What Does a House Look Like?

Architecture is not the repetition of something learned but, rather, the exploration of something sensed, for extending the boundaries of human experience and understanding.

                                                                                    -Arthur Dyson

On June 21st, the longest day of the year, I lie in bed watching a half-circle of sun stretch invitingly across the ceiling.  The sun shines in, hits glass below and repeats overhead.  The trees outside shimmer their dance hands.  It’s going to be a hot day—time to close in the cool and get to work. Arthur Dyson, who designed this space, says architecture shouldn’t separate people from their environments, especially at home.  I’m fortunate my two-story windows face a forest of blackberries, sycamores and river oaks.  The living room spills onto the deck, but a deep overhang keeps it cool in the summer.  It’s a small space, just 1800 square feet, but every inch of it is alive like the forest that surrounds it.

From the rural Rio Vista Road, east of Sanger, California, a driveway lined with figs and wild honeysuckle winds into a clearing.  The house—a sculpture, really–always surprises me, after 25 years, and people often gasp the first time they come around the corner.lencioni-residence31.jpg

Art loves to tell the story of my son’s kindergarten assignment to draw a house.  The way Art tells the story, 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, he says I invited her for coffee to show her the house which one friend calls “The Paisley,” my sister calls, “The Eye,” Effi Casey from Taliesin calls a “shell,” and a local journalist calls “football-shaped” (which I defy even more than the other similes—it is certainly an organic form, neither plastic nor pigskin).

Nico, 22 at the time and going by Nick, is home on leave from the Army.  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.  It’s his gestalt memory of a house, of course.  I hand him a pencil and ask him what a house looks like, and he sarcastically sketches the default peaked-roof right-angled structure with symmetrical windows for eyes and the mouth a centered door.  Yet, when we were talking about this recently, 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. “And she thought I was retarded or something.” Perhaps retold stories spawn memories as much as the opposite.

Actually, Harvey Ferrero, apprentice with Art under Bruce Goff told me a similar story about Goff’s spiral shaped Bavinger house.  It seems 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 wrote, “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 authenticity and creative thought while encouraging conformity.  Might be something to that, but he wasn’t really held back.

In this house, corners don’t die into right angles; lines meander and curve and continue the whole length of the house, inside and outside; ideas and conversations are likewise unrestrained.  No room is enclosed except the office downstairs—rectalinear for getting down to business.

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.”  Sometimes he says he came up with the design on Superbowl Sunday—he just couldn’t get footballs out of his mind.  We commented, when we saw the original elevation that the front door resembled a peace sign.  Art shrugged and said he could design something more militaristic if we liked (even with a son in the Army, we’re not hawks).

Nick’s sister Dani, home from her senior year as a theatre major at Santa Clara University, sleeps back up in the loft where she lived as a little girl.  The room has no front wall or aural privacy, but she says she feels cozy there. When just she and I are home, we carry on sotto voce conversations between the upstairs and down because there’s no wall to block the sound.  When her east coast boyfriend calls, she ducks into the bathroom to Skype in private.  “You won’t be pleased to hear this,” she said feigning guilt, “but when we were living up at the ranch house and renters lived here, I used to climb up the burm, across the garage roof and up onto the curved roof—it’s peaceful and close to the sky.” In fact, when Sebastian visited this summer, one of the first things she did was lead him out onto the balcony off the master bedroom, and climb up from the balcony onto the roof where they talked for hours, cloaked in the summer evening.

Accepting a 1996 Professional Design Award for the Lencioni Residence, Art said, “What prompted the design was the dramatic forested area.  The roof hovers, almost like it’s floating.  Since the residents like soft curves, we did a lot of that in the home; [with the awning] we could control the sun in the winter and screen it in the summer.”  The jury appreciated that he left the site untouched, keeping the natural water, flora and trees.  One juror, Frederick J. Meyer, said of Art, “He has the ability to elevate a building, no matter how utilitarian, into a poetic statement of everyday life.”

“One of the great, but often unmentioned, causes of both happiness and misery,” writes author Alain de Botton, “is the quality of our environment: the kind of walls, chairs, buildings and streets we’re surrounded by.  And yet a concern for architecture and design is too often described as frivolous, even self-indulgent.” In The Architecture of Happiness, De Botton suggests, “where we are heavily influences what we can be…[and] it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.”

“The best modern architecture,” he argues, “doesn’t hold a mirror up to nature, though it may borrow a pleasing shape or expressive line from nature’s copybook. It gives voice to aspirations and suggests possibilities. The question isn’t whether you’d actually like to live in a Le Corbusier home, but whether you’d like to be the kind of person who’d like to live in one.”

The people who actually live in a Dyson home know the difference.  Ken Woods, who has also built two houses with Dyson says, “When we visit other homes, we realize how closed in they are—in our house we feel we’re part of the outside natural world, yet protected from it.” Carolyn Woods says Dyson’s homes are “lyrical,” and praises the “honest details that retain the integrity of the elements and materials that comprise them.”  Shirley Baughman, whose house in Springville, California Dyson designed in 1981, says she felt like she wasn’t even in a house when she lived there. “There was nowhere in the house where you couldn’t see out.”

Carl Casey disclaims in an email, “I am not a cognitive architect (is there such a profession?), but it is my understanding that many factors in a building affect emotions and intellect, such as shape, light, color, and sound…Certainly the shape is nonlinear, which has a moderate calming effect.”

He also appreciates his house most when he visits other homes, particularly the amount of light. “I like having a lot of natural daylight, and this house provides that. Conventional homes to me often seem darker. To compensate for a lack of windows, developers then make the huge mistake of painting all the walls and ceilings white following the myth that white makes everything seem bigger, lighter, and pure.”
Casey explains “audio engineers have known for a long time the unfortunate effect of parallel walls.” He says this phenomenon, known as standing waves emphasize certain audio frequencies, which is why the walls in sound studios are nonparallel. The same is true in most of Art’s houses. In fact, Casey uses the bedroom to record singing: “I never have a problem with sound here, except for the neighbor’s occasional barking dog. Too bad architecture can’t somehow eliminate peoples’ obsession with canis lupus familiaris.”

“In Fountainhead, Ayn Rand sums up a lot of how I feel about architecture,” says Casey.  “I find many styles today to be ridiculous–not because those styles do not possess inherent merit, but because they are applied in the wrong place and at the wrong time. For example, around here, we have a two-story Victorian we call the Bates house because it looks like the house where Norman’s mother lived. Why? Because it is built on a hill and rises up out of the ground like Devil’s Thumb. It is all white. Its style reflects a different era and a different set of values. It is oppressive and pompous at the same time.”

The original owner of the Jacksha Home in Sumner Hill, Tom Jacksha, says “Art is a master of space—the volume of the spaces transitions from a higher ceiling to a lower ceiling.” Speculating what his house would look like now that there’s a new owner, he said, “I’m sure none of that has changed, so the house will have the same feel to it.” Of course, he’s right—Susan Early’s elegant remodel retains the space and the flow from room to room, as well as the dramatic reach of the home out over the hillside in several directions.

Vernon Crowder, a mutual friend of Art’s and mine who is blind, asked Art to describe to him what architecture is.  Marveling at the enormity of the question, Art told him, “architecture doesn’t have to be something you can see; it has to be something you can feel.”  That’s a funny way to put it to a blind person, we all decided, because you do have to see it to feel it.  Crowder says he’s able to “see” a building if he can feel a scale model of it before he goes inside.  We tried to describe it in words.  Art thought it would be interesting to build a house for a blind person.  The Jaksha house with all the points and dead ends frustrated Crowder.  When he toured the Lapp River House, he walked with his left hand on the wall, and the curve guided him around the open floor plan.  We opened all the doors and windows and he asked questions:  “How high is the ceiling?” and “Where is the river from here?”

Kurt Zumwalt, a builder of Art’s buildings and also owner of a Dyson home says, “I can understand from plans how a building is going to go up and look from the plans and the sections, but I can’t understand how it’s going to feel and the light and the space.  Art is particularly good at anticipating the feel.”  Zumwalt gives the example of the Woodward Park Library: “It really surprised me how wonderful that space is.  It’s the same thing about our home; I couldn’t guess how it was going to feel, and that’s Art’s real talent, what I trust him for.” His wife Terri, a realtor, said she is astonished over and over again that people in Fresno are willing to spend over a million dollars in Fresno to build a house that’s exactly like their neighbors’.  “They’ve picked different granite, so they think they’ve made it their own,” she says.  “People aren’t willing to go out on a limb because they crave affirmation and approval from other people.  So when I see a unique design,” she says, “I love it.”

Art’s son Marc was about kindergarten age when the circular Geringer house was going up in Kerman, and, Marc recalls, his dad’s drawing table was in his bedroom.  Marc said he might have looked at rectangular houses all around him in his neighborhood, but he always thought of circles when he thought of the shape of a house.  He’d draw pictures of houses and roll the drawings up to present them to his father.  Most of the buildings he drew, he says, were round like the Geringer Residence.  He also says that, because of growing up with his father, especially growing up in the midst of constant remodel construction, he’s not intimidated by radical alteration:  “Are you kidding?  Just take the ceiling out—what’s that going to look like?  Add a bridge in the house? Why not?”  Marc says he’s always liked the clean lines and the shooting angles characteristic of many of his father’s designs.  Now an associate in his father’s firm, he says his dad’s work inspires him.

Marc’s 13-year-old daughter Haley says, “Although I grew up in a neighborhood with “normal” houses, when I was younger I would do models of houses that were really creative.  I’d want to go up and open a wall into my room that was all circular.  Other people don’t know that houses can be that way, and I always did because of Papa [Haley’s name for her grandfather].

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