At Home: A Client’s Argument for Reflexive Architecture
Preface by Arthur Dyson
For my husbands, who help my dreams spring to life:
Greg Alan Lapp
Dennis Lencioni (1954-2003)
Why You’ll Want to Read This Book
Potential clients of artist-architects: I’ve been where you are—three times. I understand your reservations. I intend to prove it’s worth the time and money for the quality of life, and you can avoid spending as much money if you’re willing to spend more time. (I imagine you could save time if you spent more money, but that wasn’t an option for us). Your home can precisely reflect your personality, your values, and your dreams and bring you closer to them.
Students of architecture: It’s only logical that you understand one or more clients’ points of view since clients are the ones who finance your art. But you likely went into architecture in the first place because you dreamed of a soul-satisfying career. You always loved to create. I urge you to pursue those dreams as you contribute to a society suffering from drab soul-sapping efficiency.
Instructors of architecture: What do you teach about the client, the one who typically finances the project, but whose education in architecture and design is influenced by what he or she has seen in the media or by extant homes? Clients are easily influenced by arguments of “feasibility” and unaware of the consequences of compromise. Only through education by their architects will most understand the layers of benefit from authentically personalized design. Please instruct your students not only to think out of the box, but also guide them in the skill of educating clients towards satisfying choices.
Practicing architects: You know you have some stunningly creative work in your bottom drawer. You originally became an architect to create. I hope to embolden you and give you more of an idea of how clients think and feel. Your clients don’t have your knowledge or your ideas—that’s why they come to you. Please teach them to care about artistic architecture. Please give them this book.
Builders and craftspeople: While it’s comfortable and easier and probably cheaper to build or craft the same design repeatedly, you deserve to create inspiring and satisfying work. If you avoid cutting architectural corners, you’ll impress and attract better clients as a result. You’ll be authentically proud of your legacy. Look what you built.
Artists of all stripes: I have had the opportunity to interview many artists who appreciate and are somehow involved in authentic architecture, especially Arthur Dyson. Art inspires people around him to drop everything and devote their lives to the pursuit of beauty. The stories here are both instructive and inspiring.
Enthusiasts of organic architecture and design (we’re not a cult): While I struggle with what to call the architecture to which I refer, my examples are overwhelmingly organic and overwhelmingly the works of our architect Arthur Dyson, who apprenticed under Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff, and William Gray Purcell of Purcell & Elmslie.
My dozen or so precious blog followers at orgatecture.org. I hope it was worth the wait.
Chapter 1. At Home: A Client’s Argument for Reflexive Architecture
While we were planning and building the Lapp River House people asked why were we going to all this time, trouble, and expense. It was a buyers’ market, they said, and enormous tract houses were selling for as low as 400 grand in gated communities. Assuming that the River House cost more than it did, they wondered why didn’t we just buy one of the grand houses that stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the bluffs above the San Joaquin River? If we wanted to build on this site by the Kings River, why didn’t we just choose a pre-fab design and move in in six months?
In response to our friends’ curiosity, each month for two years we hosted a Full Moon Friday potluck by the river. In all seasons and all weather, sometimes a dozen, sometimes close to 100 people came to see the see the incremental progress and ponder our choices.
Perhaps the answer to their questions, at this point in our lives, was: Once we’d lived outside the box, we couldn’t pack ourselves back into one. We wanted our home to reflect us so we could feel at home.
There are trade-offs. Sometimes people think we’re super-rich because we live in this unique home. Sometimes they assume we must be snobs, even though we host an open party every spring. Tourists slow down and surreptitiously photograph from the road or the park across the river, but we have also had the delight of hosting architects and artists who are interested in the design, famous writers and musicians passing through our valley, and even a group of community planners who call themselves “dreammakers” and wanted an inspirational space for their retreat.
By way of introduction, here’s my brief architectural backstory:
Back in the mid-80’s, my late husband Dennis Lencioni and I were living in the downstairs apartment of a drafty duplex on the back side of a cattle ranch. We were in our twenties; he had a thriving horseshoeing business, and I was finishing my teaching credential. The brilliant aspect of that cinderblock box we lived in was that it was rent-free in exchange for caretaking the cattle and the owner’s mother upstairs, which started us on a habit of radical saving and investment early on (I include that part of the story for my children and their generation). It was also exciting when bats would fly in the gaping cracks, and Grady the supercat would pounce from the bureau and land with a winged rodent in her claws.
I had a hobby in those days of drawing (mostly impractical) floorplans (I chose art over math in high school and college). On paper, I converted a vacant grain silo on the ranch to a 4-story dwelling (my studio would be a glass and screen cylinder atop the silo with an azure-blue Christo-esque parasol overhanging 20 feet all the way around). On paper, I added on to the cinderblock we lived in in a variety of ways, usually spanning the creek.
A long distance runner back then, I crested the hill one morning at Rio Vista, turned left onto Trimmer Springs Road, and spied my grandmother, Evelyn Ball, in her red sweatshirt with the hood on, looking for all the world like an elf, tying white bows around the oak trees. As a wedding present, Gran, who lived on the ranch next door, gave us 7.6 acres of riverbottom land she’d wanted to build on in the 60’s, but was told it was unbuildable (what a challenge!). That last semester, I spent more time drawing floorplans than studying or wedding planning.
Dennis was a pilot (mostly to let off steam with aerobatic antics), so we circled around and around over the wooded wetland property looking for high ground. He’d tip the plane sideways, and I‘d take photos. Once I developed them (those were the days before digital), we’d study how dark or light the foliage was—lighter, we deduced, meant drier. Once it was clear that the center of the plot was highest, we started hacking our way in like Amazonian pioneers. We started with machetes and a chainsaw, but switched quickly to a tractor with a mower, backing in to devour the water willows and Himalayan blackberry. Scratched and sticky with plant sap and sweat, we’d proudly survey the few meager feet of progress we’d make in a day. Finally, we broke down and bought a big Case backhoe, which cleared the way to an acre of high ground—it turned out that Collins Creek split and circled it like a moat.
When we learned the flood zone required us to build up 3 ½ feet, I was confounded. Because we were in the middle of a forest, I wanted two stories for the long vista over the canopy, but I didn’t want a large house (we were frugal to a fault), so the plan was small, but tall. Since I didn’t really know how to draw an elevation in the first place, my attempts looked like silos with corners or a tilted A-frame. Our dear friend Scot Zimmerman, a photographer (although the friendship dated back to when he sold Dennis a used BMW), had recently divorced and spent many evenings in our cinderblock burrow. Witnessing my frustration, Scot said, “You oughta talk to this guy I take pichers for” (Scot is both smart and wise, but he does say “pichers”).
We talked to Arthur Dyson, who had apprenticed with both Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff, in his office on “P” Street in Fresno in the old Ice House building for two sessions talking about anything but architecture. His sign was built of old rail wood and gears (note: sign is pictured on video). His work and his words awakened our imaginations. I’ll explain that planning process later because it’s important to my point. We hired Greg Potter, who had been a draftsman for Dyson as our contractor. Our contract was for $100,000 1985 dollars (the bids ranged from $90K to $280K). The total cost was $120,000.
Two years later, in 1987, we moved in to this radical example of organic architecture, a residential sculpture. The Lencioni Residence has by now won awards, been published in books and magazines, featured on Extreme Homes, and it was our first real house. Gran died that New Year’s Eve, which was devastating to me, but I was pregnant with Nicolas Sinclair Lencioni, who was born in June, 1988. Danelle Evelyn (named for Gran) was born the next year. This was their home when they entered school in Centerville.
When they reached first grade, brother and sister were still sharing a loft bedroom, and every attempt to expand seemed, to me, to upset the perm and balance of the house. At the same time, Dennis had a big cattle opportunity so we moved across the street to Gran’s ranch house, a well-made, custom one-story traditional home with an enclosed kitchen, a formal dining room and three bedrooms branching a long hallway on 24-acres which we immediately fenced into two pastures. I always intended to move back to that thrilling organic space when the children were grown, but we’d have to wait more than a decade for that.
Accustomed to an open floorplan, we de-walled the Ranch House with the help of Boback Emad, now a large-form sculptor, who had apprenticed with both Dyson and John Lautner and assisted Dennis on the metal details on our first house. Boback also designed the lap pool and was my ally as I insisted on projecting the pool and cement strips at a 37-degree angle from the house while Dennis and his engineer brothers contended that a pool parallel to the house would be “just fine.” While I won that battle based on the fact that I could lifeguard the entire length of the pool from my desk if it angled out toward the view, the resulting lap pool thrusts out from the window where I worked and directs all views to the oak forest and the southwest fingers of the setting sun. With rain or irrigation, the pool and pasture beyond appear as a dreamy river. I have a photo of Nico, age 9, standing on the vanishing edge of the pool serenading the countryside with his French horn.
In the late 90’s, we wanted to expand the living room and re-orient the entry. As it was, the front door went largely unused because you had to walk through the yard and past the pool to reach it. The driveway awkwardly approached the garage and the electrical box from the east. We couldn’t see people arrive because the windows faced north and south only, and as the kids were getting bigger I wanted them to bring their friends to our house rather than them going elsewhere, so we thought we’d turn the garage into the entry and living room. A four-car garage would later host Den’s Porsche, Dani’s attic hide-away, and Nick’s heavy metal band.
We consulted Art Dyson for the remodel (this was during the time he was dean at Taliesin), and his office presented plans (which involved lifting the roof and angling it to match the 37-degree angle in the yard. Sadly, the bids came in consistently four times over our budget, and Dennis sort of stomped away from the project. My ability to render an elevation had improved, and ultimately, a handyman, Bill Barnes, executed the remodel based on my drawings. I never felt good about that exchange because I couldn’t un-ring the bell of one Dysonian angle, and I recognize how wonderful Dyson’s proposed design would have been, with its multiple clerestories, a sheltering overhang over the courtyard, and a glass-on-glass corner toward the long vista. When Art and Audrey Dyson came for Dennis’ memorial service in 2003, I had too many other things on my mind to ask or notice what they thought of the amateur design.
Sometime around 9/11, tragedy struck our house too as we slowly learned that Dennis had contracted an inoperable brain tumor. We took the kids out of 8th grade and traveled to South America for January and February of 2002, and he died during their freshman year of high school. We three hung in there on the ranch, and I continued teaching writing at Reedley College. The Ranch House was a gathering place for teenagers.
As he was dying, Dennis had told everyone that after a year I should start dating because I was “the marrying kind.” He was probably right, and I ultimately met Greg Lapp, a musician and high school choir teacher who came with a 1902 Steinway grand piano, which led to marvelous musical evenings in the new living room. We married right before the kids’ senior year, and we all lived in the Ranch House until they went to college.
All this time, I’d been renting out the first Dyson house, let’s call it the Creek House (although it’s had many names—more on that later, too), so, with just the two of us, we sold the Ranch House and moved with the Steinway into the Creek House. As much as Greg loved the first Dyson house and understood the value of the organic architecture and its impact on its inhabitants, there was no getting around the fact that I had built it with Dennis. And we were used to cooking together, but the Creek House kitchen is a one-chef space. Plus, the piano took up the entire dining area and part of the living room, crowding the entire downstairs. We were used to having concerts for 50 in the Ranch House (which had grown to 3,000 feet with the remodel). We didn’t want more space, but we needed it configured differently. I agreed, in theory, to moving, but I said it had to be more lovely than the Creek House and not too far from the college, which pretty much limited us to something on the Kings River. I felt claustrophobic in any house we looked at, and there were few riverside homes and no riverside lots available for over a year.
One day in 2006 Greg and I were kayaking down the Kings River, as we would any chance we had, and we spied the back side of a For Sale sign on a lot with grass that came down to the river. A red barn stood to the side, but there was a wide open plot with a broad view of the river and direct access to the road. We pulled the kayaks up, stepped off the middle part of the property, memorized the phone number on the sign, kayaked quickly down to our car and cellphones, met the realtor an hour later (still in our water shoes), and made an offer before the end of the day.
When the owners accepted the offer a week later, I started drawing floorplans, this time incorporating the Steinway and a long wall cupboard to store 50 black padded folding chairs. Limiting the design to exactly 2,000 square feet, I tinkered with the design into the night. I proudly left my masterpiece displayed on the counter (there was no dining room table in the Creek House—no room for it). When I woke up later than usual, I was dismayed to see Greg drawing and erasing on my plan. He’d made little graph-paper-and-cardboard piano, dining table, bed, and futon to scale, and was altering my design! (I was always the creative one!) Once I looked at it, though, I had to admit his changes were good ones, and I’d have to get used to living with another creative in the house. Fortunately, our ideas complement each other’s; in fact, it’s good to have a check and balance.
It was self-evident that a new marriage required a new Dyson house. We went to Art with our joint floorplan. Partly because of the remodel fiasco years ago on the Ranch House, and partly because the man’s a genius, we didn’t look anywhere else. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t outrageous; we’re teachers, not wealthy patrons of the arts. The highlights of planning and building process are detailed in the book, but it was a 6-year process. Funny, that’s about how long it’s taken to settle down and complete this book, which has transformed and gone back to the drawing board many times as well.
Some people don’t care so much about their surroundings, although I’ll submit later in the book that surroundings influence us whether we know it or not. But different people care about different things. For example, we have a friend, who, while he’s a brilliant musician and loves architecture (he calls the website apartmenttherapy.com soft porn), he warns us not to waste special cheese or fine wine on him because he can’t tell the difference and doesn’t care; similarly, I am rarely fazed by even the most exquisite of desserts. Some people are that way about architecture. Like appraisers, they ask: how many bedrooms? How much closet space? Will my furniture fit? Some people like to designate a discreet purpose for each separate room, while I will advocate for multi-use spaces. I am not an architect. I am defending a type of architecture and a process of design from a client’s point of view. It seems to me, sadly, that most houses aspire to be more ordinary than the extraordinary people inside them. I hope to nudge clients and architects to venture together into designs that reflect the residents’ personalities and proclivities and integrate into the site where they choose to build. A working title for this book was: Living in Art(’s) Work: Why Organic Architecture Is Worth It. My examples consist primarily from the portfolio of Arthur Dyson because I’ve been fortunate to know many clients, apprentices, and associates of Dyson, and, of course, both my homes are Art’s work. I write this as an apologist for all authentic architecture—designs by all artist-architects who get how important it is that our dwellings reflect our selves.
There are aspects of our choices that are personal, obviously, and we (Dennis and I, Greg and I) have made many compromises in the name of cost, but as I show the house to more and more people, I see that the notion of how to choose is worthy and, although people’s ideas of beauty differ, the pursuit of what we find beautiful reflects us and our values. Our choices reflect our personalities and our histories. I know I am a little claustrophobic, and clutter makes me nervous. I don’t like air conditioning or white mechanical noise, and I prefer natural light to artificial. Some people are more private and some more communal. Certainly different settings demand different reflections of that setting. I chose a more cozy house in the middle of a forest, and, in the foothills above the river, a house with radical fenestration. If I lived in a city, I’d turn my back architecturally on the street and the neighbors and, as many urban architects have done for generations, focus on a sunny courtyard. Skylights—I’d have skylights. Here, let me draw you a plan.