Planning the Lapp RiverHouse

Years later, Dennis had died, the kids had left for college, and I had met Greg Lapp, who agreed, without much coercion, to move into the space(s) I love. Greg and I had been married a year, and we were driving around the Kings River area looking for land. We had seen a piece of property backed against the foothills with a lawn down to the river, huge sycamores and oaks, and a barn with water and electricity, but it had had a Sold sign on it—the one that got away.  We looked at another house on the river, but although the setting was dreamy, the house was too large and too ordinary.  Then, one July day, we were kayaking downstream, pointing out places that would make lovely homesites and fanatasizing about our house on the river, when we saw that the Sold sign we’d recently rued now said For Sale.  We beached the kayaks, memorized the phone number and paddled madly to the car parked downstream at Cobble’s Weir.  We met the realtor an hour later in our kayak shorts and watershoes.  As soon as we could make a survey, a well test, a clearance to build from the County, we made an offer.  The counter was high, but we took it.  No regrets.

We bought the river property in 2006. When we had married and were deciding where to live, I agreed, in theory, that I could move from my Dyson house in the forest with a creek babbling by—it was, after all, the house I’d built with Dennis.  I agreed, in theory, that Greg and I should start our marriage with a house that was ours, not mine–on the condition that it was at least as beautiful and peaceful as this place.  I wanted to build a Dyson house with Greg because, even as I wanted him to have input on the new house—our house together, I wanted to retain what I had come to love and had always thought I’d live in forever.

And there lingered in my mind a second project Dennis and I had begun in the late 90s, a remodel of the Ranch House, which ended in disaster, with Dennis fuming and refusing to pay for a design we couldn’t build on budget.  Art and his team had designed an elegant facelift for my grandmother’s traditional ranch house.  He’d raised the roof, and brought in light with a series of clerestory windows.  But two separate bids for just this living room remodel came in for more than twice the cost of the entire Lencioni Home.  So I drew a more conservative plan, and a handyman did the building.  It was good, but not a Dyson design, even though I retained an angle that only Art would have conceived.  I thought we’d never given Art a chance to rectify the project and make it buildable.  I’d always thought I owed him something—at least another chance.

So Greg and I went directly to Art. Greg and I had been living in the Dyson home, but he hadn’t met the man who designed it.  We emphasized our restricted budget, but our desire to work with him within our means. Again, I brought a graph paper floor plan Greg and I had drawn together and no clue about the elevation.  “Are you still getting along?” Art asked, and told the story of a couple who had brought in a draft floor plan carefully taped back together.  It seems they tugged and struggled until the plans ripped in two.  In fact, we did have a moment of confusion:  I had drawn a first graph-paper draft, confident of Greg’s approval of my genius design.   I went to bed, and in the morning it lay on the counter with all sorts of changes. He even redrew it, gluing the floorplan to cardboard.  In consternation (“I’m the one who draws around here,” I thought initially), I looked at his tampering and realized that his modifications were good ones.  I reconciled myself to the compromise it would take with two creative thinkers in one house on one project.

Art’s more efficient with his planning now, but no less thorough:  in planning our current home, Art emailed Greg and me each a 40-page questionnaire reminiscent of those interviews.  He says he used to miss things when he was trying to ask questions and write down answers.  Also, he points out, the way clients fill out the form is revealing.  Some print, some write in script, red ink, black, or pencil; some, he says, you can tell what they had for breakfast because it’s dribbled on the page.  Art said some are funny; some are clever; he’s had people tell him that they cried when they read some of the questions.  Referring to one client, he said, “they realized that, when they grew up, the only safe haven they had was at the dinner table–otherwise people were squabbling and yelling at each other.”  One person recounted a strict religious upbringing in Catholic schools, “Nunzilla,” they called it.  “Folks are giving you the inner blueprint that they walk around with,” he says.  “So it’s really easy for me, once I have that, just to put it all together.”  Easy, he says, but inspired.  “I always tell Audrey I’m as surprised as anybody else the way things turn out.”

Eric Wright said that Art especially likes people—clients, students, fellow associates—“he’s very good that way—it’s one of the things that attracts me to him. He does have this concern, which is what a good architect should have, but most of us don’t.  Usually we get so wrapped up in all the problems [of building], understanding what we’re trying to do, trying to work with the clients.  My grandfather in many ways could irritate the clients and there were lots of problems, and he could get blown up, but as a whole he was pretty good with the clients.  He had a wonderful way of ‘bringing them around,’” Eric smiles. “Many clients claim he was charismatic—just being in his presence—[made them relent].  ‘Okay do it, Mr. Wright.  We won’t object,’” implying that Frank Lloyd Wright was convincing and articulate even with a “recalcitrant client.”  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  Eric says he tries to work with clients.  “I believe they can understand what I’m trying to evolve for them.  The client is part of the design team, just as much their designer, but many clients [just] want the architect to take care of it.”

Greg and I filled Art’s questionnaires out independently before comparing answers, not too amazed that our responses were eerily similar (we met on, after all). The introduction of Art’s questionnaire begins:

The design of a new home is the most personal experience in architecture. While we spend most of our lives within the embrace of architecture, decisions about what and how we experience a building are usually made by other people long before our arrival.  Frequently, pressured for time in this hectic modern world, most of us come only rarely upon a moment of conscious perspective about our reactions toward the architecture by which we are constantly surrounded…Architecture is fundamentally a mirror. What we build reflects who we are, both to ourselves and to those around us.  Ironically, the buildings we create in turn recreate us over and over again by providing the templates upon which we move in the patterns of daily life.

The first question has to do with beauty.  Art writes, “Surrounding ourselves with beauty has been a fundamental of good living since ancient times.”  He quotes Plato:  “For he who would proceed aright…should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms…out of that he should create fair thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty in every form is one and the same.”  Art asks for our definition of beauty.  I responded literally: “Taking the startling elements of nature and condensing them, arranged just a little off-balance,” I said.  Greg was more philosophical: “Beauty is a real and open expression of the truth of God.”  We should be alright with God and nature on our side. I wonder what other people write when they list examples of what they experience as beautiful, but I wrote:  The most tingly, beautiful experiences of my life have been in remote natural settings.  They usually involve an unusual cast of light and shadow. Looking out over moving water morning or evening—there’s a stillness in the air which contrasts with the water.  Sometimes a museum landscape painting captures this.  I have a reprint of a Corot—a river with trees, cool light.  Trees are generally beautiful–the way a wild fig tree wraps around an oak and the transparent yellow-green leaves contrast with the burley oak. When rough meets smooth and shiny there is often beauty.  Austrian painters Gustav Klimmt and Friedrichsreich Hundertwasser use metallic paint or metal in otherwise primitive and abstract paintings. I love the yellow undulating hills of the Valley with dark green oaks and granite outcroppings.  I don’t like flat. And there’s the surprise of orchids in a forest—their color is stunning, and they’re never quite symmetrical. When you examine them, leaves are incredibly beautiful.  No leaves are right-angled.  We had visited the Memorial Church at Stanford University the day before, and I was stunned by the colors in the stained glass.  The subject matter is busy, but the colors—ochre, blue, blood red—are all rich.  One angel’s “white” robe had so many colors of shading.

Both Greg and I mentioned wood grains.  I don’t tire of finished wood and the intricate patterns and repetition and change.  Greg wrote, “I can stare at an old hardwood floor, all the intricate patterns and shades of color, while being homogeneous at the same time. We also both find intense beauty in the moving form of an athlete—human, race horse, ranch horse, lithe dog or cat even.  It’s the lines of muscles in motion—a dancer is another obvious example.  Greg’s first example was the form and face of a woman.  “I am continually amazed at how beautiful women are.  All ages, all shapes.  And especially my wife, daughter, and close relatives whom I see every day.  They continue to be beautiful.”

  1. “Trois Chanson” by Debussy.  I like teaching new music every year, and there is so much good music out there.  But if I were required to teach one piece every year for eternity, this would be it.  It is passionate.  It is simple, yet not easy to learn.
  2. A flock of birds swirling in the sky.  About two years ago, driving by a field in East Clovis, a flock of blackbirds were dancing.  I pulled the car over to watch for 15 minutes.
  3. Mom’s homemade almond rocha, a family Christmas tradition.  The bitterness of the dark chocolate in combination with the sweetness of the toffee is a wonderful combination.
  4. Montana skies with white puffy clouds.  I marvel at the expansiveness.
  5. Wood
  6. Linne Calodo Nemesis, a syrah blend red wine.  I could have named several quality wines, but this is a favorite.  There are layers of flavors and even textures that, especially with the right food, and wondrous to explore.
  7. Skin.
  8. The smell of cinnamon rolls or roasting garlic.  I am not big on artificial or perfumed smells, but I love the smell of things to eat.  Also the smell after rain or in the woods.
  9. Honesty and openness.  Whether in personal contacts or when watching a stage play, sincere feelings are beautiful.  When Harold Hill stops Winthrop in the street, who is mad because there is no band, Harold Hill says, “Hey kid.  I always think there’s a band.”  I cry every time.

Our answers to his questions about our dreams and what we’d like to achieve spiritually were similar. I wanted to relax and accept that I am not in control of every aspect of my life (building a house is excellent practice for this quest).  Greg hoped to create a community of family and friends where all are welcome, encouraged and fulfilled, including himself.

We realized from Art’s probing (“Consider how a room, area, or space might facilitate those desires…What adjustments could be made to find a truer orientation with what you believe is most important?”) that we need separate, discreet places to create, and a completely separate place for bills and taxes.  In fact, Greg will compose in a studio in the existing barn, and I will have a spot in the living room (“like a studio, but not warren-like, open with lots of glass”).  We concluded a separate desk for bills and business would prevent us from being distracted or annoyed.  Art asks, “What will your life look like when your dream is achieved?” Greg’s will continue the path he’s on, but “with more confidence and vigor,” and if I can balance the dominant social side of my personality with a private need to create, I’ll be amazed, but pleased.

The questionnaire asks us to consider where we spend time, which activities take place where, and how each area relates to another.  He encourages us to consider the passage of time and seasonal needs.  We chose similar words to describe what we wanted our home to be (open, connected to the outdoors, flowing from space to space, warm, calm, light, elemental).  He asked about the impression of the house as you drive up to it, and we both answered “in harmony with the landscape,” and “unique and elegant, yet playful.”

Art asks questions anyone might ask, such as, “What is most important to you in a home?” or “which rooms have you most enjoyed in previous homes or vacation houses?” but he asks questions which evoke deeper contemplation: “Think back to your favorite childhood spaces.”

Page 7 launches into Space Exercises for each room in the house, first qualities, then activities, and there’s a similar battery of questions about the site:  Why did you choose the site, what are the positives and negatives, what features do you want to emphasize, how important is privacy?  He asks about sun angles, the yard and outdoor activities and asks for favorite photos of the lot.

Perhaps the most interesting section is the Lifestyle Inventory.  Clients who haven’t known Art well have said this was startlingly personal at first; yet, they all realized that the answers guide design choices.  Art writes:

How you live, both in daily and longer cycles of time, determines how spaces in your home need to be arranged and configured.  In a general sense, lifestyle is just the way you go about being at home.  Personal traditions, family habits, and cultural inheritance are some of the many     aspects of lifestyle.  The constellation of activities you enjoy or honor, from private individual occupation to public social gathering, deserves to be served as fully as possible by the structure you build.

He asks about how we spend our time, favorite pastimes, typical weekday, weekend, personal activities, group activities, outdoors activities, provisions for pets or nannies, entertaining, overnight guests, working at home.  “What furniture, artworks, and/or artifacts do you wish to feature or put in special locations?”  What do think about built-in furniture?

He’s wise to ask us to speculate about the future.  Will our children boomerang?  Will they bring grandchildren?  Will our parents move in?  What will our retirement look like?  There’s a whole page on music, computers, and media.

Ten pages are devoted to Room Planning with an introduction that encourages multi-purposing.  “A creative and engaging architectural solution need not be confined to familiar limitations.”

He opens the section Living Spaces with an observation:  Modern life tends to be more casual and informal than in earlier decades.  Just as the formal “parlor” of late Victorian times passed away in favor of a “living room” in the twentieth century, contemporary uses of interior domestic spaces are also evolving.  He asks about the function of the living room.  “Is it a place for adults only, adults and children, or a special occasion area?”  For seating arrangements, “conducive to formal discussions or more intimate conversation?”  Is the focus inward or outward?  What activities?  What about storage? Our responses were identical, calling for the 1902 Steinway grand piano in a windowless corner, but a wall of windows to the river with seating that takes all advantage of the view.

Either he tired of the questionnaire, or the intimacy of the bedroom questions made him bashful because Greg skips 8 pages here, deferring to mine.  As Art writes, “Bedrooms tend to be the most personal, private and intimate spaces in a house.  Most people spend at least one third of every day sleeping, and these spaces also commonly become personal refuges for rest and relaxation.”  The questions range from sleeping schedules and habits to size of bed and the “feel”:  “Do you prefer a cozy, confined sleeping area for your bed?  Do you generally prefer a light or dark bedroom, or the option for either?”  Is it a “suite,” is there a sitting area, fireplace, deck or garden, or a desk?  “Should the master bath/dressing area be designed to allow one person to shower, dress, and leave without waking the other?” How much closet space? He asks which areas should have most direct access from the bedroom and most separation.

Art supplies several options for multi-purposing the additional bedrooms, and our one extra bedroom will be library, media room, den, and guest bedroom—handicapped accessible for Greg’s brother, who uses a wheelchair.  For the bathrooms, he asks for principal users, location, and desired features with suggestions:  a view of the outdoors, small and enclosed or open and spacious, shared or private, single room or compartmentalized, bright and sunny or cozy and softly lit, many decorative objects on view or tidy and uncluttered. Based on observing Audrey taking out the blow dryer and all she needs to get ready, then watching her pack it all up again every morning, Art came up with a lift-up counter with the plugs inside, so I’ll open the top, dry my hair, and close the top back over all the “tools.”

The laundry room/mudroom also performs a variety of functions.  Reviewing the questionnaire inspired me to re-draw the what-goes-where diagram.

Twenty-three pages in, Art invites the client to lie down on the couch for analysis in order to determine “a personal pattern of activity.”

  1. Where do you spend the majority of your day?
  2. What does your everyday work environment look like?
  3. What is your favorite way to relax or unwind?
  4. What leisure activity do you enjoy the most?
  5. Is reading a regular activity for you?  If so, where do you like to read?
  6. Who are your favorite authors?  (I still wonder what he does with Greg’s Asimov and my Stegner, C.S. Lewis, and Steinbeck)
  7. What are your favorite books?
  8. What magazines do you read?
  9. Were you read to as a child? By whom?
  10. What was your favorite childhood story?  (Greg wrote Suess, and I list several, most of which involve talking animals—Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit, Silver Pennies, Mother West Wind’s Why Stories)
  11.  Do you listen to recorded music? What types of music do you like? (From this question, Art deduces a great deal about style, he says.  Someone who prefers formal music like Beethoven may prefer a grand and stately design. That I like Shostakovich, Aaron Copland, Dave Brubeck and Grateful Dead; and Greg like Beatles, Bach, Bartok and Sting may be reflected in the design of our home).

The Dysons were at dinner and the conversation turned to composers and musical styles.  Art said he didn’t think he’d asked our favorite composers on the questionnaire.  I was sure I had, that I’d answered Aaron Copland and Shostakovich.  Greg was trying to remember what he’d said, when he asked aloud, “Who was just asking me that—like today?”  Art laughed, “I did!  Just now—how old is this guy?!”  (Greg was actually remembering a question from a young Romanian tenor who’d just started singing with us).  Greg said if he were forced to teach the same choral piece every year for the rest of his career, he’d choose “Trois Chanson” by Claude Debussy.

Serious now, Art said that Debussy was Bruce Goff’s favorite composer, mainly because the work that he did was very athletic and light, whereas Mr. Wright like Beethoven and Bach, but particularly Beethoven—and Sebelius—the more heavy and more monumental works.  Greg said he might choose Bach if had one book of music on a deserted island because of the music’s elegance.  Art said he couldn’t settle on just one, but he likes the sound of an oboe.  His list is eclectic:  Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov, Schuman, some Bartok and Copland.

About the correlation between music and architecture, Eric Wright quoted a 19th century arts and crafts artist who called architecture “frozen music.”  Of course in architecture, the participant has to move through it to make it move; whereas music can come to the listener.  The structure of music and buildings are the same—the theme that begins in one place and develops in another with variations.  Greg, a musician, added that the closest metaphor to composing music is architecture.  He builds the frame of a piece first and adds the details later, developing the theme and certain motifs. Art compared discord in music and abstract expression in art to asymmetrical elements in architecture.  “We don’t mind when music is discordant then resolves; the same thing can happen in architecture.”

Having heard about Goff’s art preferences from Eric Wright, I asked about Goff’s affinity for Gustav Klimt, because I had been attracted to Klimt, Egon Schiele and their protégé and countryman Friedrichsreich Hundertwasser when I studied in Vienna, Austria. Art said that Goff had owned three original Klimmt paintings and painted abstracts himself.

In all art, Arthur says, grading inhibits creativity.  If an artist presents for evaluation something he or she knows she can do, the artist will be successful.  But if an instructor responds, “’Gee, you’ve a very fine job, and we both know you can do that very well, now why don’t you take some paint and throw it on top of that?’  If you don’t step out of your comfort zone,” Art says, “you don’t learn.”  Pass-fail gives students an opportunity to experiment.  Goff objected to the notion that some professors favored, that if the student just had a trap on the top of his head, you could just pour the information in there.  Art paraphrased his mentor, “if there was a trap on the top of the student’s head, what you’d want to do is open the trap and see what’s in there.  Pour some fertilizer in; get that to grow.”

  1. What are some of your favorite songs?
  2. Who are some of your favorite performers? (my list included Greg)
  3. What media for music do you collect (e.g. CDs, vinyl records, tapes)?
  4. Do you play musical instruments at home on a regular basis?
  5. What movies, plays, or performances are most memorable to you? (Our choices are overwhelmingly hopeful and a little romantic:  Les Miserables, Billy Elliot, Romancing the Stone, Guys and Dolls, old tap dance musicals.  I think that optimism and romance is reflected in the architecture).
  6. Do you enjoy live performances? (especially at home, I wrote)
  7. What is your favorite room in your present home? (We both said the island in the great room, so that element was an obvious keeper).
  8. What was your favorite room in your childhood home? Why?
  9. What is your weekly dining schedule?  How often do you eat at home or go out for a meal?
  10. What is your favorite restaurant? Why?
  11. Where do you prefer to be seated in a restaurant (e.g. corner table, booth, center of the room)? (We both said by a window).
  12. What is your favorite vacation spot? Why?
  13. Do you enjoy spending vacation time at home?  (Greg writes, “We are at the river property right now, filling out these forms.  It is a vacation”).
  14. What hobbies have you had in the past? (There’s a space for my messy art projects).
  15. What hobbies presently interest you? (This book).
  16. Do you foresee spending more time on hobby pursuits in five, ten, twenty years?
  17. How would you like to see your lifestyle change in ten and twenty years?  (We both thought we’d spend more time at home creating).

Ron Evans, who built his house in 1974, said he was introduced to Art Dyson by a potential architect for the job who, once he heard that the Evans’ wanted to do something different, said, “You want a fellow by the name of Art Dyson.”  They met Art in his office on Blackstone. Ron Evans said he told them first about his philosophy—he asked us about what they liked, what art they liked, what music they liked.  “He asked us all sorts of questions and listened to the answers. Ruth Ann wanted an open kitchen, so as not to be excluded when she’s cooking, and I wanted peripheral heating.  We thought, this guy is great; he’s going to build something just for us.

“For most people, color has an enormous importance in the experience of architecture,” says Art.  Personal surroundings reflect emotional patterns and tendencies through the presence of hue, tone, and shade across the spectrum of visible light.”  He spends a page discerning a client’s response to color and another for sound:  “Sound is a natural corollary to color.”

He asks you for a single color to represent yourself.  Greg turned to me when we were filling these out and said, “I know a lot about a lot of things, but for some reason, I have very few opinions about color.”  Fortunately, I have enough opinions about color for both of us.  I suggested he think of colors and think which goes with him and which with me.  He chose deep blue for himself and bright yellow for me.  Hmm.  I also chose dark blue or dark green for him, but, for myself I chose blue—blue-green—blue/grey.  I intend to be calmer than I really am.  Art’s next question comes with the guided imagery:  “Close your eyes, feel wonderful, all your senses are satisfied.  What color comes to mind?”  When I followed his instructions honestly, I was filled with a golden yellow/orange.  Greg wrote “swirling purple and brown,” then, “I really do have some sort of block related to color.”  For the next question, “What colors leave you indifferent or have no particular impact,” we both eschewed pale colors, but Greg makes a good point:  “Tan/brown in my lawn is depressing; tan on the hillsides is beautiful; brown in an ale is glorious.  Everything has its place.”  When he asks what color exudes strength, Art adds, “Feel strong; everything around you is supportive of well-being.  What color gives you that feel?”  I wonder if different clients answer this differently because we both wrote deep purple or blue.  The last color question is about security:  “Envision yourself completely at peace, restful and safe; you want for nothing; you have it all.  What color comes to mind?”  Why do I say grey?  But that is the dominant color we’ve chosen for the house.

The questions about sound are standard at first:  what natural sounds to you enjoy; which sounds displease you; what house noises to you normally pay attention to?  But there are three interesting ones:  “If you could have any sound for your doorbell, what would it be?  If there were any sound in the world that you could delete permanently, what would it be?  What single sound might you want to give everyone as a gift?”  Greg wrote, “a contented sigh.”  I think that’s good.

Art’s background in psychology is most evident in the final section on Heritage and Relationships:

Who we will become is often greatly determined by our reaction to where we have been.  Our experiences in the past have a strong bearing on what we look to find in the future.   This set of questions looks back over the broader scope of time to examine the oft-forgotten, and sometimes hidden things that have brought alive the present urge to build a home.

He asks about favorite and least favorite childhood activities, including smells, tastes, or sounds.  “When you were young, what kind of places did you dream about having as a home (e.g. castle, cave, forest)?” He asks, “How would you describe the way you were raised?” and about school, siblings, holidays and religious observance. “Are you right or left-handed?” he asks, and, “If you are married, how did you meet?” and he asks when and where did a couple marry and what are important anniversaries?  These, so he can possibly create a special sun moment to observe the special date.

Greg and I were practically newlyweds when we began the design process, but we broke ground two weeks shy of our three-year anniversary and didn’t move in until after our 6th anniversary.  We’re grateful we live in a lovely place—the Lencioni Home–in the meantime. Greg thrives in this space (“There are no ghosts,” he says).  We just need room for the grand piano—and the two of us entertain more than Dennis and I had.  Greg says he is constantly stimulated by the angles in this house—“the way this one ties into that, and the way the light changes the way it looks at different times of day and the way the openings reveal the broad span of the ceiling.  It’s anything but boring.”  He says he could have been happy living here forever, but he’s grateful to have the chance to infuse his ideas and personality and ideas into our RiverHouse.

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