Extreme Design

Organic homes don’t always look like other homes. Usually they’re designed from the inside-out to accommodate views or cross-breezes, to interact with the landscape, integrating the home into its surroundings, or to respond organically to the owners’ needs.  The Lencioni Home’s design derived from a problem—already tall and petite, it had to be built up three and half feet because of the flood zone.

Art loves to tell the story of my son’s kindergarten assignment to draw a house.  The way Art tells it, Nico, whose drawings were precise and accurate for a five-year-old, drew a building the shape of an eye with a circular door and a wild swoop projecting from the roof.  When the teacher called home concerned that he was wasn’t following directions, he says I invited her for coffee to see for herself.

Nico, when he was 22, home on leave from the Army and going by Nick told me he remembers playing swamp-monster in the slough and making Hobbit holes in the forest, but claims he doesn’t remember any particular impact the house had on him, but, of course, this was what he knew.  I handed him a pencil and asked him what a house looks like, and he sarcastically sketched the default peaked-roof right-angled structure with symmetrical windows for eyes and the mouth a centered door.  Yet, when we were talking about it, he paused, looked up at the curved ceiling and swooped his buff tattooed arm over his head in an arc. “There was that day in kindergarten when Mrs. Varner asked us to draw a house, and I drew it like this.” He repeats the arc.

Actually, Harvey Ferrero, apprentice with Art under Bruce Goff told me a similar story about Goff’s spiral shaped Bavinger house.  It seems that when one of the Bavinger kids’ teachers had him draw a house, the teacher’s response was “That’s not a house!” Ferrero laughed and said that was clearly an opportunity for the teacher to come see where the child lived.

In the Fresno Bee recently, Donald Munro retold Art’s story: “Lapp’s son depicted a structure shaped like something you’d kick through a pair of goal posts.  The teacher scolded him for fooling around.”  I received emails and comments from people using this story as an example of how public education discourages creativity and encourages conformity.  There might be something to that, but, honestly, Nico wasn’t held back by Mrs. Varner or any teacher at Centerville School. (And it doesn’t look like a football!)

People want to name a house like this.  Perhaps it helps to categorize the uncategorizable.  My bookclub—a group of reading friends who’ve met monthly since 1991—had seen seen The Lencioni Residence on HGTV’s Extreme Homes.  “Is it actually named the Wave House?” Susan asked.  “I think it’s more of a Paisley.”  Eileen calls it the Mushroom House and Linda calls it a Snail.  Our Egyptian exchange student said it was the Eye of Horace, a symbol of protection.  My friends who lived there during a remodel call it the Hobbit House.  Effie Casey from Taliesin calls it a Wooden Shell.

When people remark about my unusual house, Art jokes, “It’s really just the first.  We’re going to build a whole tract of them, every other one flip-flopped in alternating colors.”

The November 25, 2012 episode of Extreme Homes  (Episode 204) features a wide variety of cool buildings as usual.  The bumper music between the Italian makeover and the Lencioni Residence is a pounding boom-unh-boom-boom, opening with blackberries in the foreground and the house half-revealed behind.  The enthusiastic voice-over announces: “Now, we’re headed to a house, which, at first glance looks like Noah’s Ark ran aground in Central California!”  The camera follows the overlapping curves of the front shingles and rests on a section dappled by sunlight on a patch of yellow lichen (I guess I should do something about that).  He continues: “But the beautifully curved wood-shingled roof isn’t just for looks.  It’s part of a design plan engineered to help this house stand up to a couple of the state’s natural disasters—earthquakes and floods” (Boom-unh-boom-boom).  It’s an incredibly blue-sky day and the cottonwoods are in full shimmer.  “Dyson’s clients wanted a home with high ceilings and big open spaces.”  Cut to the front of the house as the light shines on the lawn and forest.  We were out of town when they filmed, so they interviewed Art on the site.  “They actually had drawn a plan and had drawn an elevation.”  (I drew lots of elevations, but they all looked ridiculous).  “They wanted a two-storey,” Art tells the camera, “and they came up with an A-frame.”  At this point a cool bubble-lens swivels its view from the upstairs bedroom down to the great room below.  The voice-over explains the flood plane regulations that require the house to be built up 3 ½ feet from grade.  Art uses his hands to explain how he met the challenges of the site requirements.  “We started tweaking things and pushing things out a bit—and then I learned that they liked curves.” The music changes to a blue grass dance tune and they capture some artistic shots of light and shadow, a view through the front door and the back windows to the forest.  “That’s how the roof evolved from a big point that went up too high to terminating in an arch.” Cut to that shot of the yellow shingle lichen again, beautiful in its own natural way.  “The roof, made from red cedarwood shingle is composed of two huge interlocking curves.  The upper curve allows for more interior space, while the inverted lower curve provides a visual counterpoint to the arching roof by swinging down to the flood-proof foundation. Plus, the shape of these locked curves is very stable, providing extra support against the shock of an earthquake.”  Here, they capture a wonderful evening shot of the deck and the house lit up through the back windows.  The lens must be a special wide-angle because, to me, it appears the photographer shoots from deep in the berry brambles.  The figs ad sycamore leaves frame the shot—it’s just brilliant.  He continues as the camera returns to the interior, showcasing the steel and wood chevrons of the banister: “Inside, the home is not large, but, because the interior is almost entirely one room with 21-foot-high ceiling, it feels like a much bigger space.”  Art explains, It’s a great-room in the sense that it has the entry, the dining room, the kitchen, the living space all in one, but it’s a very small great-room.”  To illustrate, the camera walks from area to area showing the kitchen and breakfast bar, living room, looking over the sofa to the deck outside, dining room, also focusing on the view to the forest.  The bluegrass music leads out to the deck and they catch all the details of the wood slats on the fascia reflected in the glass.  “On the second floor is the study loft and a small den,” says the announcer as the camera pans around.  This points out to me how flexible that loft space is as it’s been an art studio, nursery, library, playroom, girl’s bedroom, all with a view to the forest.  “The two levels have very few internal walls separating them,” he points out.  The camera becomes mesmerized with the etched glass under the stairs that lights from behind before describing the “eye-catching balustrade that would allow the homeowner, a blacksmith to show off his skills.”  Art tells the story.  “We came up with a design, and I showed it to him.  He said, ‘when I told you I knew how to weld, I meant I can attach two pieces of metal.  I’m not a craftsman.’ As you can see, he really rose to the occasion.”   I’m still pondering the next statement:  “The open plan, the high gallery, the curved beams give the building a feeling of a medieval hall, but one well-suited for California’s quake and flood country,” and the last twang of the guitar resonates as a time lapse photo of the sun sets in 80 frames.  When the suns catches the sliver of a kitchen window and creates a fireball, the photographer lets it over-expose and flood the whole frame, resolving on the corten rust wall of the next extreme home.  These guys are good!

Crehan, Tom. Extreme Homes.  HGTV.  Episode 204. Narrator Brian Cooney; Director Julie Perkins; Series Producer Bernice Daly; Executive Producer Kirstie McLure; Camera Anthony Etwell, Spencer Franks; Editor John Chamberlain. 25 Nov. 2012.

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