walls are glass.  The curve is accentuated by a massive glu-lam beam on both sides, inside and out. The colors and textures flow from outside to inside, so there’s always the illusion of being part of the river landscape.  Dyson conceives designs based on the personalities of the owners.  For instance, I know I crave space and light, even in a small house.  The curves calm me, and the way the light plays off the ingenious geometry stimulates our minds. We recognize that hours and seasons alter the house; and, while protected from the elements, we are intimately in touch with them.

A hawk coasts by, riding a gust of wind that shifts and passes through the screen of the sliding door. Purple-flowered sage rustles beyond the terrace. A fish jumps. The sun slides along the hills to the west, and the sideways light catches the curve of the window wall.  The dog sighs, contented.  So do I.

2 responses to “Surrounded by Sculpture: The Joy and Value of Organic Architecture

  1. I love your writing of these wonderful homes. Not pretentious but so clear about what they look and feel like. I love architecture and I am so pleased you have had these wonderful experiences.

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