August 17, 2017 – draft
At Home: A Client’s Argument for Authentic 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. Yes, you can try this “at home”!
Students of architecture: It’s only logical that you understand one or more clients’ points of view since clients are the ones who will 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 you, 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. This book could be a textbook.
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 attract better clients as a result. You’ll be authentically proud of your legacy. You’ll have a portfolio you’re proud of. 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. Dyson inspires people around him to drop everything and devote their lives to the pursuit of beauty. The stories here are both instructive and inspiring–and sometimes cautionary.
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 Reflection 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 $400K 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? Or, if we wanted to build on this site by the wilder, less-populated 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 Full Moon Friday potlucks at the site. 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. At the time we were building, some of our friends were buying vacation homes at the coast or in the mountains. We admire this impulse; we have been fortunate over the years to spend summer holidays at my parents’ lake house in Montana and friends’ weekend retreats. Because it is a recreation paradise, people sometimes ask if the River House is our vacation home. We exchange a smile and hedge, “well, yes, but it’s also our primary residence.”
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 from 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 (“there’s a challenge!” we thought). That last semester of my teaching credential program, I spent more time drawing floorplans than studying or wedding planning.
Dennis was a pilot (mostly to let off steam with aerobatic antics), so on weekends 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 the high ground 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 a 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, 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 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. 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 had ranged from $90K to $280K). Ultimately, the total cost was $120,000.
Two years later, in 1987, we moved in to this radical organic sculpture.
The Lencioni Residence has by now won awards, been published in books and magazines, featured on Extreme Homes, but for us it was our first real house. Gran died that New Year’s Eve, which was devastating to me, but the cycle of life continues, doesn’t it? I was pregnant with Nico, who was born in June, 1988. Dani 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 add on seemed, to me, to upset the form 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 off a long hallway. The house sat on 24-acres that we immediately fenced into two pastures. I always intended to move back to the Lencioni Residence when the children were grown. I planned to grow old in that thrilling organic space we built, but I knew I’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 of our first house. Emad also designed the lap pool. He was my ally as I insisted on projecting the pool and cement strips at a 37-degree angle from the house (which involved moving the pasture fence). 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 that way, even the engineers ultimately conceded the design was worth it. The resulting lap pool thrusts dynamically out from the window where I worked and directs your eyes 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 10 or 11, 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 choosing to go 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 executed the remodel based on my hand 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 who would listen that, after a year, I should start dating, that it would be an insult to our marriage if I stayed single for the second half of my life. He said 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, I sold the Ranch House and we moved with the Steinway into the Creek House as I had always intended. As much as Greg loved the Creek 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, while we were used to cooking together, the Creek House kitchen is a one-chef space. Plus, the grand 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). Twenty people could squish into the Creek House if some sat on the stairs. 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, near water, and not too far from the college, which pretty much limited us to something on the Kings River. We looked, but I felt claustrophobic in any house we toured, 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 a grass lawn 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 to measure it, 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 countered and we accepted 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 (no room for a dining room table in the Creek House with the Steinway bogartting the whole downstairs). When I woke up later than usual, I was dismayed to see Greg drawing and erasing on my plan. He had 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. Still, the Lapp River House has already garnered two pretty significant architectural awards and is featured in two magazines and a forthcoming book (besides this one). The highlights of the planning and building process are detailed in later chapters, 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. And different people care about different things. For example, we have a friend, who, while he’s a brilliant musician and loves stylish architecture (he calls the website apertmenttherapy.com soft porn), 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.
Photo-us and Art
I am not an architect. I am defending a type of architecture and a process of design from a client’s point of view. And there’s something else: it seems to me, sadly, that most houses aspire to be more ordinary than the extraordinary people inside them. I share some stories of some clients of Dyson and other like-minded architects I’ve come to know. I hope to nudge clients and architects to venture together into designs that reflect the residents’ personalities and proclivities, and to integrate the form 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,” and at one point, my focus was more biographical. 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. As I attempt to describe what it’s like to live in each of these houses, how each came to be, and what I have learned from the process, the project has evolved into an apologia for all authentic architecture—designs by all artist-architects who get how important it is that our dwellings reflect our selves.
Photo-lrh window view
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 eminently worthy and, although people’s ideas of beauty differ, the pursuit of what we each find beautiful reflects us and our values. Our choices reflect our personalities and our histories. I know, for example, that 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 sites demand different reflections of that setting. I myself chose to build a more cozy house when I built in the middle of a forest, and, in the foothills above the Kings River, a house with radical fenestration. If I lived in a city, unless I had a multi-million-dollar view, 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.
Chapter 2. Love Song to Our River House
Shadows in this house hang confidently like art.
Where water dances on the ceiling,
There is the music of light.
Seven windows and one wall
Reflect a vase of wildflowers.
A friend who’s been to the River House frequently came for dinner last night. Both of our husbands were busy and our schedules have been keeping us apart, so she drove her little SUV up the hill after her last class. Stepping through the doorway, she emitted an involuntary sigh.
That’s what this house is like.
It was almost 6, and the evening sun was painting the hills. The arched expanse of windows creates a cinematic sense that this is the landscape of a story. Of course every landscape is the backdrop for someone’s story, and this is ours.
Even when the windows need washing (we are our own house cleaners) or the river’s low and the hills are dry, the light slides with such drama that people stop and wait–the way people who live in the flight path of an airport wait for planes to pass overhead. Our wait is slower and more luxurious; if it happened more than twice a day it would be distracting.
We brought our glasses to the chairs by the window. The sun’s strength was crossed by a chill wind up the river, so we sat safely inside. We talked about art and film and Shakespeare and the dramas in our lives. The sound of the fountain masked what evening traffic comes home with the commuters. Other than that, it was just our voices—words and laughter and exclamations like the wisps of clouds outside that were turning pink and grey and finally disappearing.
Greg came home as she was leaving. He reminded her that the futon folds out, the doors to the den slide shut—she could wake up to the sun climbing over the foothills. But she had to get back to the city. We said goodbye to her, then settled in ourselves to discuss the day.
Sleepless at 3AM, on a night when my brain won’t rest, I slip out of bed to the window seat. The bamboo floors are tight and quiet and heat radiates through them, comfortable on bare feet. Lightning stripes the sky from behind the hills in pulsing waves—no wonder I’m restless, but how fortunate I am to witness this silent show. The sky calms, and I settle into my reading nook (I don’t love that word “nook,” but I’ve rummaged the thesaurus and there’s not a better one. Similarly, I resist the word “hutch” even though it aptly describes a bank of windowed cabinets where we keep vases and serving dishes–Greg started calling it the “starsky,” after the 70s cop show Starsky and Hutch. “Nook,” “hutch,” these words seem so banal for something so, so vivid).
A photograph can show you the nook, but it can’t capture the space. I nest in pillows on the bench. An overhead light illuminates my book, but, tucked behind the library wall to my right, it doesn’t interrupt Greg’s sleep. Specific to me, perhaps, is the comfort of a library, the endless possibilities of stories and ideas, many old friends and mentors, and some acquaintances I want to know better. At my eye level is the slot of a window—at night, from this angle, it is an obsidian detail, but in an hour, the hills will come slowly into focus. The river windows across the room reflect me like a blurry roll of negative film, knees and shins, knees and shins, knees and shins, in triplicate. A confluence of angles and curves, this blending into that like a polyphonic madrigal, introduces endless possibilities of thought.
As day breaks, the crickets’ songs are replaced by those of the morning birds.
On a June evening, birdsong comes from the piano. Thirty guests taste wine and cheese while our good friend David Clemensen plays songs about birds: Daquin’s “Le Coucou” (1735) and “Le Merle Noir” by Messiaen (1985), one traditional and one avante garde; the guests smile when a bird outside joins in. David plays river songs: Aaron Copland, Franz Schubert, Nico Muhly, “Three Songs for the Kings River” by his friend Greg Lapp, a Frederic Chopin, John Cage, and Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The acoustics of the curved ceiling create a surround-sound effect, blending the music as it originated in the composer’s ear. One friend says afterwards, indicating the room, the view, the piano, “I feel like I’ve just fed my soul.” Another says, “the peace is astounding.” I ask which piece, assuming he meant piece of music, and he clarifies: “’that-passeth-understanding’ peace.”
Photo-songs for KR music
“Three Songs for the Kings River” lyrics (a Lapp collaboration)
The morning water, cross-hatched in upstream light
You yawn beside me.
A finger of mist drifts behind the island willow.
A great blue heron stretches up in exultation
“Good morning,” I say,
And you smile.
“Hola! Hola!” you call from the grill. “Hola! Hola!”
The baby’s lolling on his blanket
With his mother and her sisters,
Who lean together eating strawberries.
Mu-sic gathers under the sycamore’s canopy
And settles among our friends
who laugh and sing the chorus
“Hola! Hola!” you call from the grill. “Hola! Hola!”
From the game above, the metal boules click.
You bring me a glass and a plate
I smile and say, “sit here with me.”
Green, blue and red, our boats nose downstream
I dangle my Tevas, and we paddle when we want.
A musical rush heralds rapids, a familiar cascade.
Thrill laced with danger.
We hold our breath past the Slipping Rock.
Once safely by, I turn to watch you follow,
Then you pull my paddle to you
And lash your kayak to mine with your leg.
You splash your face.
The sun shines.
Greg and I built this house for the two of us, our friends and families, parties and concerts, retreats for the choral groups Greg conducts, but also as a venue for charity events (Kings River Conservancy, the public radio station, San Joaquin River Parkway, University High School, Reedley College Literary Arts). We are committed to sharing our space and benefitting our community. For these events, furniture moves aside, chairs come out, umbrellas go up, depending on the event. In an El Niño year following some years of drought, a storm came in late April, giving us the opportunity to prove how nimble this house can be. The function was an 11AM-3PM barbeque/band/water activities/games sort of thing for about 200 people to benefit river programs and conservation. The heavens had dumped over three inches of glorious rain the night before and didn’t stop until 10:30AM that Saturday morning. Of course the band was worried about their equipment (their name was ironically Fire and Rain—of the two options, we preferred the rain over fire). Tucked under the 15-foot overhang on the terrace, the musicians stayed dry, and the acoustics were better than ever. We moved all the auction sheets and raffle prizes indoors, added seating in every corner, and set mats at every entrance. We covered the barbeque with tents like a bazaar, and we set the bar strategically just outside, under the overhang, but near the auction tables. As the skies cleared, the sports set up and revelers played and talked and listened to music. People were in and out of the house all day, tracking wet shoes of course, but the bamboo floors wiped right up and the house was back in order by dinnertime.
Once a year, we open the house to the public. It’s a big barbeque, and Greg serves drinks while I lead tours. Although we start on the lawn down by the river, we walk around to the front of the house to begin. I explain the history and Arthur Dyson (one time I looked at the back of the group of twenty or so visitors and there was Art himself). Because the fountain bubbles as we approach, I explain that the timbre of water matches the timbre of traffic, and we have commuters morning and evening that we’d prefer to ignore. Also, the water sounds connects the house aurally to the flowing river.
I tell about our commitment to green living. I list the cool roof (and describe how it was rolled off of massive spools on the back of a truck so, lengthwise, it’s one continuous piece of metal with only 32 standing seams front-to-back), the solar panels, the electric car, the drought-tolerant yarrow and lavender (which also repels rodents), radiant-floor heating, the overhangs and cross-drafts we have in place to avoid air conditioning. I even purposely leave some tidy laundry hanging to show off the solar clothes dryer.
I explain our one pest problem, bats, which are a mixed blessing. We appreciate them eating mosquitos and gnats, but we didn’t expect them to find the slimmest of crevices in the structure to set up dormitories. We use sonar blasters to redirect them and their effluence away from the windows and exterior walls. We built an 80-bat apartment for them onto the side of the barn, and they stay away, more or less.
Photos-pop-out, boulders, mailbox
Still facing the front of the house, I point to the boulders that perch at the edge of the fountain and encourage people to notice that most of the decorations in the house and on the grounds originated on the property. For the mailbox post, Greg drilled center holes in quanco-sized river rocks and stacked them on a steel rod (a quanco, by the way, is a rugby ball). I point to the slot window in the aluminum pop-out. The pop-out has the effect of embracing the entry, just as the steel beams give it the impression of a low-ceiling entry. I show them also the swoosh etched into the front door frosted glass (I just cut the design out of contact paper, backwards, applied it to the glass, and painted the stencil with the same acid the gangsters use to graffiti store windows). I show them my wedding ring, which Greg and I designed to look like the river, and I tell them to look for the river swoosh motif elsewhere as we go inside.
Opening the door always results in oohs and ahs. A Dyson trademark, the oversized door pivots. Art likes to say, “There’s a fat side and a skinny side.” I close the door behind the last person to keep the bugs out and demonstrate how I lock it. Syd Mukai, the builder, was already puzzled with how to weatherstrip the edges when he suddenly stopped and said, “How are we going to lock it if it pulls closed with just a pole?” The ranchgirl in me answered immediately, “gate latch,” and so it is.
Photo-gatelatch, door inside
The 18-foot entry would break Frank Lloyd Wright’s rules of compression and expansion to create anticipation, but the heavy black parallel steel beams that run from outside in front to the pool on the back terrace serve not only to compress the entry in a non-confining way, but also to connect the inside to the outside and balance the directional lines of the house. Without the north-south steel beams, east-west lines would dominate and make the design too static. The stunning east-west line begins with two massive glu-lam beams, which Syd Mukai, after watching a documentary on the Hoover Dam, had placed with a crane in three segments: first east, then west, then center. These beautiful wooden beams also run inside and outside, as does the aluminum siding of the pop-out, which wraps around the entry wall and transforms magically into the library wall on its flip-side.
Photos-black beams, glulams
From the entry, there’s a panorama of the river. Guests can see the room-sized overhang over the terrace, the pool whose shape mirrors the roofline, the grapevines and garden planted in a configuration to match the lines of the house, as well as the lawn and the party they just left down below. I tell them they’re currently looking at three-quarters of the total house and remind them that the whole house is only 2,000 square feet.
Photos-rvr from int, garden layout
I explain the multiple purposes for each room. From the west wall behind the grand piano, I open one of the cupboards that hold the 50 folding chairs. I explain that with the furniture rearranged, it’s easy to seat 50 or 60 people. I explain that the high counter above those cupboards, mostly bare, often hold stacks of music or chapters of works in progress. From there, they are facing the window seat, reading nook, and library. Now they see how the slot window works at eye-height from a sitting position. In an earlier iteration of the River House design, the library was a separate room upstairs, but in the single-story version, the library is divided into three segments. Someone points out the river rock bookends. Someone else always asks, at this point, how we reach the beginning of the alphabet if Atwood, Borofka, and Boyle are 16 feet up. I show them the telescoping ladder in the closet. This corner is my office, I explain, and open the drawer that has my laptop and pens and highlighters.
Photos-from piano, with chairs, with ladder, bookrocks
I often work over by the windows that face the river and the foothills. This is also where we eat breakfast in the morning and read in the evening. The birdscope is trained on the sycamore most frequented by eagles, hawks, and osprey. Move the rolling armchairs, and this area is also the bamboo floor yoga studio.
From this spot in the living room it’s possible to see all five identical ceiling fans because above 8 feet, the walls are glass. This also allows for a view of the glu-lam and ceiling that, without ducting for a dual-pack heater-air conditioner, curves smoothly in concert with the line of the roof. Someone always says they were sure that was a mirror up there.
In the kitchen, someone always says they’d be glad to wash dishes here, and I have to admit the view does make all housework pleasant; I point out that it’s an easy house to keep clean. There’s a place for everything, so everything’s in its place.
I explain how, at the Creek House, which had an isthmus instead of an island, I could become trapped, my 6’4” husband blocking my escape. The circle of leatherized granite solves that, but it’s too large to reach across. So Greg’s father Leroy left the house one day with a trunkful of wood from an oak we had to take out (we planted two more), and he returned with the parquet lazy Susan for the center of the 8-foot island.
Since we both cook and often at the same time, we have a second sink and lots of counter space. Cooking is pleasure for both of us: Greg is sous and science—he chops and makes complicated cheeses, fermented vegetables, even beer and wine—I am sauce, soup, and sautee. Sometimes we have bake-offs to see who can create the best—or most interesting—sourdough creation. The food we make is a joyful gift to our guests and to each other.
We didn’t splurge on fancy appliances—nothing very trick—but we carefully planned the kitchen exactly as we wanted it, down to the size of our biggest serving bowl and the height of the blender and had custom cabinets made. Just as the big view windows are segmented instead of curved, I suggested we segment the cupboards under the island. They’re mostly tucked away anyhow, I rationalized, and we needed to watch the budget. The cabinetmakers, Golden State Woodworking, offered to make the cabinet curved for the same price as segmented because it would look better, they said, and they could use the photos for their portfolio. There’s an argument for a stylish house design! So that a standard refrigerator could fit flush with the cabinets, we framed four feet of the wall deeper, intruding into the bedroom behind the bedroom door. Doing this created a depression for a recessed bookshelf (another third of the library) along the bedroom wall.
One thing I’ve learned about open-format homes is the open format tends to sacrifice storage space, so in this house every wall and all the built-in furniture doubles as storage space or bookshelf, some of them 18 feet high (remember the collapsible ladder).
As if we are pinballs in a game, I lead the group around the circle island and back to the entry where we began, so we can see the den/guest bedroom (and third third of the library). The wooden doors, made by Greg and his father out of three woods, pull together the bamboo floor color (blonde), the piano and dining room table (cherry), and the front door and glu-lams (oak). They slide open and closed like a shoji screen. While they don’t latch (we could add a latch), the edges are beveled, so they overlap for privacy. A framed rendering of the Creek House and a framed magazine ad for Kenwood stereos featuring the Creek House hang on the wall of the den, so I answer questions about that house and compare the two. I point out that the houses are similar in size, but the piano took up most of the Creek House’s “great-room,” and the dining table had to live upstairs in the loft.
In the den is the only window treatment, blinds that close from the bottom up for privacy and to block the summer morning sun. Unless we have guests, we leave it open the rest of the year. The TV is in this room, and the futon folds out. The whole house is wheelchair-accessible since Greg’s brother uses a chair. The bathroom has handicap fixtures so Brian can stay here comfortably.
I send the group through the bathroom and the office/hallway and meet them in the bedroom. I tell them to look at the poured concrete counter top as they pass inlaid with pebbles from the river. The bathrooms are all grey tile. It’s nice that people think they are some special stone—they really are pretty— but they are ordinary tile, 16 x 16 on the floor and shower bench and walls, and 4 x 4 on the shower floor. The outside walls of the shower are glass, so the room looks bigger, and, like all the cabinet kicks in the house, there is an 8 x 8-inch clearance so the cabinet looks like it’s floating. The counter is deep and the mirror meets flush with the concrete countertop, so the river rock design is doubled.
The office area is like a backstage view of our lives. There’s the calendar, tickets and invitations, phone numbers and grocery lists, cookbooks, stationary, and a cleaning and linen closet.
The master bedroom is actually a rectangle, although it doesn’t feel like it because of three features: the soffit, the terrace, and the mirror. The story of the soffit shows how we worked with Art Dyson. As the walls were going up, I became agitated about the bedroom. It was practically square. Your eye was drawn to one 90-degree corner, and your line of sight died there. Our bed is low and I didn’t want lamps, but the ceiling was 18 feet up. Art came out, and I showed him my idea of making a soffit that would arc over the bed like a canopy, a convex circle. It articulated, I reasoned, with the convex half-circle of the terrace outside the mostly glass wall facing the river (that small terrace links to the larger terrace like a Venn diagram). The fan would be kind of squished in there, I admitted, but it could work. Art smiled and said, “Make it concave.” He pointed to the 8-inch kick under the bookshelf. “And put a mirror under there.” Much better. The concave soffit looks like it was designed around the fan. Together with the convex half-circle visible through the glass wall, concave and convex form a complete circle. The mirror under the bookshelf distracts the eye from the opposite corner, and the ceiling is curved anyhow. Still wary of the right angle, I cock the chair diagonally to cut the corner.
People invariably comment on the collection of feathers and dry flora that compose a sort of dream catcher and the niches on either side of the bed. The “art” above our bed is a curated collection of found treasures from walks on the property. To avoid side tables, I asked Syd to frame the niches into the wall for books and sundries. The walk-in closet has three levels of poles going up 18 feet and a chute through the wall to the laundry room.
Someone inevitably jokes about the glass walls and windows in the shower, and I explain that the glare obscures the view, and the effect from inside the shower is amazing because we see the river about five times: the actual river through the east and north windows, the river reflected in the half-wall shower glass, the glass door into the bathroom, which is usually open, and the 5×10-foot mirror behind the sink, which reflects all that glazing on the way back. Out the window to the east, I composed a garden of enormous river rocks extracted from our landscaping, outtakes from the glu-lam beam ends, which I set upright to look like river reeds and rushes flanking a steel heron I’d bought on impulse years ago. With the actual river beyond, it looks like he’s just lifted his head from fishing. I purchased 18 teal towels when we moved in and one red one. The red one marks where we are in use, so we wear them out evenly. After four years, they still float, color and texture, on the glass shelves. When they finally expire, I’ll buy twenty more and start over.
The poured concrete counter tops in the bathrooms began with hand-selected river pebbles glued in the swoosh motif of a streambed. We put down Styrofoam forms for the basins, and Eddie, Syd’s right-hand man, poured the concrete and, once it cured, ground it smooth, but not too smooth where the rocks are because we wanted it to resemble a riverbed coursing across the counter. On the way out, I show my guests Greg’s clever innovation for a messy wife and her stuff. Because I tended to use the hair dryer, brush, etc. and then rush out the door leaving everything out on the counter, he suggested making a sub-counter with plugs and a lid that lifts up. The tough part was making a concrete cover for the lid to match the countertop, but it’s lasted four years and holding.
I lead the tour back through the bedroom through the laundry room with a storage system that goes up to the ceiling, the printer and modem, sink, washer and dryer, outerwear closet, and a counter where Greg sets his school and music things. He also has a desk and piano keyboard in a studio upstairs in the barn (we call it the Tree House because its windows look out into the oak canopy). The Tree House also has a studio apartment with heat and AC. Downstairs in the barn is Greg’s shop and brewery.
Out in the carport, I explain that I didn’t want a garage. “I’ve had two dear husbands,” I say, “and two out of two of them collect shit.” The women laugh at my sexist comment. As in the house, the walls of the carport are deep storage cabinets, one side for sporting equipment and the guts of the fountain, the other for large-scale entertaining. Attached to the carport is an outdoor project room that also holds a freezer, the bicycles, and an exercise bike, all under cover. There’s even room for a visitor to park a car.
Photos-carpt, proj rm
Once Greg started making wine from his grapes, he needed a place to store it (my father had suggested as much when we were designing, but there was that budget thing). Ideally we would have dug into a hill. The highest hill area, though, faces the river, so it would be temptingly obvious to river floaters and park guests who’d have a clear view. The hill we chose on higher ground (good) is riddled with boulders (bad).
This hamlet is called Piedra for a reason (piedra means stone in Spanish).
We rented an excavator, and Greg dug while I carted the dirt and rocks away with the tractor. Greg was able to haul out boulders the size of Smart Cars, but when he ran into three that were bigger than Volkswagons, he had to stop; we were just pleased that their crowns were relatively level. We flattened out a level pad. Greg found on Craigslist: 1) an airtight shipping container, and 2) a disassembled walk-in fruit refrigerator. We hired someone to deliver the container, who slipped it in on a dime. We encased the whole thing in fridge panels, saving the cleanest panels to make a solid floor. Greg pink-insulated the inside and covered it with sheetrock because we’re trying to get by with a simple cooling unit from the hardware store instead of a costly wine cave unit. He built racks and shelves, and he left one 8 x 20-foot wall for me. I crowd-sourced from my friends, some of whom are involved in the wine business or hospitality, and many of whom drink wine, and I asked for all their corks. I said I needed a million. Using liquid nails and glue gun, and corks that Greg has cut with a band saw, I’ve made a mural loosely based on sun, wind, and water. We don’t actually hang out in there as there’s not a lot of extra oxygen, but it’s working well for wine storage, holding constant at 62 degrees.
At the end of the tour, someone usually asks what I would do differently, a good question. I remind them of the curved bank of windows in the living room and say that if the westernmost one were partially openable, we’d have a better cross-draft. I try to have young guests play baseball right in front of it, I joke. Someday, we’ll split that window and the lower 24 inches will open with a screen for ventilation. The other problem we encountered originally was the sun for one hour, between 5 and 6PM on summer evenings. We simply miscalculated, since the overhang deflects the sun for most of the day, and the sycamores pick up the slack in the evening, but there’s a gap for that hour for a few weeks in the summer. We toyed with some elaborate shade ideas, especially after visiting Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi in Rome with its draping white shade cloth, but we realized that standard heavy-duty market umbrellas with the tilt feature could do the trick and move from place to place depending on the weather problem. We realize the weather may be changing, and we are powerless to change it, so, no matter what, we’re all going to have to adapt.
Stormwatch is mesmerizing in any season. While the house is only 2,000 square feet, 48 feet of windows face the river, some of them 18 feet high. With an unlimited budget, we would have curved all the walls so the footprint resembled a leaf or a rowboat. In compromise we curved the great room window wall, so the view north towards the river wraps around to include the forest to the west, and the foothills of Tivy Mountain to the south. Rather than pricey curved glass, segmented storefront glazing and standard sliders perform an illusion of glass that’s curved.
After a drought, rain takes on mythical mother-goddess proportion. The wind shakes the trees, and they dance with latent animation. Unless it’s very cold—and usually it’s not in California—we like to open the glass and close the screens. Windows are, after all, for letting in the wind. As it courses from the back of the house and out the front, the wind charges the house with its energy.
To shower in the rain is to surround myself with falling water. In all weather, window glass, interior glass and the ceiling-high counter mirror reflect the river in all directions, but on a May morning in a dry year, a welcome cool spell ushers in thunderstorms, and the cool shower outside coincides with my warm shower inside.
On a January morning, the moon is still shining when the sun comes up. I know this because from bed I can see the moon in the mirror by the sliding glass wall as the warm nimbus of sleep evaporates and waits near the ceiling until dark returns. At the same time, through the wall of glass, I see the sun illuminate just the top of the green foothill across the river. As the sun rises over the Sierras behind us, the light will slide down the hill as the moon slowly dissolves.
Whether Greg sleeps on, leaves for work, or joins me, I watch the world wake from the living room as I struggle to corral the thoughts, resolutions, and images that come in the night, drinking milky coffee to hurry them onto a page. There’s a lull, and maybe an osprey flies past.
Once I’m staring at raptors, not recording dreams and ideas, I stop to mindlessly stretch my body. A calm yogi (on a dvd) urges me to undulate, and willingly I do so to the background song of a low-toned flute. All the while, the sun reaches down the hill and into the water. The river surface skips upstream or down depending on the wind or lack of it. In summer evenings, when the wind is strong and the river current weak, the river rushes up the canyon and appears to flow upstream. When the river is full and the current and wind are both strong, the river flows downstream (as it should) right to left, and the wind whips the pool water left to right. The illusion is a whirlpool. On a windy winter morning, the surface water flows upriver toward its source in Kings Canyon. “Thank you. Namaste,” says the soothing voice.
Photo-shivasana, pool in wind
In other spaces I might eat my breakfast standing at a counter while reading New York Times online, but this house insists I carry my oatmeal back to the window, coaxing me like a good friend who knows better than I do what I need. I still read the news—I have to—but sitting back where my journal is, watching the light from various windows attempt this pose and that (and they are dazzling), often untethers a floating idea or two.
If Greg hasn’t let the dogs out, I take them for a walk down to the river and up on the bluff above. Leashless as they are, the dogs are walking me. They pantomime wild stories of what they would’ve done if I’d just let them out at night (usually too risky with the road so close), or they re-enact their exploits from nights when we relent and leave them out to shoo away the chicken-eating foxes. As we go, I collect treasures to add to the dreamcatcher of hawk feathers and sycamore bark, dry leaves and seedpods that floats above our bed.
Besides the dreamcatcher over the bed (it’s not a mystic dreamcatcher, actually; that’s just what everyone calls it), we have very little wall space for artwork. There are a few paintings by local artists, a Georgia O’Keefe reproduction (it was originally just a placeholder, but it’s dark orange/red and I love to lose myself in it), a painting of ballerinas by Greg’s cousin Aaron that we both love, and an expressionist triptych of running horses from the old ranch house that so enlivens the piano corner of the great room that they will stay.
Looking back at the house from the river with the mountain behind, the River House is just another foothill, slope-curve-slope. But it’s the fancy foothill. While the hills are green or gold or red, occasionally white, and the mountains a purple-blue, the house is silver-grey with a smooth arc of white roof. The wall of glass, practically the entire north side, attempts camouflage as it reflects the colors of the hills and trees, but it can’t shake the shine. With my red Massey-Ferguson, I have sculpted the bluff around the house to complement the curves. Greg moved in boulders. We’ve worked hard, made good choices, and we’re proud.
Photos-from rvr, tractor
The dogs play together now (always have two dogs, or they never let you work), and I can sit down for a couple-three hours before lunch. Unless sucked into a compulsive flurry of energy (which happens occasionally), I have trouble working for long stretches in one place. It’s increasingly difficult for me if the space is small or my line of sight dies into right angles. With its curved glass wall and varying lines, I can work in the large open great room as long as all is quiet. My “desk” is tucked into the drawers below the window seat. From there, I can look out at the front yard, the mountain, and the road that separates the two. Our lawn-mowing llama prefers to chill under the blue oak there. Even in the daytime, we don’t have much noise. If traffic or loud park guests across the river distract me, I turn on the fountain, which has the same timbre as traffic and voices.
With a laptop, I can float from perch to perch around the wide room as my mood, inclination, or 56-year-old back determine. I try to channel patience, not from the busy finches, but from the red tailed hawk, deep in concentration at the top of the sycamore.
Thoughts slide across the arched ceiling and re-circle back down the other side. I lay scraps of paper in stacks along the high counter for chapters or paragraphs, and sort projects in a row of wicker boxes under the bookshelf, inspired by Twyla Tharp’s Creative Habit.
While I appreciate the proximity of the outdoors, I’m glad to be inside when it’s hot or cold (the Sierra foothills give us both). Still, we have no AC, and our heat radiates from the floor. I wear a vest in winter and little more than a swimsuit in summer, the better to cool off at will in the pool. The house modifies the outside temperature, but we still experience the natural fluctuation and tune our routine to the weather. The lack-of-AC thing stuns most people, but we have a breeze off the river, a whole-house fan, and the six identical ceiling fans. I love the way they look, especially when they’re going, because you can see all of them at the same time). They add to the illusion that there are mirrors above the 8-foot walls, but those are transparent glass. That fan is on, and this one isn’t.
The glass uppers of all the interior walls add magic similar to the evening. In fact, the moon and the sun are generally featured in this show as well. From the kitchen, we can see through the den to the mountain beyond, and sometimes the full moon will shine from the south into the kitchen (on the north side of the house). Greg can call “bald eagle!” from the shower, and I can watch her path (east to west in the morning, west to east in the evening; raptors also have a routine). The glass wall blocks sound but not light, and this house is all about light.
Some confluence of glass creates a rainbow across your shoulder
And the certain light casts my pale skin transluscent, exposing blue rivers.
The water reflects in ribbons on the ceiling and the far wall,
Dappled whispers of shadows, drifting across the room.
Unless the weather is impossible, I take lunch out on the terrace. Sun and rain don’t stop me as the overhang stretches fifteen feet—more, if you measure the diagonal. The animals convince me to go out to the garden for a little while. “Just 30 minutes,” I tell them. “We do need lettuce for dinner.”
My grandmother would read for an hour after lunch; she always had a library book going and a small stack on the bench by the door. She might take a nap with a pencil in her hand and wake when it dropped; but, unless I’m sick or grossly sleep-deprived, I can’t nap. In the afternoons, I work in the yard, on projects, or read. Reading can be a wormhole for me, so I have to be cautious if I start. I divide books into daytime reading and evening reading. Heidi Julavits’ “diary” The Folded Clock is brilliant daytime reading with its short chapters skipping from topic to topic. On page 82, her thoughts go to ghosts and interior design: “We wondered if people mistook for ghost sightings what was, in fact, a primal fear response to poorly arranged rooms.” She catalogues rooms which lack escape options or have too many unprotected entrances, (obviously problems for different types of people). She worried when she awoke facing west that, “something better was happening elsewhere.”
Yesterday, I was editing a text about organic architecture, about houses (including our own) by a contemporary architect, translated from the Italian into English by a German. The piece is well-structured, the analysis is sound. The writer is brilliant, an architect himself. The translator is accurate, classically trained and obviously multi-lingual. The vocabulary is dense with jargon—all precise, but hopefully intended for an audience of specialists. I can identify elements to fact-check, quotes that require attribution. I myself would prune out many of the adjectives, but so far, I’ve only excised the word “perfect” and rearranged a handful of sentences, remaining true to the style of the author/translator. It reminds me of people who walk into my house, look around and say they love my interior design style: “Who did it?” “I did,” I answer. Greg looks at me, whether he’s there or not. “Well, we did” (I’m forever taking credit for projects he and I do together). Unless that admirer authentically wants me to design his or her space the way I’d like it, I’d be stuck. I don’t know how real interior designers channel a client’s style or priorities. This editing project is like a lover of Baroque style asking for my interior design advice.
For me, there’s the problem of the square: when I must work in a close rectilinear space, I subconsciously cock my chair at an angle. My office at the college, for instance, has a fixed window facing the blank side of the Forestry building (“lack of escape options”) and on the opposite side a narrow glass panel (that some professors cover up!) and a solid door, which I (with apologies to my dear colleagues) never close and face when I’m not glued to the computer. “Do you want me to close the door, Mrs. Lapp?” students ask as they leave. It’s all I can do not to fling myself at the door to keep it from shutting.
Since I teach at a college with colleagues who are not only fine writers themselves, but also interested in meeting authors whose work we teach and exposing our students to living writers, we invite three or four authors a year to read and speak to our students. Before the reading, I host a dinner for the writer and the faculty who have taught his or her work. Richard Rodriguez, when I met him at the door, burst out laughing. He said I was Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’ll take that as a compliment, although I see more similarity between the Vandamm house and ours than between myself and the starlet.
We entertain often—sometimes one guest, sometimes many more. If one friend comes to talk, I hand her a glass and follow her to the spot she chooses, and there we sit until the sun is drained from the sky. With six or so, we sit at a table, inside or out. Black padded folding chairs, 50 of them, wait in their own bank of cupboards by the piano for concerts. As we gather, people pass inside, outside, stroll around the grounds without visually leaving the group. When it’s dark and we’re all back in together, images and colors repeat in the glass panels, and sound dances in ribbons of notes and laughter. The bowed wall seems to expand with satisfaction.
In designing the house, we had in mind that we wanted to lure the children back—and future grandchildren. In fact, when the grandkids come in the summer, we call it Grandma and Grandpa’s summer camp. When my soldier son has leave, he comes here (or Montana) to relax. When my artist daughter faced a stressful episode in her life, she flew from New York City for “River House therapy.”
Photo-dan n mom, nick
There was a period of time when the grandkids spent a lot of time with us. They actually lived in the Creek House while their mom was getting her life organized. Since she worked the early shift at a nursing home, she dropped the kids off at 5:30AM, and we got them on the school bus at 7. In that semester I wasn’t teaching, so I’d whisk them into the den or the reading nook so Greg could sleep. We’d draw, or read, or whisper until the sun made the electric light and quiet unnecessary, and we’d watch the world wake. They’d crawl onto the stools around the kitchen counter for cocoa or “apple canoes.” While I don’t miss rising in the dark, the house and I remember those mornings with the kindern.
Summer mornings and evenings, afternoons in the spring and fall, we live outside, mostly on the terrace. A wide cement bench, flanked by garden boxes of kitchen spices, defines its edge. Greg’s vines and the garden grow beyond. Greg mows the slope and the “apron,” as we call the lawn. He carefully avoids any poppies or lupine that persist. While barefoot is a bad idea beyond (stickers, snakes, fire ants—it’s the country in California), the terrace is a barefoot space. When Eddie Garcia was pouring the concrete, I asked if we could sink pvc pipe in to create a series of tubes along the edge. Easy, he said, and now we can insert PVC poles with colorful streamers when the event requires fanfare. A bride waits on the terrace and walks down to the ceremony below.
Ordinary and extraordinary scenes populate the terrace. On an April afternoon when our absentee neighbors were leaving their property, we were returning from the symphony dressed in heels and coat and tie. They were in sweatshirts. Together, we sat on the terrace and caught up on a couple months of news and plans and ideas. On a summer day, a friend called to tell me her husband was ill. Rather than talk on the phone, she drove up and we sat with our feet in the pool and talked about the options, issues, and everything else, and she left calmer and fortified. One November day, we hike with some friends up Tivy Mountain. As we returned home, I realized Greg had planned a birthday surprise. So many friends were gathered on the terrace for a lovely afternoon. There was the day I harvested a bumper crop of beets, and Greg said we should make marga-beet-garitas (very red, very tasty). Another hiking day with people we hadn’t known (we are docents with Sierra Foothill Conservancy), we enjoyed the group so much that we invited them all back for a beer, and they all are friends now.
One July, all the Lapps gathered here for a family reunion; every room in the River House and Tree House had sleepers, and tents littered the lawn. One couple camped out on the terrace. It was the time of the Harlem Shake (do you possibly remember?). The whole Lapp family, from the parents in their 80s to us six in our 50s (one in a wheelchair, right?), 20-somethings, teenagers, grandkids from 7 and 9 down to infant/toddlers, all ended up in the pool “doin’ the Harlem Shake.”
When our grandkids visited for “summer camp,” we ate on the terrace every night. One time, the kids and I had spent the day doing papier mache sculptures, which I hung from the extending black beams. Greg had made sourdough pizza crust and mozzarella cheese. We gathered tomatoes, spinach, eggplant, garlic and zucchini, made a sauce, and each person designed his or her own pizza. We ate and played outside until the sun went down. Once they were settled in their beds, I came out to savor the stillness.
Standing on the concrete bench that divides the orderly from the wild,
My back to the soft glow of kitchen light and reflection,
Lifting my face to the scattered stars,
My lean cat comes in from the hunt like a suggestion.
The grapes and tarragon grow, even in the starlight
And gather the stars’ crisp breath.
Without white noise, nights are quiet here. Our beds face a wall of windows, separated by a narrow panel. Greg’s side frames a puzzle-barked sycamore, leafy in summer and home to orioles and songbirds. On my side, the night sky rises above the hill in two panels. On dark, clear winter nights, Polaris guides me into my dreams. When the full moon eclipses the stars, I watch for a while as the shadows glint on the white sycamore limbs, and, as my limbs settle, sleep predictably descends.
Chapter 3: Sculpture in the Forest
Until the children settle down, we rent the Creek House as a “Secluded Forest Retreat” on HomeAway (aka vrbo.com). Settling down may take awhile, since Nick is a combat medic, a job that moves him all over the globe, and Dani lives a creative life in Brooklyn, New York. They are now the age I was when we built the Creek House. I was architecturally brave, I suppose, but they are geographically braver than I was.
Vacation guests who are artists articulate what they find beautiful about it, and most guests remark that the Creek House is “cool,” both aesthetically and climatically. One artist, a sculptor, quoted Ezra Pound: “I stood still and was a tree amid the wood and knew things unseen before” and left a poem in the guestbook:
Oak branch circles back
To leave a cursive message
Just after first light.
The angled windows spotlight wild bouquets and freestyle ikebana. The morning light, especially, dances across the floor and makes you glad you’re up and alive.
From the rural road, North Rio Vista, our driveway, lined with figs and wild honeysuckle, winds into a clearing. The house—a sculpture, really–always surprises me, even after 30 years, and people often gasp the first time they come around the corner.
Reactions to the Creek House have ranged from awe to amusement to disdain. On the website Architizer, a forum for architectural discussion, comments about the Lencioni Residence range from descriptive (“like poetry frozen in wood and glass”), to comical (“Hobbit’s nest,” and “que pena…Frodo Bolsón debe de estar de viaje, no se le ve en la foto de su casa,” which, by my rude translation says, “Silly Frodo must be on a journey because he’s not in the picture of his house”), to flattering (“magnificent,” “so beautiful”), to flaming (“holy s**t. tell me this is a joke”).
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 that he was wasn’t following directions, he says I invited her for coffee to see for herself the house that one friend calls “The Paisley” and my sister calls “The Eye.” Our Egyptian exchange student said it was the Eye of Horace, a symbol of protection. A group of reading friends familiar with the house because we’ve met monthly since 1991, had seen it called “The Wave House” on HGTV’s Extreme Homes. “Is it actually named the Wave House?” Susan asked. “I think it’s more of a Mushroom.” Linda calls it a Snail. Effie Casey from Taliesin calls it a Wooden Shell. Our prosaic names for our various spaces—Creek House, Ranch House, River House, Tree House—are really just for reference.
The November 25, 2012 episode of Extreme Homes features a wide variety of buildings as usual. The bumper music between the Italian makeover and the Lencioni Residence is a pounding boom-unh-boom-boom, opening with blackberry bushes 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).
Photo from vid
It’s an incredibly blue-sky day and the cottonwoods are in full shimmer. The announcer continues: “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,” our architect begins. (I drew lots of elevations, but they all looked ridiculous). “They wanted a two-story,” 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 and sycamore leaves frame the shot—it’s just brilliant photography.
Photo from vid
The voice continues as the camera returns to the interior, showcasing the steel and wooden 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 travels 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 capture 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, teenage 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 [Dennis]. 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.”
Photo-den and berthas
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 [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 brief frames. When the suns catches the sliver of a kitchen window and creates a fireball, the photographer lets it over-expose and flood into oblivion, resolving impressively on the Cor-Ten rust wall of the next extreme home.
Photo-kit interior, door inter
Defying a Label: Organic? Reflexive? Meditative? Authentic? Humanist? Post-Usonian? Natural?
While the sculptural design suggests similes, it resists a label (and presented a quandary for this book’s title—what style am I actually advocating?). Dyson adamantly defies labeling his work. He says that, traditionally, many architects or architectural scholars force designs into categories, but this tendency, “just creates walls and separates us.” Both of my houses fit pretty snugly into the “organic” category, as Art designed it from the inside out to accommodate views or cross-breezes, to interact with the landscape, integrate the home into its surroundings, and to respond organically to our personalities and our needs. For example, the Creek House design derived from a problem—already tall and petite, it had to be built up because of the flood zone.
Mark Hammons, in a 1995 essay in The Architecture of Arthur Dyson calls Dyson’s work “reflexive” as it reflects the setting or emerges organically from it as it reflects and emerges organically from the personalities of the clients—same thing, right? While you might not call all of his work organic in the tradition of Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright, all of Art’s work does emerge organically from an authentic source in different ways. Giuliano Chelazzi, Italian architect and leader of the Amici di Frank Lloyd Wright in Italy, in a European book about Dyson’s work calls it meditative: L’Archittetura Meditiva. Chelazzi quotes architect Bruno Zevi in the Italian magazine L’Architettura, who describes Dyson as an “authentic architect [I like the term “authentic architecture”], an animated voice that spreads optimism, a rare outburst in a world suffocated by frustration, by indifference and cynicism, by ecleticism and by rhetoric and grayness.” As a scholar, Chelazzi is analyzing the source and inspiration for this universal organic idea, but he claims that other Italian scholars took Zevi’s words and Dyson’s work as, “a provocation” similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masieri Memorial project in Venice. Chelazzi molifies this conflict with a quote from Renzo Piano, who writes: “my desire to explore unbeaten paths is in perfect accord with my gratitude to tradition…Certainly it is the inheritance of a humanist culture.” Maybe this is “humanist” architecture.
In his website The Post-Usonian Project, Matt Taylor features the Creek House as an example of Post-Usonian architecture. Taylor’s focus is on style and value, in the tradition of Wright’s Usonian mission. He’s worried about their obsolescence and glad for me to carry the torch. Taylor writes:
A dedication to building an environment based on a singular view of human lifestyle: simple, uncomplicated, natural, eloquent, affordable. These are not “trophy” houses, which is why they are so vulnerable today…Their basis was [still is] a notion of lifestyle that stands, today, in sharp contrast to an over-consumptive and compulsive culture.
Putting it in a chronological perspective, Taylor suggests:
In the 60s and 70s, there were several attempts to revive this [Post-Usonian] movement, mostly driven by ecological, energy and related issue. This included a strong do-it-yourself movement. To a great extent this has also mostly faded. Unfortunately, the affluence of the 80s and 90s has not been generally kind to the American landscape…I used to go and visit these house and wonder—I still wonder: what sparked their creation, what allowed the majority of work to go another way despite their enduring popularity to this day?
Perhaps “natural architecture” describes the work. A while back, Amazon, in its omniscient wisdom, suggested for me a book entitled In Search of Natural Architecture by David Pearson. When it came in the mail, I started reading it from the back (a habit from reading architectural magazines, where the subjects I’m interested in are usually towards the end). I stopped at the Prince Residence, Corona Del Mar (page 69) in the section on “Healing Architecture” and passed it over to Greg, who was reading the Choral Journal. “Look,” I said, “the shingle pattern’s like our house” (we were living in the Creek House at the time). He started flipping pages from the front. “Did you see this?” he asked casually.
In the introduction, just before the first chapter on “Ancestral Archetypes” was a photo of our house. The text reads:
Arthur Dyson’s professional training is grounded in the very roots of organic architecture. He first started as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright, then worked for Bruce Goff. Later, he returned to his native California to work for William Gray Purcell of the revered Purcell & Elmslie partnership—George Grant Elsmlie having been the former chief draughtsman to Louis Sullivan.
Since he set up practice in Fresno, in 1969, he has produced a cascade of novel and sophisticated designs. He prefers to describe his work as “reflexive” rather than “organic” as its focus is to try to understand and express the flux of life and its myriad relationships. According to Dyson, the resulting architecture is not only practical in terms of economy and environment, but possesses the vital spark of originality that integrates and exalts the worth of the individual within the surging field of life. The building is an interactive membrane between the dynamic forces seeking expression from within and those coming from outside.
One of his most successful designs for a private house is the Lencioni Residence [the Creek House], completed in 1986 [sic—actually1988] and situated in a forested glade in Sanger, California. It was the rhythm of the site together with the adventurous ideas of the young clients that helped Dyson to create the design’s dramatic sinuous and fluid forms.
When Nico was 22 and going by Nick, visiting the Creek House on leave from the Army, I asked him to draw a house to see what he’d come up with. He 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 repeated the curve over his head.
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 co-opting this story as an example of how public education discourages creativity and encourages conformity. There might be something to that argument, but Nico was honestly never held back at Centerville School. And while the house is curved and pointed on both ends, I don’t like the description “football-shaped” or “Football House” as a nickname. It is an organic form, neither plastic nor pigskin. Sometimes Art jokes that he came up with the design on Superbowl Sunday—he just couldn’t get footballs out of his mind, hence the shape. It’s a joke! He likes to joke, when people remark about my unusual house, “It’s really just the first. We’re going to build a whole tract of them, every other one flip-flopped in alternating colors.” Of the front door, when we commented that it was reminiscent of a peace sign, Art shrugged and said he could design something more militaristic if we liked.
Actually, Harvey Ferrero, who apprenticed with Art under Bruce Goff told me a story similar to Art’s about Goff’s spiral-shaped Bavinger house. It seems one of the Bavinger kids’ teachers had him draw a house; when he drew a facsimile of the Goff design, 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 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. When I spoke to her in 2011, Taliesin sculptor, Heloise Christa praised Dyson for his “feeling for space” which she says is a rare gift and she retold a story about him teaching his granddaughter Haley the concept of spatial relationships by arranging and rearranging chairs in a room.
Nick’s sister Dani, home from her senior year as a theatre major at Santa Clara University, slept 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 my daughter and I are in the house, we carry on sotto voce conversations between the upstairs and down because there’s no wall to block the sound. When her boyfriend called, she ducked into the bathroom that we tucked into the side attic as an afterthought to Skype in private.
Photo-kid room from master
From living here as a child, she remembers playing dress up with her brother or playhouse in a card table barn or under the slide in the yard. Window frogs. Grazing on blackberries.
“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 where it was peaceful and I just floated, close to the sky.” In fact, when her east coast boyfriend visited one summer, one of the first things she did was lead him out onto the balcony off the master bedroom, climbing up from the balcony onto the roof where they talked and sang for hours, cloaked in the summer evening.
Videos of architecture strive to show what can’t be covered in a still photograph, the spatial kinetic sense of a place. The most serious problem with photography is that it’s still, whereas experiencing architecture is kinetic. Even video mutes the sense of experience. As I stand here typing in the middle of the RiverHouse main room, light is pulsing its way over and through a cloud to the south and radiating into the clear window above the front door (and through the frosted and etched glass of the door), causing the reflection of the water from the fountain to dance on the ceiling, but simultaneously to dance on the glass between the kitchen and the bedroom and simultaneously, through the north-facing window, the wind is blowing the surface of the pool to the east (upriver) while the river itself flows west–you get my point. It’s alive as no photograph can be.
So, Steve Danforth, of the Wrightian Association, produced a video magazine called Wrightian OA, funded by the Graham Foundation. The fifth of the series toured some of Arthur Dyson’s works.
For the establishing shot, the camera pans a the Fresno Art Museum exhibit of artifacts of Dyson design such as cardboard models, a plant stand from the Manteca Church of Christ, a chandelier from the Baughman house. Dennis had made an extra balustrade segment for the exhibit, which was held at the Fresno Art Museum in the 90s. On the video, he interprets several of the homes and then descends on the Lencioni Residence (Creek House). Art explains some of the cost-effective elements of the house, which I explain later in a chapter on feasibility, and he tells some of the stories. “Because it’s a small space,” Art explains, “the walls are perforated and opened to expand the area.” Art explains that the shingles on north and south were placed, “in varying courses and widths to accentuate the sensuous lines of the house” and explained how the builder chalked out the lines for the shinglers to follow.
Art explains the “skyward-directed windows” of the fireproof shop, which Dennis had fabricated out of steel tubes welded together, and glazed with Lexan, which allowed some bending—“not all of them are flat planes,” Art adds. Then the camerman asks us about the design. “We were surprised and happy,” says Dennis cautiously. “We pretty much trusted him with design. There were some complicated and trying times, but we thought the end product would be worth it. The interviewer caught us both in an unguarded response, and we answer almost in unison: “It isn’t like you can go backwards after you see an Art Dyson design.”
Al Struckus, of Goff’s Struckus House, asks what the children thought, how they might be different. Of course, this house is all they had known; they were 3 and 4 years old. “They’re kind of ornery,” Dennis says. I add that they have big imaginations. Earlier on the video, the camera catches Nico dressed as Bernard (the mouse from Rescuers) with his cape and tail.
The Creek House is like a bird blind. From the kitchen windows, I watched herons gigging for frogs. There used to be a family of dun-colored bobcats that gamboled on the lawn. One time, Dani was home from college, we were talking in the kitchen, and a full-sized deer surprised itself as much as us by bounding from the thicket onto the lawn. An insurance adjuster, one time, sat at the dining room table discussing a fender bender, and a raccoon climbing the tree just out the window behind her slipped. I started smiling, almost laughing in the midst of this serious conversation. She took one photo of the fender and spent the roll on the house and the raccoon.
If an architect’s designs are customized for each client—as Dyson says, “the appearance of the work is a product of the individual uniqueness of the clients…[intended] to fulfill their potential to live and work in the most meaningful way,” what impact does the space have on a second owner or someone who rents? Certainly hermit crabs situate themselves into another organic space that was created for another creature, but we are not crabs, or as psychologically malleable.
When we moved to the ranch house, my dear friend Kristine DeOrian (now Walter) moved into the Creek House, making a clean break from various entanglements. Temporary as we knew the move was (she was engaged to Riley Walter by then), we still look back on those times as enchanted. We worked it out so Monday and Wednesday, I would cook and have all four kids for homework and chores, and she would sort out the path of her life (she has since been named Woman of the Year in Fresno, has been instrumental in several political campaigns, hosted of a cable show, and much more); she would reciprocate on Tuesday and Thursday, so I could write. Kris started college as chemistry major, so I often heard all about the kitchen sink science experiments at the dinner table. At 6:00 any evening, Dennis arrived at the appropriate house and announced. “Hi, Honeys—I’m home.” He got to play co-op dad, and we’d all eat dinner together four nights a week. Such a life made me fantasize about a compound with my children when they were grown. We’d live back in the Creek House. The one with the biggest family would live in the Ranch House, and we’d build a third organic home on the south side of the ranch, facing the forest and a view toward the river. Of course, life had different ideas for me.
I met Kris for sushi recently and asked what it was like for her to live in a house designed for me. We are similar in some ways—Dennis said he liked her because she was like me–but, of course, we’re different in many ways. She said liked the way the small living room expands as it merges with the deck. “Upstairs is astonishing; it’s like living in a treehouse.” She remembered the play of light and shadow, calling it “meditative, almost sacred.” It was a good place for her to regroup and poise herself for a conscious refocusing of her life.
Kris’ daughter Sarah DeOrian, visiting when she was 21, said she mostly remembers the setting tucked in the riverbottom forest– searching for bullfrogs and polliwogs, splashing in the creek, grooming Grecian, the old horse we kept on the property. “I loved that I felt totally outside, even when I was inside,” she said. “Because the architecture is so unique, we could play explorer in the house.” She remembers climbing all over the house as if it were a jungle gym, up the burm to the balcony. Even though Sarah was only a second-grader at the time, she is aware on another level how important the move was for reasons unrelated to architecture (but possibly soothed by it). “It was time for doing something different,” Sarah said. “And it was different; maybe since the house was so unlike our old one, that helped—it was a risk [to quit a job, move, remarry], but moving into that house was my mom’s first step for happiness.”
One challenge of the house, Kris says 15 years later, was furnishing it: “It’s not for someone who’s rigid about having a sofa, two overstuffed chairs, and a coffee table. In this house, you need something that can move for the different purposes of the room.” A stylish decorator, she has modular cubes in her current home which she says would have worked. She found the small cupboards in the kitchen frustrating: “I could never remember what I put in which little cubbie.” She said that for a family, there’s not much privacy. It’s also not for a person with lots of “stuff.” She said it was a challenge to pare down to the essentials, but she said that editing process was healthy for her.
Photo-kit cupb detail
There were a few wonderful renters over ten years. There was the violinist/nurse with a newborn. Downstairs was nothing but a table, two kitchen chairs and a music stand, upstairs just a bed and a crib. A doctor in transition stayed there a year. Once, Dennis visited him in his office, and there was a photo of the Creek House.
Newly wed and newly hired to teach English as my colleague at Reedley College, poet David Dominguez brought his new wife Alma to live in the Creek House for a year. Alma remarked that even though she was young, in her early 20s, when David went out of town once for a few days, she was never scared. She liked being surrounded by wildlife; she loved listening to the forest. One time she came to the door to say goodbye to David as he left for work, and right behind him on the other side of the fence was a bobcat. “One time, we were watching TV, and a fox walked right up the stairs and came up to the slider like it was no big deal. Elwood the cat was underneath the bench outside: the two just looked at each other, kind of nodded heads, ‘How’s it goin’? Nice night. Yeah—people are inside—humans.’” At their house in the suburbs, they have tried to recreate the forest by planting blackberries on two sides of the yard and fig trees.
Photo-ch from lr
It’s no surprise that Dominguez wrote poems here for his new bride. Dennis and I had also been newlyweds in the house. We’d hang a mosquito net and sleep out on the balcony when the weather was balmy. David allowed me to reprint two poems that originally appeared in Askew literary journal as well as his second collection of poetry The Ghost of Cesar Chavez (C&R Press).
Song for My Beloved
-The Song of Songs 4:1-2
The melting snow collects in the creek
surrounding the house my wife and I are leaving forever.
Cattails are singing, and the moon
slows its trip around the earth to listen.
I don’t like being sentimental,
but tonight, I can’t help it, so I tell her,
“Your hair is like a flock of goats.”
My wife stretches her limbs on the blanket,
and I know she wants more.
Yerba mansa growing along the water’s edge
blinds the willow looking for a place to root.
“I don’t want to move,” she says.
She asks impossible questions: “Will we be happy?”
I’m watching the current ripple over
pebbles lining the creek bed.
I wish the moon was a handful of bones that
the owl in the oak could read:
two hoots mean “no,” and one hoot means “yes.”
“Tell me about my mouth,” she says, bending her wrist.
“Your teeth are like a flock of ewes.”
I splash water onto her face and look downstream
where broken willow bounces along
the mud-caked bank.
David explained what it was like to leave: “My 86-year-old aunt, when she goes into a room and begins to paint, she feels like somebody special is with her. She’s talking about ghosts. She’s talking about her mother. She’s talking about her father. She’s talking about the monks that she sees at night. She says they are with her. When she starts to paint, she feels as if she’s in a secluded room where nothing can touch her. When she’s done painting and she closes the door, she says every single time she feels she’s lost a part of herself in the room. That’s what it was like living here.”
At night, my wife and I open the French doors,
slip into bed, and let the maple trees saturate the room.
Once, as the balcony filled with stars,
my beloved told me about her day:
how she saw a vixen and its kits reaching into a fig,
eat until plump, and skitter down a fence post,
and when the troop was safe,
the mother stared at my wife, its pupils warm in the light.
I can’t say, “We won’t miss it here,”
but the ranch will never be ours,
something my tenant heart forgets
when bullfrogs in the swamp begin croaking-
the rise and fall of a song soothing
as crickets grinding their legs under the leaves.
Greg and I went to the Creek House for dinner one night with the grandkids and their mom, who passed Japanese udon soup and a cucumber salad over the high kitchen counter. Greg slid the wine glasses off the overhead stemware rack as if he lived here (he had, and the crystal is ours). I sat with my back to the nighttime windows facing the balustrade Dennis had built, the arc of ceiling curving towards me. We listened to stories of little league, reading awards, and plans for the end of the school year. The space wrapped comfortably around our small and festive group.
Chapter 4. Soul Search: Planning a Space Where You’ll Feel Utterly At Home
To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.
–Anatole France (on the white board in Dyson’s conference room)
If a house is to reflect the owners and the setting, the architect must invest in understanding the clients and how they interact with the site. Dyson says he relishes that “detective” role. “I study people,” he says. “When architects build structures for zoos, they study the animals, but many architects never study the people they’re building houses for. Most architects,” he adds, “don’t know if their client is right- or left-handed.”
Not only do the architects have to get to know the clients, but the clients have to know themselves as well. The time spent looking, talking, sharing ideas, “playing house” in various spaces pays off. Planning a house is like planning a wedding: You could elope, which is the romantic equivalent of a studio apartment—you’re married; you’re housed. You might choose a 90-minute Las Vegas wedding package–or a tract home. The uber-elaborate, right-out-of-Bride magazine wedding (break the bank, then break up, right?) correlates to the McMansions that crowd the foothills around Fresno. Sometimes one person plans the entire nuptial event and the other just shows up, or (and this is where I’m going, obviously), you could plan together intimately, both of you together, selecting just the elements that will be meaningful to you and your special guests, that reflect and amplify your life, values, and commitment. My admonition is exactly this: if you’re a client, find an architect whose work you admire (maybe someone whose work isn’t all the same?) and utterly open yourself in the planning process. Don’t hold back—it’s your own private space you’re planning. Allow yourself to trust, and align your imagination with the professional who is unfolding your singular space and creating your design.
Over the course of this project, I have had the privilege to meet some extraordinary architects, many of whom have connections to Dyson, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Bruce Goff. Not surprisingly, their take on planning similarly involves client analysis from the head right down to the soul. Harvey Ferrero, who apprenticed with Dyson under Goff in Oklahoma, says Goff always insisted they start with the clients’ preferences and encourage them to reveal individual priorities and styles. “You give them a house that they want–only they really don’t know they want it yet because they don’t yet have the imagination to create that, so you do question them about certain things.” He says he encourages clients to bring in clippings and photos of places they like, and he extracts their yearnings from those. Dyson gives an example: someone who comes to him with a colonial plantation in mind doesn’t actually want all that’s implied with the dated design (no indoor kitchen or bathroom, no air-conditioning, plantation masters, slavery, etc). Dyson says, “maybe they’re looking at the monumentality of it or the monochromatic color scheme…you try to find out what they like about it, and introduce something that’s more representative of today’s materials and today’s climate and today’s energy problems, and their contemporary way of life.”
Larry Brink, who apprenticed with Dyson under Frank Lloyd Wright said understanding the client is something they both got from their mentor. “I also am interested in how the people live. ‘Do you entertain, do you cook, do you like music, do you garden, what are your interests?’” Brink says Mr. Wright taught them to design appropriately for the client, understanding what [the client] should have, maybe not what he [thinks he] wants per se, because he’s still thinking inside the box.” Eric Lloyd Wright, Wright’s grandson, who is also an architect in Southern California, said [the architect] needs to know how an owner uses the space: “Do you entertain? What are your relationships? What societies to you belong to?” When I asked how he conveys those ideas into design, Eric Wright said, “If they like music, it’s got to work acoustically, and if they like to entertain there has to be provision for that, but [the living room] still has to function as a living room.” Wright likes to know what poets the client favors. He favors Walt Whitman, the Persian poet Rumi, Ranier Maria Rilke, and Emily Dickinson, which, I suppose, gives him a transcendental edge.
Eric Wright said that Art Dyson 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 [for the client], 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. He compared and contrasted Dyson to Frank Lloyd Wright, “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. 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. Of his own client relationships, Eric Wright said, “I believe they can understand what I’m trying to evolve for them.”
Matt Taylor, architectural designer and originator of the online Post-Usonian Project, describes a conversation with Frank Lloyd Wright’s client Mrs. Pew. At first she’d “hated” her house and felt Wright had ignored her preferences. After two years, Taylor recounts, Mrs. Pew was ready to sell the house at a loss, but decided to “give the house a year without struggling with it.” Taylor explains:
In that year, a transformation took place. She discovered that “Mr. Wright had not built a house for who I was” – but for “the person that I could become.” “It turned out that Mr. Wright had listened well and understood me very deeply.” “Now, I can hardly stand to be in other people’s homes.” (Taylor, The Post-Usonian Project)
Photo-poetic light shot
The client is part of the design team, just as much as their designer, but many clients [just] want the architect to take care of it.” Sitting in his workshop, where he’s made sure we have a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean over the Malibu cliffs, Eric Wright quotes from Rumi’s “The Wine and the Cup”: Moonlight floods the whole sky from horizon to horizon, and he adds, “How much it can fill your room depends on its windows and the way you look through them.” Good architecture is structural poetry. Dyson similarly says his homes should engender “a poetic way of living life.”
Dyson argues that any competent draftsman can design a good building, “but it is someone that can touch the soul of an individual that creates architecture.” The introductory paragraphs of a piece Dyson wrote entitled “A Search for the Soul of Architecture” begins like this:
When one thinks of architecture, one generally thinks of buildings and of walls, as architecture is generally defined as the art and science of designing and constructing buildings. Perhaps it is the influence of my early studies in psychology and philosophy, but for me, architecture was never about buildings, but about the individuals who would occupy them.
Ferrero, Dyson’s friend from their young apprentice days with Goff, laughed out loud when I read that to him, but Dyson takes the soul search seriously. When writer Jim Wasserman interviewed Dyson for a Fresno Bee column in October 1995, he wrote about the elusive search for “soul” in art. “The conversation became quickly indistinct, roundabout and vague—in the way of art and about the way things are. And about how we live as human beings,” Wasserman begins. “Known for the offbeat, [Dyson] was talking about being adventurous. And romantic. About writing and poetry, mystery and paradox, beauty and soul, and all those things that seem visibly downplayed in city life today.” Wasserman asked Dyson about “square, unadorned, functional, practical buildings, as if money were the only determinant and nobody ever had a poetic thought in their lives.” Wasserman called his own question “long-winded,” but his question alone shows the columnist gets it. “Look how people exercise today,” Dyson told him. “They work on their hearts as a muscle in health clubs instead of taking a walk in the woods to exercise their hearts and their souls. Most people live and work in environments that are containers for human beings [intended] to screen out the elements. People rely on a world of ‘images with no depth and no substance.’” Wasserman rants, “Architects, developers, government, banks, they all prop up the industry-standard under-nourishing bland landscape of the same orange with different peelings.” When Wasserman asks, what a house should look like, Dyson says, “architecture is not the repetition of something learned but, rather, the exploration of something sensed, for extending the boundaries of human experience and understanding.”
Art opens one of his “Archilectures” with one of his favorite stories. He says clients who know his work will come in and glance about nervously. They insist that they don’t want anything too different; they just don’t want something identical to everyone else’s. He waits for the set-up. “’We really like your work,’ they begin, and pause; at which point, Art cuts them off and assures them, “Don’t say any more. I can judge, just by looking at you, you’re really common people. You’re very average. You wouldn’t want anything different.” The audience laughs, and he smiles. “I think that’s helped a little bit.”
Photo-oddest AD work (Hilton?)
“One thing I’ve been fortunate about,” Art concludes. “I’ve had clients willing to look at alternatives, wealthy—maybe not monetarily, but with a wealth of spirit and adventure which I try to show—the impetus and inspiration behind these homes.”
There are three tenets of Art’s designs that make particular sense: Time, light, and sound.
Art suggests that architecture is experienced as, “a time sequence when individuals travel around and through the space.” He points out the obvious, that human beings are kinetic by nature, and, as such, alter the perception of scale and the rhythm of a space. When I imagine our house, I don’t imagine it empty and static, but full of people—who’s in it? Greg and me; Greg, me, and the kids; holiday crowds; friends at a concert or a dinner party. In my anticipation of any event, I glide through the house observing the dynamics of flow. As Frank Baughman, whose home is on the cover of The Architecture of Arthur Dyson, says of his house: “The house is exciting, but it’s very livable.”
Art frequently refers to angles of light at different time of day and of the year. He favors angled windows and skylights—this explains the angles on many of his houses (not mine). Without stars and sunsets, and access to the out-of doors, he contends, you don’t know whether the wind is blowing or if the birds are singing, or if it’s raining or if there’s a sunset. “We try to bring those things back into the buildings,” he says. I have described so many prism light moments or moments when the light dances across a room.
The third tenet is sound-sensory. Dyson says that architecture has become significantly more impacted by auditory interference. “With the introduction of energy standards that prevent not only thermal transfer, but the natural sounds of nature,” he says, “we are further disconnected from our biological connections.” In “A Search for the Soul of Architecture,” he writes, “The wind in the trees, the rain, and other echoes of nature provided calming patterns which resonated with the human heart.” Arboreal sounds “harkened to our primordial memories of a safe environment absent of predators.” He laments that the “songs of nature” which once soothed us are today replaced by “the harsh mechanical noises of garbage disposals and air conditioners.” It’s taken some work to convince the county planning department that we don’t need either.
Photo-lrh kit sink
To conclude, Dyson explains that architecture should celebrate nature. “Too many homes are isolated from their natural surroundings—the soaring rooflines are in response to view lines or view corridors,” he explains, not random aesthetic tricks. “Architects try to build the romance around our clients—improve the quality of life for them. Their spirit, their uniqueness really spawned the worlds that you see here.”
“We’ve never made an attempt to be different, but our clients are different,” Dyson says, attributing all his work to a third-person collection of collaborators. “My objective is to produce a design that will enable my clients to fulfill their potential, and to live and work in a most meaningful way. Hopefully with order, clarity and harmony we will arrive at a solution that is both practical and beautiful. My clients,” Dyson says, “are very courageous because they will go against the tide of fashion. They’ve allowed us to create a setting to care for their souls.” He distinguishes between an architect and “just” a builder. “We’re trying to create a romance about our clients, something to almost make you dissatisfied with the ordinary.”
Photo-other client hs
When I ask Dyson’s other clients to recall their planning experiences, they all relate similar versions of the same theme. In an interview, Veldon and Diane Leverich said, “People are too satisfied with ‘ticky-tacky’ design. I would love to have the whole world understand they can have so much more in your life. It matters. It’s food for the soul. The soul needs food.” Leverich said, “In a way, it’s like religion. There are some religious views that are quite advanced over conventional or simplistic views, but the people that identify with that have got to be at a certain place in their life where it’s meaningful. Otherwise it’s anathema to them. I think it’s the same thing with architecture. You have to get to a place where you’re ready for something like Art Dyson.” Diane remembers, “I gave him three criteria: make the house open, massive, and airy. I had no other predilections, but by then he knew us. He went out to the lot, and I don’t think he was there 20 minutes, and he came back and gave us a sketch of a nuclear idea of the house. While my design in my head was so amorphous, Art was completely in sync with the vision.” Veldon remembers Art talking about his schooling in psychology, which he says helps him understand the client. “For instance, he says, ‘If you like Stravinsky, I know you’re going to like big, bold things.’”
When Bill Kelly first bought the Leverich Residence years later, several architects looked at the job. Kelly said the others said, “Here’s what I do. Here’s my building that I can design for you in this spot.” Kelly said Art talked to him about what he liked—his favorite color, childhood memories. He said he went to lunch with Audrey and Art at a restaurant with a similar view, and Art made sure that Bill sat facing the view and asked him what it was about the view that moved him. Bill was impressed that Art had enough confidence not to invest his ego too heavily in the project, but rather let it reflect Bill’s personality and lifestyle. Pamela, Bill’s wife of 7 months when I spoke with them, said, “This house is completely Bill.” I had heard “completely built,” which makes sense, for instance, as a poem is “complete” or “achieves form,” but when I asked for clarification, she altered her comment—“It’s Art Dyson, of course, but it’s so Bill.” Kelly is the musician who says he feels most creative in this space.
Sue Jacksha, another client, remembers questions about lifestyle, music, but was mystified by questions such as: what was the first room she entered when she came home, and how much time they spent in the bedroom. “At first I didn’t realize what this had to do with designing a house.” Because the Jackshas work away during the day and often travel on the weekends, the house was primarily an evening house for the two of them–or 40-50 people. This meant one large room with the kitchen, dining room and living room reaching out at different angles. Where my houses are both curvilinear, theirs features dramatic reaching angles designed to maximize the view within the restrictions of the housing development. Sue said Art pulled out a piece of paper and drew a circle, “This where the sun would set.” He arranged the line of site so the dining room wouldn’t block the view of the sunset, and he drew another circle, and another—“I wish I would have saved that piece of paper,” she said. (Me too!).
Fred Stitt of San Francisco Institute of Architecture praised Dyson for spending extensive time with the clients, “acquainting himself with the essentials of their lives, and especially of their aspirations. Other architects,” Stitt said, “even well-renowned ones—will first show what they’ve done and awards they’ve won before ever asking a question of the client, and that’s the first thing Arthur will do.” Ferrero said the same thing: he named some “superstar” architects who, he says, want to give you their house, a house that they designed in their style, not specifically for you. David Pearson, in New Organic Architecture, quotes architect Sim van der Ryn: “our clients [must] become true partners rather than masters or victims.”
All the architects I talked to assume that site is an essential consideration. Brink said, “your site you’ve chosen has particular views or certain amenities that need to be taken advantage of instead of bulldozing everything down so it’s flat and you can put down some sort of box on. With Mr. Wright, you learned how important nature is, how the site was, and you fit the personality of your building to your site and to the person you’re building it for.” At Eric Lloyd Wright’s site perched above the Pacific Ocean, the fluid cement structure nestles into the cliff like an eagle’s aerie. He said both architect and client have to become intimate with the terrain, the views, and assess the possibilities.
When I asked Mickey Muenig, a Goffian architect in Big Sur, if he would liken poetry to architecture, he said he preferred to talk about site. He said he camped on the site of the Post Ranch Inn for a calendar year as he was designing the guesthouses. Of our lengthy planning and design period, he said it was to our advantage because we had the opportunity to observe our site over all the seasons (twice, actually). Art was involved from the very beginning. To celebrate close of escrow on the River House property, we invited Art and Audrey Dyson up for a picnic. That August evening the water was high and lazy. A deer made a cameo appearance just as we approached. We talked about how to orient the house to maximize the views (I lift mine eyes up to the hills) and take advantage of shade from sycamores. We were already sensing the hypnotic effect of the river—hypnotic, but constantly moving in one direction, as life does. We wanted the house to become part of the scenery without interrupting it. Unlike the Creek House, the River House would be visible from the road, so we wanted the profile of the house to follow the lines of the foothills.
I asked Art what the difference was between designing the first and the second house for me—I thought it might have something to do with the differences between my husbands. He answered, “You’re different than most clients. Both times, you came to me with an intricate floor plan.” Sometimes I regret having come to Art with any design (what might he have dreamed up?), but I never lost that thrill of sketching floor plans. I’d taken art classes in the meantime and had that sophomoric sense of knowing something, when I really knew nothing. I loved the one-room Barrett-Tuxford House he designed in Richland Center, Wisconsin right after the Creek House. With the floor plan shaped like a broad leaf, Art explained in one of his “Archilectures,” it was simpler as it relied on only two walls—and had been famously economical. Will Green, second owner, with Cliff Schiesl, of the Barrett-Tuxford House wrote in an email: “Our house has its roots in Prairie Style architecture, but Dyson took a more organic and metaphysical path, the more difficult and risky path, to be sure.” He wrote that it feels like “what Virginia Woolf called ‘a moment of being.’” Will said he felt, “both grounded (the house is half underground) and connected to sky.” (The windows on the south side are 12 feet tall and the moonlight bathes the entire house). “It’s a great compliment,” he says, “that the deer haven’t figured out that this is a place where humans live.” Before living in their Dyson home, Will’s complaint about “the architecture that surrounded him (as a human spirit) was that architecture, in general, felt so detached from the earth, and so temporary.”
Photo-will & Cliff
Will says that when people come up their driveway “they feel like they’ve entered into not just a different world but a different reality. No one can believe that it is a small house. Everyone can relate immediately to this grand curving shape without even having to describe it…being more of a feeling than a design, their connection is visible and immediate. The most common reaction when people enter the home is an audible gasp. People look like they’ve just entered a cathedral and become quiet.” Nice.
Dyson, using his background in psychology, initiates each planning session with personal questions seemingly unrelated to architecture. 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 Evanses wanted to do something different. In an interview, Evans said Dyson told him and Ruth Ann first about his philosophy and asked them about what they liked: what art they liked, what music they liked, how they lived. “He asked us all sorts of questions and listened to the answers. We thought, this guy is great; he’s going to build something just for us.”
Planning the Creek House
When architectural photographer Scot Zimmerman introduced Dennis and me to Art Dyson in that brick office on P Street, I brought my graph paper drawings and explained to him what I’d drawn and why, but that the elevation just didn’t work. I picture this conversation happening in the Lencioni Home at the dining table, but that’s impossible because it’s a planning meeting for that house. Art corroborated that it was in his office; we were sitting on one side of a table and he sat across from us. “We need to lengthen out the lines,” he said, smoothing his hand in an arc, as if over an expectant mother’s belly. “And then come back in,” he continued, scooping both hands to meet, cupped at his heart. The house looks like that—arched as if it has erupted gently out of the river bottom, as if next season it will burst into flower like a rununculus.
Over two sessions, he asked a battery of questions that had less to do with form, and more to do with preferences in music, art and food, the patterns and rhythms of our lives. He asked about our dissimilar backgrounds: I’d grown up in an upper class suburb of Los Angeles, my father is a successful LA lawyer, my mother keeps a lovely home and is active in the community; my family all have advanced degrees. Dennis’ family struggled to farm cotton and grapes; his father died while we were dating. While Dennis’ brothers, Ron and Gary, graduated in engineering from Fresno State, Dennis, after studying ecology at community college, took a program in horseshoeing and became a farrier because he was drawn to the challenge and independence of the traditional craft. We wanted to live off the grid. To Dyson’s questions, Dennis and I responded reflexively. Art asked, “When you doodle, what do you draw?” The imagery is so prosaic now, but we were too naïve to know that: I showed him curves and concentric circles, and I still make this ripple pattern around words or objects like a slow river lapping a boulder or the pattern that resonates after a fish has jumped. Dennis’ doodles were more angular (now, I’d say, more masculine), and both of those are reflected in the house design.
Photo-ch curve and angle
Art asked what houses I remembered admiring as child growing up in San Marino, a town which looks like you’re driving down the streets of Architectural Digest. I remembered the O’Connor’s Spanish style house as my favorite, but I said I didn’t want something Spanish—not here in the forest. Art remembers my affinity for the Spanish style, and he says the curved entry originated from the idea of an arch.
On his hand rendering of the elevation, because we were newlyweds, Art drew a mock picket fence encircling the house and a very cool sports car for Dennis with the same “female” lines they both admired in automotive design.
Art recently had an inquiry from “a fellow architect” who saw the Lencioni Residence (Creek House) in Architizer. He wanted know if Dyson “would be open to the possibility of rebuilding [the] exact design on a property in Wisconsin?” He would pay for the CDs (Construction Documents) and Dyson’s services “to further refine the design to the exact lot.” He attached links to two entirely different sites from Zillow as possible building sites. Art’s response clearly articulates his relationship with his clients and his work:
Thank you for your email, your kind words, and your interest in our work (specifically the Lencioni Residence).
Although I am the legal owner of the drawings and design, I feel morally obligated to my client and my pledge to them that their home is exclusive to them and would not be replicated.
This little residence, like all of our work, was designed for a unique client, on a specific site, to support an individual lifestyle, and for a specific time (1985).
The core belief of my work has always been that architecture has an integral relationship with both its site and its time, and that a true expression of its place and its time intimately connects to a particular moment and site—never the result of an imposed style. I believe a building’s architectural character essentially creates its own style.
Throughout my career I have attempted to maintain a respect for the inherent properties of materials and an appreciation for the harmonious relationship between the building’s form and function, and we and integrate those spaces into a coherent whole: a marriage between the site and the structure and a union between the context and the structure.
I currently have a 31-page Client Questionnaire that my clients complete before beginning the design process. We respect and reflect the authentic voice of the client in the resultant design. While the process of understanding and comprehending the personal mythologies and family dynamics that drive the design is lengthy, it is pivotal in forming the building program and defining the design direction. I have always attempted to first listen, discover, analyze – then design.
Although your proposal is flattering and your concept intriguing, I don’t believe that reproducing one of my designs would be of any meaningful value to you or your clients.
Planning the River House
The house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.
For many reasons, Greg and I went directly to Dyson when we were ready to build. Greg had been living in the Creek House, but he hadn’t yet met the man who designed it. We emphasized our restricted budget, but our desire to work with him within our means. Again, I brought the 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.
Art’s more efficient now, but no less thorough: in planning our current home, Art emailed a 40-page questionnaire reminiscent of the interviews 30 years prior. He says he used to miss things when he was trying to ask questions and write down answers. The questions are comprehensive, and I share many of them in service of all people, designers, clients, architects, everyone becoming more in tune with their surroundings. You should cite Arthur Dyson, not me, if you adopt any of these in your practice.
The exercise, in and of itself, feels like art therapy. All the ideas come from you, but you didn’t necessarily know you thought that until prompted. For a couple, it’s like marriage counseling. Art says 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. One client, he said, realized that, when he grew up, the only safe haven he had was at the dinner table—“otherwise people were yelling at each other, people were squabbling.” It’s emotional. “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.”
Greg and I filled them out independently before comparing answers, not too amazed that our responses were eerily similar (we met on e-harmony.com, 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. Dyson 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.” He could have quoted Frank Lloyd Wright, who said, “If you foolishly ignore beauty, you’ll soon find yourself without it. Your life will be impoverished. But if you wisely invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.” In her book Tales of Taliesin, Cornelia Briarly writes, “Mr. Wright—like Emerson—felt that ‘Beauty is its own excuse for being.’” I had the great fortune to speak with Briarly—by then 98 and the matriarch of Taliesin, and she told me, “Mr. Wright considered beauty the highest form of morality.”
Dyson asks for our definition of beauty. I responded literally: “Taking the startling elements of nature and condensing them, arranged just a little off- balance,” while Greg was more philosophical, writing, “Beauty is a real and open expression of the truth of God.”
We were to list things we find beautiful:
Greg: “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.
Deb: when rough meets smooth and shiny there is often beauty. Austrian painter Friedrichsreich Hundertwasser used metallic paint or metal in otherwise primitive and abstract paintings.
Greg: Honesty and openness. Whether in personal contacts or when watching a stage play, sincere feelings are beautiful. When Harold Hill stops Winthrop, who is mad because there is no band, Harold Hill says, “Hey kid. I always think there’s a band.” I cry every time.
Deb: The most tingly, beautiful experiences of my life 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; the surprise of orchids in a forest; the way a wild fig tree wraps around an oak and the transparent backlit leaves contrast with the burley trunk; I love the yellow undulating hills of the Valley with dark green oaks and granite outcroppings.
Art frequently refers to angles of light at different time of day and of the year. He favors angled windows and skylights to capture the maximum light, which explains the extreme angles on many of his houses. Without stars and sunsets, and access to the out-of-doors, he contends, you don’t know whether the wind is blowing or if the birds are singing, or if it’s raining or if there’s a sunset. “We try to bring those things back into the buildings,” he says. I search for words to describe prism light moments, or moments when the light dances across a room. Dyson explains that architecture should celebrate nature. “Too many homes are isolated from their natural surroundings—the soaring rooflines are in response to view lines or view corridors,” he explains, not random aesthetic tricks. He says, “the clients’ spirit, their uniqueness, spawned the worlds that you see here.”
Our answers to his questions about our dreams and what we’d like to achieve spiritually were similar. I wrote that 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 composes in his Tree House studio above the barn, and I settle in the living room (“like a studio, I wrote, “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.”
Photo-lrh inside out
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.” The house I grew up in was a stately white colonial in a neighborhood of lovely lawns and shade trees, big back yards with swimming pools. Sensibly, my younger sisters occupied the bedrooms upstairs near my parents, and I, the eldest, stayed downstairs. But the boxy little space made me a little crazy. My bedroom, originally maid’s quarters, had a louvered window onto the driveway and the neighbors’ brick wall, and a high vine-covered window faced the garage roof. I cleared the bougainvillea for light (and sometimes for escape, removing the glass louvers and slipping out unseen—I didn’t do anything but go out to the back patio and think in the dark). I would fantasize about replacing the wall that faced the garden and the pool with glass, and usually my imagination also doubled the size of the tiny room. Once, when my parents were away, I talked my youngest sister Annie into trading rooms with me, marketing the advantages: “you don’t have to share a bathroom; you’re close to the kitchen.” Annie’s room had large second-story windows looking out through a liquid amber and an oak and over the houses north and east. We had to switch back when my parents returned. The year we hosted an exchange student, Franziska and I shared that room, and my sisters shared the other. One college summer, when I was working, and they were all somewhere else, I often slept up in Katie’s room where a bank of windows faced south and east over our garden. Perhaps I’ve been craving windows ever since.
It seems there’s a balance between retaining cherished elements and opposing less-favored elements. Greg’s parents ran a summer camp, so he slept in open-air cabins; accordingly, our bedroom’s wall of 18-foot windows allows for star-gazing from bed. Dyson gives an example from his grandest residence, Charles and Lela Hilton’s in Panama City Beach, Florida. Art suggested a metal cool roof to deflect the heat and keep a clean profile, but the Hiltons wouldn’t hear of it. In their childhoods, metal roofs covered the shacks of the poor and didn’t belong on their mansion. Similarly, he says barnwood siding can evoke nostalgia for “upper-enders,” but not for farm families, who crave an interior that’s sleek and clean.
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 in retrospect that the answers guided important design choices. Dyson 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? For example, Greg’s grand piano needs space and protection from direct light.
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? Our prescience was tested this last year when my son’s ex-wife needed help getting on her feet, so she and her children (whom we love as grandchildren) moved into Greg’s studio and ate dinner with us each night. The kids had the run of the outdoors lawn and gardens and pool and patio, but we could still work inside in peace until I called them for dinner and games after (if they had finished their homework).
There’s a whole page on music, computers, and media. For us, the live acoustics are critical. Television, unimportant to us, is relegated to the den.
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,” writes Dyson. Multi-use is a guiding principal in the RiverHouse. Piano and concert hall, yoga studio, writer’s workspace, library, easy chairs, kitchen, dining room, den, and guest room all coexist in 1,000 square feet. It seems silly to me to designate a single purpose to a room so that it waits in pause mode until awakened for a formal dinner like the personified teapot and candlestick in Beauty and the Beast. My childhood house had an entry, formal living room, family room, den, formal dining room, and a breakfast table in the kitchen. Stepped down from the white-carpeted living room, the wood-floored family room was where we lived. The entire wall facing the tree-ringed back yard, patio and pool was glass, and a green and leafy buffer separated our house from the next. That room had a game table (where I often did my homework), fireplace, and bar. It occurred to me around sixth grade that those rooms could easily be combined, and I sketched plans, which rearranged the downstairs with fewer walls (and a bedroom for me with windows!).
In Greg’s childhood home, his parents added on to the living area, essentially creating a great-room, the kitchen opening out in an open format, so he wanted to retain the great-room concept. Dennis had grown up in a tiny space, where rooms were multi-purposed by necessity (his bed was in the laundry porch; he did homework standing at the washing machine), so he wanted a separate office. He did allow it to double as the library.
Dyson 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 for the piano’s protection, 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,” with 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 has become library, media room, den, and guest bedroom—handicapped accessible for Greg’s brother, who uses a wheelchair. For the bathrooms, Dyson 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 their wives taking out the blow dryer and all we need to get ready on busy mornings, then watching us pack it all up again or leave it out, Greg and 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 of beauty.
Photo-den as bdrm
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 determine “a personal pattern of activity.”
Where do you spend the majority of your day? (by the windows in the living room)
What does your everyday work environment look like? (same)
What is your favorite way to relax or unwind? (a glass or a book on the terrace)
Art has told me much of his inspiration derives from writers and people in the other arts. “We have such a huge palette to work with as architects. We have form and line and texture and color and rhythm…materials…space. A writer can take a nothing but a bunch of letters and arrange them on a piece of paper in a way that can make you cry, make you laugh, can make you melancholy. If somebody can do this with letters and paper, think of what an architect can do with a gigantic palette,” he said.
Several questions are devoted to reading—do you? Where? Which authors, books, magazines? He himself had loved Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the way cadences of the language change. He asks, “Were you read to as a child? By whom? and asks for a favorite childhood story. (Greg said the musical Seuss; my favorite was Wind in the Willows).
Art asks about favorite music, songs, performers (ours is utterly eclectic). Dyson told us that Debussy was Bruce Goff’s favorite composer, mainly because the work is very athletic and light, whereas Mr. Wright liked Beethoven, Sibelius and Bach, but particularly Beethoven’s heavier and more monumental works. In that conversation, Greg said he might choose Bach if had one book of music on a deserted island because of the music’s complex elegance. Comparing architecture to music, Dyson said we allow discord and resolution in music, but people are reticent to introduce dynamic elements in architecture. Without a bridge or occasional discord, we’d just have that simplest formulaic pop song. How square and repetitive music would be—that jingle that nags you all day and all night. As a musician, Greg says that the closest metaphor to composing music is architecture. “You build the frame first and put the details on later,” he says. Greg compares composing a longer-form piece of music, with its themes, motifs, and structure with composing a home. German author (1749-1832) Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe famously said, “Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music.” The comparison to music is apt since the participant has to move through architecture to make it move, just as music has to be played in order to thaw. Yet, David Pearson writes:
Organic architecture is living, rather than frozen, music, performed in the continuous present. With its juxtaposition of harmonies and discords, its diverse rhythms and syncopated movement, and its asymmetrical proportions and structure, it has closer affinities with modern music than with classical compositions.
The structure of music and buildings are the same—the theme that begins in one place develops in another with motifs and variations. Alain de Botton writes, “Buildings are choirs rather than soloists; they possess a multiple nature from which arise opportunities for beautiful consonance as well as dissension and discord.” Art suggests that architecture is experienced as, “a time sequence when individuals travel around and through the space.” He points out the obvious, that human beings are kinetic by nature, and as such, alter the perception of scale and the rhythm of a space.
It’s so difficult to photograph such spatial dimensions. When I imagine our house, I don’t imagine it empty and static, but full of people—it depends on who’s in it: Greg and me; Greg, me, and the kids; holiday crowds; friends at a concert or a dinner party. In my anticipation of any event, I glide through the house mentally observing the dynamics of flow.
Photo-lrh with people
Dyson has recognized that architecture has become significantly more impacted by auditory interference. “With the introduction of energy standards that prevent not only thermal transfer, but the natural sounds of nature,” he says, “we are further disconnected from our biological connections.” In “A Search for the Soul of Architecture,” he writes, “The wind in the trees, the rain, and other echoes of nature provided calming patterns which resonated with the human heart.” Arboreal sounds “harken to our primordial memories of a safe environment absent of predators.” He laments that the “songs of nature” which once soothed us are today replaced by the harsh mechanical noises of garbage disposals and air conditioners. I am bothered by white noise. As I write on this summer evening, I hear the river through the screen doors. Some distant frogs. Nothing else.
He asks about favorite movies, plays, or performances and where we see them. Our choices are overwhelmingly hopeful and a little romantic: Les Miserables, Billy Elliot, Romancing the Stone, Guys and Dolls. I think that optimism and romance is reflected in the architecture of our home.
He asks where we sit in a restaurant (we both said a table by the window) and “Do you enjoy spending vacation time at home?” Greg wrote, “We are at the river property right now, filling out these forms. It is a vacation.”
He asked about hobbies in the past, present, and five, ten, twenty years out. He asks how we would like to see our lifestyle changing in ten and twenty years. I thought long and hard about this because Dennis and I didn’t even have children when we built the first house, and twice I became too cramped in the Creek House and chose to move from that lovely space. Barring a catastrophe, we don’t think the children will boomerang or our parents will live with us, and the den or the Tree House can handle visitors. It’s true, family and friends come visit more often for their vacations, but that’s what we hoped would happen. In answer to his question, we both said we thought we’d spend more time at home creating (and we do).
He asks you for a single color to represent yourself. “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.”
Greg turned to me when we were filling these out and said, “I know a lot about a lot of things, but 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 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 always aspire to be calmer than I really am, so I chose cool colors to respond to that yearning. 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 said out loud, “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.” Art asks what color exudes strength: “Feel strong;” he writes, “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 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.
Photo-lrh color grey
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 particularly 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.
Photo-both doors, no doorbell
Art’s background in psychology is most evident in the final section on Heritage and Relationships. Reminding me of Matt Taylor’s story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s client, Mrs. Pew, he begins:
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.
Photo-light on a niche
Since the Incas and Anasazi, builders have directed light in symbolic ways. “We can use light to illuminate or warm a space, but we can also use it to reach the hearts of the occupants.” He tells the story of clients who collected art. To determine importance, he asked what they would take first if they had to evacuate, and both pointed, without hesitation, to a pair of goblets their children had given them for their 25th anniversary. “So, obviously, we put them in a nice place where they could be seen, but we also made sure that, by means of a clerestory window, the sun would shine in through that window and hit those goblets at 3PM, June 5th, the date and time of their wedding. At another home in Oakland with a commanding view overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Dyson proposed a concrete monolith immediately inside the entry—not to block the view, but to focus it. As you open the door, a small window in the wall directs your eye to Coit Tower where the couple had met.
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. We’re grateful we lived in a lovely place—the Creek House–in the meantime. Greg thrived in that 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 the first 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 River House.
Art brainstormed with cardboard models. I’ve scribbled “Spring ’08” on photos Greg took of rough cardboard models arranged on Art’s conference room table. One looks like a croissant, the layers of roof lapping one on top of another like pastry; one squats like an Anime sumo wrestler. I know Art doesn’t like similes, but the forms were all evocative of one thing or another. I was having trouble picturing this house as simple and elegant—especially simple. He persisted while we focused on the inside of the house and its placement on the lot. We printed images from Google Earth and sketched the floor plan on the topographical overview to ensure it articulated with the setting, so the curve of the roof would stretch east-west like the hills across the river. We knew we wanted to walk in the front door and see, through floor-to-ceiling glass, the river in the foreground and the hills behind.
The resulting design was stunning: a massive, elegant, trilobite with a cascade of clerestory windows down his back. It had swollen to 2,800 square feet, but the additions were thrilling, even if we weren’t sure we needed a master suite that grand. I especially loved the loft office with a pop-out glass-cornered window looking up to the foothills and the way the clerestories would certainly shift the angles of light at different times of day, different times of the year. Secretly, we knew it wouldn’t make budget, so we calculated how far we could stretch, up to 25 percent over the original figure. I filled a couple pages of a legal pad figuring pricing scenarios, we determined our ceiling, and put it out to bid.
Chapter 5. Between Design and Build: Assembling the Team (and Surviving Plan Check)
[Men who make houses] look at a problem and think, How can this be done? And come up with one or two preposterous ideas. And then they actually do it, and if that’s not sexy, I don’t know what is.
From “Men Who Make House” Sun Magazine
By Linda McCullogh Moore
Art Dyson contends that the transition from design to build, in fact, the whole planning process should include the builder. While his logic is infallible, builders are reluctant to get involved. They don’t have time to spend planning—they’re builders; they want to build. They have a better working concept of the cost of materials and labor involved in a design than the rest of the team, but the architect and the client make the give-and-take decisions about what’s worth skimping or stretching on. Ask a builder if the most outrageous idea can be built, and the answer is almost always, “Well, it can be…” with a poignant trailing off of the voice and “here we go again” implied in the ellipse.
Photo of builders
Design-build is ideal with the right crew. On the first remodel of the ranch house, in 1994, Boback Emad, following his apprenticeship with Dyson, was branching into design-build, so we all worked together, designing, building, and paying cash as we went. The plans the County approved were accurate, but simplified. We took the walls between the kitchen and dining room down to studs and made a round table out of cardboard to scrutinize the scale. We marked out the pool placement with a wobbly line of white flour.
Matt Taylor describes a design-build success involving a remodel of a 19th-century corner building in Turin, Italy into what he calls a navCenter: “All of the ‘working over and with one-another’ was done with harmony and collaboration. We were all––architect, engineers, construction managers, craft-persons, sub-contractors, suppliers––together, building art.” In both these scenarios, the designers, builders, and clients were equally invested in the outcome and so applied equal energy and commitment to the job. Convening an equally-invested team is hard in these times.
Photo from Whiting book?
Frank Lloyd Wright sent apprentices out to live on the sites as they oversaw the construction of his designs. In At Nature’s Edge: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Artist Studio, Henry Whiting describes Wes Peterson’s role in overseeing the building. Whiting sought out the same craftsmen who had worked on the original construction as he refurbished and repurposed the studio as a residence for himself and his wife Lynn Fawcett Whiting. In imitation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s model, we ultimately chose, for both houses, contractors who had apprenticed with Dyson; in this way they had a pre-existing relationship with the architect, and, having drafted for him and worked in his offices, understood his philosophy, style and core ideas.
So many of the owners tell stories of frustration with contractors who either don’t get the artistic choices or don’t value the artistic choice over the “feasible.” Will Green, a Dyson client, explained, “Many contractors just couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t see the vision we had, couldn’t deal with the lack of right angles in the house or the rigid instructions I was handing out. I came to understand the challenges Art [Dyson] and Bruce [Barrett, original client] encountered…economic, aesthetic, physical, emotional. I came to understand that the whole process is organic, not just the design.
Photo-Will at B-T Res
On our first house, the Lencioni Residence (aka Creek House), in 1986, we sought a contract with pre-determined cost and time. We did some research and toured jobsites and completed residences and chose four contractors to ask for bids. Our budget in 1986 was $80K. The bids came in at 80, 90, 280, and 280. I argued for the apprentice, Greg Potter, at 90. By the time it was complete, and with no little frustration on Potter’s part, the house cost $120K. He had to stall to take side jobs and we did some re-negotiating. I talked to Greg and Belinda Potter recently, 25 years after the fact. Greg expresses deep pride in the sculptural home he built. Belinda remembers forsaken vacations. A gracious person, she agrees the result was worthy, but Greg never continued in contracting after that experience.
In the 90s, I was subpoenaed to testify on Art’s behalf about that contract. It seems a couple had hired Dyson to design a certain home with a certain budget. When the bids came in higher than the budget, they refused to pay Dyson for his work. In the meantime, they built a color-by-numbers mansion. Art’s counsel called me up and asked if I would testify, which I was glad to do. He announced at the hearing that my house had been built on budget, which, of course, it hadn’t been. When I told the true story (and nothing but the truth), the judge leaned towards me and asked, “Was it worth the overrun?” I must have looked at him incredulously because when I said, “Oh, yes!” everyone kind of chuckled, and the McMansion people blushed. Dyson won the case.
Photo ranch house?
We had our own frustrating case in our second Ranch House remodel. I was almost 40 and the kids were growing up. The house was plenty big but lacked a living room, and Dennis wanted a separate office. We never used the entry since it was way around the side past the pool, and, while the windows face the view of the pasture and forest to the south and plum orchards and mountains to the north, we couldn’t see people approach from Trimmer Spring on the east. I had never liked the approach, right up to the garage. The plan we envisioned was straightforward, we thought. Turn the attached garage and shop into a living room and office, move the front door to the front, and build a garage off to the side. So we went to Dyson with a simple sketch. Dyson was dean at Taliesin at this time, and his architecture firm was at its zenith. His conception, channeled through a group of young apprentices, involved lifting the roof, canting the angle of the roofline, adding clerestories and a glass-on-glass southwest corner under the pecan tree. Magnificent, but not straightforward, and unfortunately, all three bids were four times the budget we’d brought to him (and cost-plus at that). I would have gone back to the drawing board, but Dyson was busy with Taliesin, many new projects, and his stable of architects, and Dennis refused. So Dennis and a handyman, Bill Barnes, made the changes I drew on graph paper, marked on the floor itself, and sketched as an elevation on drawing paper—all with the original roofline and only slightly modified footprint—step by step and paid for in cash. You can do that too, of course, if you trust your own design, and if you have someone you trust to execute it. I know the compromises I made, and I see the amateur features. Had the west-facing windows been southwest and clerestory, I wouldn’t have had to buy ordinary blinds to cover the sliding glass doors when the sunset assaults the west wall. We would have been drawn to sit and talk in the living room Art designed more than my vast converted garage. The spaces I’ve inhabited before and since, designed by Dyson are more stimulating, more interesting, more integrated into the setting. I compensated for the compulsory right angles with a circular entertainment center, a built-in bench, windows connecting us to the outdoors. When Greg joined our family in 2005, his grand piano enlivened the dead corner of the Ranch House living room and the cavernous room seated concert audiences.
Ranch house LR?
Our contractor for the River House in 2009 had also been a draftsman in Dyson’s office. While, after an intimate 28 months with the man, it’s impossible to separate the building of the River House from Sidney Mukai, we had originally narrowed our choice of contractors to six. The first two showed us mansions on “The Bluff” over the San Joaquin River in Fresno, which were massive and well-crafted, but showed no recognition of Dyson’s sense of design–so they were out of the running. After experiencing such a disconnect between our vision and the expression of the first two contractors, we decided meeting at our current Dyson Home, the Creek House, was a fair but revealing litmus test; contractors would know what they were in for. If we spoke the same architectural language, then we could travel to see their work. One contractor drove up to the Creek House and started shaking his head in awe as he stepped down from his truck. He held his chin, as if to control the shaking, but he shook it all the way up the stairs, through the whole tour, and as we came down the stairs towards the massive glass and wood front door, he said, “I couldn’t do this,” and laughed in defeat.
Steve Soenke had been working on a Dyson remodel and became somewhat involved in the planning of ours. His craftsmanship and design details on the Fox-Wosika Residence impressed us. We appreciated his articulate expression, his talk of world events, and his border collie Hank, who accompanied him everywhere—in the office, in his truck to the site, and who played well with our Queensland. A contractor on a project like this lives closely with you over a year or more; it’s critical to feel comfortable in each other’s company—even better if your dogs get along. Mukai was busy with a big project in the mountains out of town. We started to think of Soenke as our guy.
Tingling a little in excitement, we pulled up to Steve Soenke’s office in Fresno’s Tower District, also a Dyson design—an aborted restaurant project the contractor cleverly converted with a lot of style—bold colors, drop spot lighting, seven matching panels of abstract oil paintings rescued from another restaurant failure (overwhelmingly, innovative restaurants struggle in Fresno). Hank greeted us with exuberant wagging, and Steve ushered us inside the airy, open office for the bid. We sat down, smug that we’d decided not to be shocked if it was up to 25 percent over budget. The design was brilliant; the contractor was skilled—we could swing it. Steve set down an elaborately tabbed and indexed bid. I noticed he took a step back rather than sitting as well. He launched an item-by-item explanation, but I impatiently flipped to the last page. The bid came in at over $500/square foot: 1.4 million dollars, well over twice what we’d budgeted. The steel bid alone was $310 thousand. Suppressing any reaction and ignoring a roaring inside my head, I picked up the bid folder and walked back to the car. Through the glass wall, I saw Greg stand up, look at Steve, then at me; then he strode out and joined me. “No one will be at Art’s this late,” I grumbled. Greg asked what I thought, but I couldn’t answer. I remembered the project I was forced to drop in the 90s. We drove in silence; my brain was whirring like a batch-basic computer, sifting through all the cards to come to an answer. Clamped down, I had to have appeared rude to Steve and cruel to Greg, but I had to think and didn’t want to cry. We had choral rehearsal that evening, and I had one class in the morning before I could talk to Dyson. Distracted and still calculating, I sang half-heartedly through the Durufle “Requiem,” and I spoke, still in monosyllables, to Greg on the way home. He remembers me waking him up in the night and saying, “So, if it’s twice our budget, we’ll slice off the top half.”
Having slept little, I wore a Reedley College sweatshirt and jeans to my Friday morning class and went straight from class to my car. “How did it go?” Art asked optimistically, rising to meet me when I burst in the door. I usually greet Grace the receptionist and give Art a hug, but I went straight to the conference room and slumped in a chair. I said the same thing to Art that I’d said to Greg in the night, my hand slicing the air: “We have to lop off the top half.” I told him the total bid and price per square foot. It’s hard to unsettle Art, but he was as shocked as we were. I know I began talking too fast, detailing what I’d considered all night: “We’ll make it one story; it has to get back under 2,000 square feet; if it’s single-story, do we need all that steel? The downstairs is the important part—if we just bring the master bedroom downstairs…” I didn’t want to destroy his design, but we simply couldn’t afford it.
He said we’d start a new one-story design immediately.
One thing Art says he learned from Bruce Goff was an attitude about revision, but he said it wasn’t easy for him to learn. Art had designed a fireplace for a woman, and she just didn’t like it. At first Art was provoked—that design was perfect! Some time passed before she asked for another design, and he realized he was excited to have another shot at it—and the second design, he said, was immeasurably better. Dyson said that when Goff had drawings returned, he responded with “a sort of glee: I get another chance to really get it right!”
Photo of footprint from TreeHs
River House, Take 2: One story; 2,000 square feet exactly. We were even happier with the elegant simplicity of the one-story elevation. We wanted four bids, but we could only gather three builders we liked. No one, in 2008, would consider a contract like the one we’d had in the ‘80s. It would be “cost-plus,” but all three promised they would work with us to keep costs down. Steve Soenke, of the first draft, was one; we were still impressed with his professionalism, wit, intelligence and organization even though Art thought his bid might still be high. In our neighborhood out in the Sanger Riverbottom, Kevin, a local builder was remodeling a locally-designed organic 1940’s home with built-in furniture that looked out onto Collins Creek. The craftsmanship was beautiful and true to the pseudo-Wrightian design, and our neighbors and the subcontractors were all content. Because he lived out east of town as we did, we thought Kevin might have a competitive bid, and we had to consider price. Kevin’s brother designed organic homes in Colorado, so he was not frightened by the style. The third was Sidney Mukai, who had been the general contractor on Dyson’s Geringer House, built not long before the Lencioni Residence. He is an architect-builder himself and had been an associate of Art’s in the 80’s, so, to the extent it’s possible, he understands the inner workings of Art’s mind; perhaps most importantly, Art was partial to him personally. The day before the bid-opening ceremony, I’d told Greg that I also favored Sid. I like the Frank Lloyd Wright model of apprentice-on-the-job. The Geringer House Sid built is a masterpiece, but sensible. It bode well for us that he knows design as well as building, and he does most of the work himself. He’s Buddhist, I argued; a little Zen might go a long way. It may take longer, we considered, but he’s a perfectionist.
The day before the momentous bid-opening ceremony, we picked up Steve’s sealed bid from his office. We chatted with him blithely and said we’d call tomorrow. Kevin was going to drop his off at the house on his way home from the job in the neighborhood, and Sid, who lives near Art’s office, was going to drop it off there. We came home late from rehearsal, and there was no envelope from Kevin. A message on the answering machine: “I’m sorry,” the message began. “I was so excited to work on a house like this that I didn’t consider all the other obligations I have committed myself to. I have too many projects going, and I have promised work for family. I know I’ll regret this, but I have to withdraw my bid.” We were disappointed because we had wanted four bids for balance, had reconciled ourselves to three, and now, with only two, we wouldn’t be able to gauge high and low bids as well.
Friday morning in Art’s conference room, the lone envelope from Steve lay in the center of the conference table. Greg paced. Art told jokes. I tried to laugh along, but the two-bid prospect seemed teetery to me, and it was 9:00 (the deadline) and Sid’s bid wasn’t here. We stalled and told stories. “Remember when you bid out the first house—the variety of bids?”Art reminisced.
At 9:30, we couldn’t stand it any more. We’d left messages for Sid, but he hadn’t answered. “Let’s see what we have here,” Art finally said, and we were relieved that he’d been the one to cave first. I opened the envelope slowly, then dropped my elbows onto the table and spread the message between my hands so they could see: “I respectfully withdraw my bid. Steve Soenke.” Greg exhaled in a nervous laugh. Art simply pronounced, “Well!” Before I could wilt in despondent anguish, my cellphone rang. Sid was on his way. We all but froze for the minutes it took him to travel the few blocks between his house and Art’s old office. Sid stood nervously in the conference room doorway. Even though the ceremony had deteriorated, I thought at the time it was important to keep up the appearance of propriety. I looked at Greg and Art and told Sid we’d call him later that day.
Sid’s bid was reasonable, and our relief was extraordinary. He was clearly the only man for the job.
Because we liked Steve and thought he liked us, I felt comfortable enough (not comfortable, I suppose, but confused enough and willing to venture) to drive straight to his office and ask, “Why not?” He smiled a smile I like to think carried some regret and said, “I couldn’t make any money on it.” As if he knew I’d show up, he handed me the tabbed and indexed non-bid (I should have had an inkling there was something amiss when the envelope he’d handed us had been so thin). I asked if I could share it with our contractor Sid Mukai, and he said we could. He’d be glad to help in any way he could.
So, we had a contractor; next step was the building permit. When I’d done this 25 years ago, it had been a quick process. Greg Potter had sent me in with the plans (I was 25 with long legs and long blonde hair), and told me to smile. At 50-something, that ploy is less effective.
The Fresno County planning office is suspicious of anything different. Ron Lucchesi, an architect for the county says he has to look closely at designs from Dyson: “They’re just not ordinary,” he said. Before Ann Zimmerman knew her husband Scot (the photographer who introduced us to our architect), she was working at the County. She told a story at dinner with the Dysons: one of the guys in planning came to her desk and said, “Ann, you like weird and interesting things. You have to see this house.” He meant the Creek House, of course, where we were eating paella as she spoke. “Hunh,” Art said under his breath. Ann quoted her colleague in a deep voice: “Look at this house—doesn’t it look like hobbits belong here?” “Hunh,” said Art. “He was the inspector,” Ann said. He loved it, she told us, but he added, “This will be a job.” “Hunh,” Art repeated for the third time.
When I turned on the tape recorder at the planning desk and asked Lucchesi about Art’s work, his comment was that the buildings need space. “They’re ‘different,’ so it’s better when they’re not surrounded by ordinary houses.” Being a space junkie myself, I tend to agree. I prefer any house to have ample breathing room. Too many homes feel crowded next to each other like a restless mob. But Marc Dyson defended his father’s in-town designs: “I think it’s cool to have an angle jutting out in the midst of uninspired architecture. You’re going down the street and suddenly you’re pleasantly surprised.” The Evans residence is one that comes to mind. Paula Landis remembers growing up in the neighborhood:
We lived south of CSUF in a neighborhood called Sun Garden Acres, although I don’t know anyone who actually called it that. When my family moved there, it was envisioned that the area would develop as a desired place for CSUF faculty to build homes. A number of older, poorly maintained homes already existed, surrounded by lots of open land. A few faculty members did move their families into the area and remodeled existing homes, but it was a long while before anyone built a custom house.
Most of the houses were and still are unimaginative. So when the “Cootie Catcher House” went in, it was a dramatic change. It wasn’t just a custom home, it was a house that would be unique in any neighborhood. We enjoyed watching it take shape as it was being built. Of course we had to give it a name as unique as it was. That was easy to name because the peaks and dips in the roof line screamed cootie catcher. I suspect that if you told someone to go into Sun Garden Acres and find the cootie catcher house, they would spot it immediately.
Art told me the contractors kept putting a cross on its highest peak.
Sid was finishing the project out of town, so he couldn’t start until November. I was impatient. As teachers, we were anxious to get going while it was summer, but Art consoled me—it’ll take that long to get all the paperwork done, he said. Indeed, I filed for a permit in July. It came back for extra engineering in September. By that time, our engineer had quit engineering to teach high school math in Farmersville, so we found a substitute. We resubmitted. The County demanded more specifics for which brackets and what type of air conditioning system. We repeated that there was no air-conditioning. Lucchesi agreed there was no need, but we needed a water test to check flow so close to the River. At first, the guys at Rasmussen Pump learned from Irena at the County that the test could only be done at low-water mark in September. By now it was November. Rasmussen, bless them, managed to convince Irena that the water was low enough for an accurate test, so we wouldn’t have to delay almost another year; still, they were busy, so it would have to be after the holidays.
Greg and I had planned ahead to have some time off at this point. Originally, we thought the house would be done. We were both turning 50, and we had decided to go to New Zealand for five weeks for our 50th birthday. In education, we must plan way ahead for time off or sabbaticals, so we had the time off, but we couldn’t both afford to be away in the midst of permitting. I’d gone to France with a friend back in June, so it was Greg’s turn. He fled the drear of Fresno’s January for a week’s writing retreat in Cabo San Lucas and waited for updates via email. I drove into Fresno–to the County, to the engineer, to Dyson’s office—almost every day. Greg emailed about his tremendous productivity and work breaks spent diving in the Pacific. After the fourth attempt at the permit, on a Thursday, I couldn’t concentrate on writing, so I read the newspaper—every word, including the horoscope, and emailed Greg in Mexico:
I’ve devolved into consulting our horoscopes. You had a glorious 4-star day (not 5-stars, but still very good). Your Aries reads: ‘An infusion of energy allows you to complete anything that needs to happen. Understanding evolves to a new level, if you want it. Realize that others just might not be able to keep up with you.’
I, on the other hand, had a day worthy of erasing. I was going to erase that–because it’s not true. There’s a lot of good news from today, but some exhausting bad news. Here’s the good news: We passed zoning permit!
Regarding the building permit: I had everything together, except I knew my pump test might not fly b/c Irina had to make a full official report. Irina had told me I should be able to get it through if she signed the data sheet her report would be based on–which she did when she was up at the River monitoring the test herself. The first County guy said we had to have the final report on record. That meant we’d be held up until Monday at the earliest because Irina was out sick today. But Robin (I remember Robin from 25 years ago, AND he’s related to Sid somehow) simply tried again on our behalf. He asked the supervisor who said, ‘Is that the Elwood Place? That well is amazing. It way outperformed expectations.’ He gave us the completed ‘yellow sheet’ and we could have pulled the permit if the plans checked out.
There are still 9 items. Ron Lucchesi came in saying he was in a good mood ‘so far,’ causing Sid and me to laugh nervously. But he saw a few problems (one major enough), then visibly resigned himself to fault-finding. Perhaps it’s like receiving a revised essay that ignored the professor’s notes. He was not unreasonable at all; he crossed off 2/3 of the items, but some areas needed detail. We’re pinning our hopes now on Tuesday. I know–it’s all been delayed so you’ll be back for the grand moment. In fact, after today’s disappointment, I’m thinking you can go in with Sid on Tuesday and take all the glory without me. I’m wary of anti-climax. If we don’t get it another time, I’ll be miserable. If we DO get it (as we should), I’ll have a celebration waiting.
My one-star Scorpio horoscope for today: ‘If you are tired, it is understandable. You can only get so much done, so fast. Someone could be difficult as you want to charge forward. Know when to play the waiting game.’
Tuesday, January 12, 2010, I mustered my courage. Greg had returned, and we both arranged to meet Ron Lucchesi at the County for another shot at passing the permit. We had picked up the revised engineering plans from the new engineer, who had done a careful job with clear details overmarked in red. At Art’s office, we reattached engineering plans to the official three sets. Before Sid even got there, Ron Lucchesi started ticking off the changes which Paul, the engineer, had indicated very clearly in red in the margin with page number references and special annotated details. First were several satisfying RL initials filling the circles around certain items: check! Then we came to the corner connections where Paul had still called out upside down brackets. Again, Lucchesi paused. Heat crawled up my neck. “Can we bring the engineer here?” I asked “This ridiculous: he explains it clearly: he has shown that the load is carried this way, so it is stronger upside down. He says it doesn’t really matter—there’s minimal load on that joint in any case, but his professional opinion is that it should be upside down.” Greg enjoined, “It’s just a bracket. Why don’t we put one right side up and one upside down?” Lucchesi shrugged and smiled. “I’ll have to talk to my supervisor.”
One time, Dyson was pulling the permit on a large house for a family with seven children, so he had drawn a bedroom wing for the parents and a long wing for the children’s bedrooms with a second staircase for the children. When the staircase wasn’t approved, Dyson took the plans and made some changes, then returned to the county. Where the label had read “staircase,” he had instead written “sculpture.” When the permitter asked what the sculpture was made of, Dyson replied, “metal staircase components.” “But it’s a sculpture?” the permitter asked. “Oh yes,” said Dyson. The plans were approved.
Sid joined us, and the three of us paced the government office as if we were awaiting a delivery in a maternity ward. We were, in a way: we needed this birth, so this baby could get on with the business of growing. Sid said, “we know there will be modifications in the field. We just need to get out there and get building.” I asked for change for another dollar and walked down around the corner to feed the parking meter. I returned and Greg walked outside for air. I tried to play the game I play in my head of visualizing different activities in the house, but it was hard to concentrate. Lucchesi returned and discussed the mischievous brackets with Sid. They pulled out the massive Simpson Catalogue of brackets and braces. “This just gets bigger and bigger every year,” commented Ron. Everything gets bigger—plans didn’t used to be 29 pages long. Sid and Ron found a heavy-duty bracket they could agree on. Sid labeled the specific bracket and signed on each of the three official plans.
We waited: What next? With utter understatement, Ron flipped through the sheets of corrections to make sure he hadn’t missed any, then muttered, “That’s it.” Sid looked at me silently but his eyes conveyed exclamation. I, likewise, side-glanced at Greg. Evidently, one is supposed to remain cool and contain one’s exuberance at this climactic life moment. Then Ron smiled at Greg and me and said, “Now it’s time for the music of the stamping.” What a delightful phrase! “How are you two at flipping pages?” he asked. “Expert,” said Greg. “Let the wild stamping begin!” While Sid took out the actual permit under his contractor’s license, Greg lifted a page, I lay it flat and Ron stamped each page, “Approved” (!), 87 stamps in all. We rolled two sets of plans up, one for Sid and one for us, and Ron carefully folded the County’s set in a complicated origami, which wrapped the plans around the booklets of certification for engineering and energy and soil.
Then the zoning permit guy said, “No so fast.” He watched as we unwrapped and unrolled: he needed to stamp and sign each site plan. Okay—now? “There’s one other thing,” said R. Nahigian (according to his name badge). His eyes were antithetically kind: “Effective January 1, the Council of Governments (COG), has added an assessment to all new buildings. A ‘Regional Transportation Mitigation Fee.’ Not only was this anti-climactic, but it also didn’t make any sense. How would paying a $1200 fee mitigate traffic a half-hour east of the city? “We began the permit process in July,” I retorted, feeling insult on injury. “It’s taken six months to pull this permit. We shouldn’t be penalized for it taking so long to pass.” He told me that the date they use is the date the permit is issued—today, January 12, 2010. I tried to remind myself how elated I was that we finally had a permit in hand, but this felt like extortion and I suggested as much. “You can check with COG. They may not charge you.” With the suggestion of (unwarranted) hope (we did have to pay), I headed for the glass door; Greg was already outside. But Sid, ever patient, reminded me, “First you have to pay the County.”
Photo-Fresno County Planning office
Chapter 6. Cutting Corners and Cookie Cutters: Feasibility
“Custom Home Looks More Expensive Than It Really Is”
–Headline in The Fresno Bee
What type of people can afford a home designed expressly for them? Fred Stitt says there’s a common myth that a special building must cost more. Sometimes they do, but often they don’t. “Thanks to green building, mostly instigated by Frank Lloyd Wright, operating costs can be very low.” He described a recent project with a tiny budget: “You don’t have to use expensive materials; it’s the expression that you give the materials. It’s like two painters,” Stitt said, “You give one person who is a very fine painter the same brushes, the same colors, and the same canvas as another who doesn’t know what he’s doing. One will be a mess and one a real work of art. That’s what makes some writers good, too, and some not—and that’s called composition.” Matt Taylor, of the Post Usonian Project, observing a set of small organic homes, says: “What all these architects, designers, and developers [and clients—can’t leave out the clients] and their works have in common is a dedication to building an environment based on a singular view of human lifestyle: simple, uncomplicated, natural, eloquent, affordable. These are not ‘trophy’ houses…these works sought to rethink what a single family dwelling should be. Their basis [is] a notion of lifestyle that stands, today, in sharp contrast to an over-consumptive and compulsive culture.”
Art Dyson invited Greg and me to accompany him and Audrey to the 2016 awards ceremony of the American Institute of Architects, San Joaquin Chapter. We were all braced not to win, since Art had kind of cleaned up at the previous awards ceremony two years ago, adding to his wall of important awards. In fact, the Lencioni Residence (Creek House) had won the Residential Housing and Shelter award in 1989 when John Lautner and Joseph Esherick were judging. In 2016, with AIA judges Andrew Dunbar, Jason Silva, and Jana Itzen, the Lapp River House won an Award of Merit, and the Award of Excellence went to Dyson’s Hilton Residence. What made me exceptionally proud of the award the Lapp River House won was the comment from the judges, articulated by Donald Munro of The Fresno Bee, that the Lapp River House was built on a budget–because it certainly was. We made careful and judicious choices, stayed inside our budget, and the house still won an AIA award.
I figure there are three variables in the home construction equation: quality, cost, and time. We gained quality by paying attention to details. Sidney Mukai, our contractor, was on the job every day, usually armed with a laser-level. Having apprenticed under Dyson as an architect, he’s loyal to the design. Mukai did much of the work himself with one skilled worker, Eddie Garcia, and paced the project over 27 months. Sid’s perfectionist tendencies may have cost us time, but we stayed more or less within budget–more than a tract home, but affordable. In the end, the Creek House, in the 80s, took 18 months and went over-budget by 20 percent (utterly worth it; it’s my patronage of the art of organic architecture). The Lapp River House stayed more or less on budget, but took over two years to build, almost three if you include plancheck.
Photo-ch building or front
I contend that the cost constraint fosters creativity, and it’s so satisfying to solve a problem within our means. On both houses, Dyson employed cost-trimming moves. On the Creek House, he called out common materials and standard sizes wherever possible; for example, standard slider glass and barn wood siding with one-by-one bats to cover and define the seams. The front is designed with common shakes, but the pattern is what makes it extraordinary. Karl Ashley Smith, architect and architectural writer, describes in the January 1990 Fine Homebuilding some specifics of the framing that might interest builders and structural engineers:
At first Dyson thought the house would best be framed around laminated wood arches, but a couple of phone calls revealed that just the cost of laminated arches, without sales tax, delivery or erection, would double the framing costs. Since economy was a high priority, Dyson turned to plan B: frame the roof like a gable—only with a curve at the top instead of a peak
[The contractor, Greg] Potter and his crew [Dave Friesen—both had apprenticed with Dyson] began framing the gable ends atop 6X12 beams that double as the second-floor top plates. Curving pony walls were nailed on top of these beams, with the studs on 24-in. centers. To calculate the curvature, the crew drew a full-size replica of the gable on the shop’s concrete slab floor. That allowed them to measure directly and get accurate stud lengths, as well as the appropriate angles for the top cuts. The curving top plates are made of five layers of 1X6, glued with construction adhesive and nailed at 6-in. centers.
At the ends of the house, the curvature of the roof slopes down to meet the lower curve rising up from the first floor. At the point where these two meet, the roof is cantilevered nearly 9 ft. beyond the end wall of the house. With laminated arches, supporting this overhang would have been no problem. But with no arches, supporting the pointed ends of the roof posed a challenge.
Dyson’s solution was, in effect, to extend the structural gussets—the crew called them “beaks”—beyond the end walls to support the overhangs. These gussets consist of 5/8-in. plywood sheets that link the curving 1X6 plates. Along with 2X6 studs between the gussets, the assembly works something like a box beam. The assemblies transfer the loads of the overhangs to 6X6 posts in the walls.
After the gables and gussets were completed, 2X10 rafters were installed, spanning between the gables and installed tangentially to the curve of the top plate on 24-in. centers. The rafter placement was critical because, to center the plywood sheeting correctly, the rafters had to be spaced on 24-in. centers at their outer edge, instead of at the inner edge where they attach to the plate. The installation of the rafters on the lower curve was done in a similar fashion, with one notable exception: on the upper curve, the rafters were toenailed into the plates, but on the lower curve Simpson “H” series hurricane anchors were used.
Dyson creatively employs standard materials for non-standard purposes. “Design is not a matter of cost, but of composition. Like writing music, you can take inanimate notes and make them sing. Like producing a Shakespeare play: you don’t need lavish sets; the words work without them. A good cook can transform the most inexpensive ingredients and make a great meal.” The decorative beam ends on the Barret-Tuxford Residence are toilet floats.
b-T beam ends
The Jackshas, of the Jacksha Residence in Madera, California, recognized how expensive it would be to import enough dirt to build up the substantial burm on one side of their house, so Tom, whose work took him around the countryside in his truck, collected tires and broken concrete as landfill. The Jackshas hadn’t grown up with art in the home, but Art said, “we often design spaces or niches for art.” When they didn’t know what they’d put there, Art told them to go find a good rock. “Put him there until you find the right thing to replace him with.” In Ken Woods’ house, they built the foundation around a beautiful, sculptural rock, and, of course, boulders and river rocks feature prominently in our interior and landscape design. With wildfire a fear in California, the metal roofs on many of Dyson’s buildings are not just cost-effective. On the Baughman Residence in Springville, the metal roofing was laid diagonally so leaves and other debris from the oak trees wouldn’t accumulate. The metal roof was a solution to a huge woodpecker problem. Besides being relatively inexpensive and fire-safe, our metal roof is “cool” and the white surface reflects the sun. It looks pretty “cool” as well. Sometimes a problem can be turned into an asset. When Stan Gould, one of Art’s early bosses, wasn’t quite sure how to mask a row of poles in a shopping center he was designing, he said Art suggested they could just put flags on them.
Dyson client Brett Runyon found a piece of land he liked in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Fresno. An older couple had owned the larger parcel, and the husband had used this triangular piece for the garden—it wasn’t really large enough for a decent house. When the husband died, the wife couldn’t take care of he garden, so Runyon asked if he could buy it. “The obvious view was on the back [industrial side] of the Sunnyside Country Club,” Dyson explained, “at all the trash and equipment, but if you looked a certain way, you angle the view towards the Country Club, which we did,” blocking the blight and maximizing the narrow view. The day he told me this story, I noticed his whiteboard featured a quote by Moliere: “The greater the obstacle, the greater the glory in overcoming it.”
There’s a spirit of pride in a common creation. I’ve been on lots of building sites where the builders joke around and have fun, but they are often talking about anything but the routine task they’re doing. The attitude is: “That’s good enough.” Conversations I’ve overheard on Dyson’s jobsites are often puzzle-solving feats, stories about previous problems mastered, challenges about how level or a perfect fit. Bragging about a job well-done. Even before it was finished, the Lapp River House was joyful. The builders laughed constantly, and their good spirit permeates the walls. The subs take extra care and boast about their work. With our strict budget, we 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. It doesn’t cost more to groove the detail lines they call “reveals” at exactly 8 inches and exactly 8 feet 4 inches, but it’s so noticeably balanced that a guest, a woman schooled in philosophy, said as she entered, “this is completely Zen.”
Photo-lrh lr with pool and river beyond
Sometimes it’s an illusion. It would be lovely to have an infinity edge on the pool, but by setting the far edge lower than the close edge, it looks like an infinity-edge pool connecting to the flowing river. The windows in the curved wall appear curved as well, but they are segmented storefront windows.
With the glass above the 8-foot walls, the house looks much larger than 2,000 square feet, and the mirrored backsplash visually expands the kitchen.
Dyson and Zimmerman tell a story of a photo shoot with of the Frank Lloyd Wright Wilbur Pierce House. When they arrived, it was full of dusty cardboard boxes and stripped and mismatched furniture. They hauled in an old Indian rug from the back of Scot’s Trooper to look like couch cushions “We slung that over the bench,” Scot said. He plucked eucalyptus and brought a birdbath in from outside. The “table” in the foreground was simply a board propped up on sawhorses. “That table was half-way outside. The door was open and half of the table was outside; half was in so it didn’t dominate the room.” They found a couple of books (one a Frank Lloyd Wright book) in a box and propped them there to make it look lived in. “There were two other things we did that really pulled it together,” Zimmerman said: “Number one: the floor was awful, so we took the garden hose and flooded the dull red concrete floor with water to make it shiny.” And after Scot had taken the first photos they stuffed wads of newspaper in the fireplace to affect a “roaring” fire.
Photo-wilbur pierce house photo in Romanza
I aspire to a balance of efficiency, conservation, and cost-saving. There have been many, many books written on energy-efficient building that can give more technical arguments for new technologies. There are old technologies from Native Americans; for instance, the Creek House is passive solar with a canvas awning we put up in the summer to shade the southern side of the house; the River House has 15-foot overhangs to protect from the summer sun. From Old World and Depression-era farmers and craftsmen, we borrow cross-draft “technology.” The Runyon Residence modulates temperature with a solar chimney. There’s the “cowboy way,” like the gate latch for our front door.
Photo-gate latch front door
Sometimes it pays to wait. Greg and I waited to install solar panels, for instance, because, with the price of early solar panels and our low energy consumption, we calculated it would take 74 years to repay our investment. When the payoff came down to 16 years, we went ahead and installed the panels on our carport roof. Since we chose not to use air conditioning, we include a whole house fan and ceiling fans in addition to the “cool roof” and cross drafts from the river. My nephew, a civil engineer, explained a new type of super-insulated, super-expensive, glass for our north-exposed windows, but we count on the overhang, the sycamore tree, and some market umbrellas for the gap hour in summer.
An engineer who hired Art Dyson in the 60s, contrasted his philosophy to ours. In an interview in his Fresno office, Lee Gage said: “Art likes that sustainability—me, I just like to slap a dual pack on and be done with it.” Gage predicted the future of architecture will involve fewer architects. “Art does everything custom, but I now do the work of four architects because what I do is so repetitive. Hotel plans used be 30 pages long, now they’re 90 pages, but I can do 90 pages now quicker than I could do 30. My standard of living has gone up, but I produce more work, but so does my competition.” He used the word “feasibility” many times in our conversation, as if feasibility precludes design and sustainability. We are ardently thrifty, but we value artistic design and living lightly on the land, conserving precious resources.
Several of the architects I talked to drew a direct line from their emphasis on energy efficiency back to Frank Lloyd Wright. Tours of Taliesin and Taliesin West reveal clever energy-saving techniques based on an organic lifestyle. As Minerva Montooth described in a conversation in 2017, the organic lifestyle pervades all aspects of their lives, even down to their social interactions, and we discussed how organic design and purpose might both nurture and reveal an organic dynamic. Matt Taylor said that in the 60s and 70s [and shirttails like us in the 80s], there were several attempts to revive the Wrightian efficiency “mostly driven by ecological, energy and related issues,” Taylor said. “This included a strong do-it-yourself movement.” Taylor suggests there was a halcyon episode that was largely eclipsed by the economic boom of the 80s and 90s, but he is as optimistic as I am for a revival, and we’re doing our part.
Chapter 7: Living At Home
Matt Taylor said something when he was touring the Lapp River House: he said that the client continues the process of creating the built space by the choices he or she makes. He was referring at the time to landscaping we’d done and a rock garden populated with round river boulders and outtakes from the glu-lam beams. The house may be finished, but you continue to create as you live in it, he said.
A mismatch between inhabitants and dwelling can cripple a design’s intent. Certain renters in the Creek House put up curtains to close off the open loft rooms and placed a massive sectional sofa with its back to the view facing an over-sized TV that blocked the etched glass and crowded the woodwork. The same renters wove artificial flowers and fake ivy through the sculptural bannister. Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio in Oak Park suffered a season as an apartment complex with the rooms subdivided, the art glass plastered over, and the sculptures blocked from view. This was an economic advantage of course, but we shouldn’t have to choose between making a living and living a life of beauty and harmony.
Just as it’s impossible to capture the architecture fully with a still photograph or even a video, architecture doesn’t make complete sense, hasn’t achieved form, until people are living, sleeping, waking, working, playing, even cleaning in a space. You work on the design and, over time, the design works on you and prods you to your highest realization of your self.
Chapter 8. Architherapy: How Architecture Impacts Our Lives and Well-Being
First we shape our buildings, then they shape us.
I’ve thought a lot about the psychological impact of space and how the space we inhabit affects the way we feel and act. I call this architherapy.
From Barbara Harwood’s The Healing House, I learned that Churchill delivered his comment about architherapy twice, once when addressing the English Architectural Association in 1924, and again to advocate the rebuilding of Parliament in 1943. I view the statesman’s words as cautionary: beware of how we shape our buildings, lest they shape us in unintended ways. Politically speaking, we have a society that is increasingly stratified, ostentatious estates and gated tract-mansions stand in stark contrast to tract-shacks and mobile homes, and will possibly invite pitchforks. The loneliness of the one sharply contrasts the overcrowded conditions of the other. “Communities” are rigidly homogeneous, and the result is utter misunderstanding between them. Houses designed for an income-based stratum ignore the individual personalities of people within that group at society’s peril. I like to drive through older modest neighborhoods, where some of the designs are pretty ordinary, but some present interesting and particular choices, and each house has an earnest personality. It’s heartening to see neighborhoods like these across the country rejuvenating and translating the personality and aspirations of the owner into architecture, so the architecture can support and nourish them in return.
Photo-bill Kelly home?
To successfully achieve form, architecture as inhabited art must reflect the specific kilter of the minds of those who live there. It only makes sense that a home should instill peace, stability, and just the right amount of stimulation. Greg and I feel soothed and well in our house; at the same time, the glass and light and curve and shadow energize us. Musician and Dyson client Bill Kelly says he feels more creative in his home–he’s easily over-stimulated if there’s too much going on in a room, if there’s too much clutter. Kelly’s son Kevin, who is high-functioning autistic, thrives in his home, he says. In an over-stimulating environment, Kevin can become agitated or act out, Kelly said, but “when he’s at this house, he is noticeably more calm than when he’s at his mom’s house.” Kevin came in the room while we were talking and sat down as calmly as his father testified. He sat back in his chair and listened for a while before he went to do something else.
Your home shouldn’t confine you, but free you to be as authentically yourself as possible. Extoling the psychological benefits of organic architecture, David Pearson writes in New Organic Architecture: “Emphasizing beauty and harmony, [organic architecture’s] free-flowing curves and expressive forms are sympathetic to the human body, mind, and spirit. In a well-designed ‘organic’ building, we feel better and freer.”
I notice that we use rectilinear expressions such as “boxed in” and “cornered” to express a fearful sort of constraint. Architecturally, too many boxed-in corners limit our freedom. Writing in L’Architettura, Karl Ashley Smith suggests of Arthur Dyson’s work: “[Dyson’s architecture] has captured a constituent element of the American spirit: the contradictory desire of being rooted, settled into the land, and yet to be free to roam the vastness of the frontiers, to be ever exploring, growing, and changing.”
I think it has to do with balance. In every part of life, we hope to achieve balance: in our diets, our work-play dynamic, the yin and yang of our relationships, give and take. Greg will feel overly busy at work with concerts and touring gigs and looming AP tests his students hope to pass. By the time I hear the gate open, he has plugged in his Chevy Volt electric car, slung his brief case on the counter just inside the door, and I see him physically adjust his posture, sigh deeply, and smile. “Few of us are entirely well balanced,” writes Alain de Botton and John Armstrong in Art as Therapy. So many different factors in our attitudes and daily routines send our emotions inclining, “grievously in one direction or another.” The philosopher and art historian diagnose a series of extremes you may recognize: “We may, for example, have a tendency to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious, or too light-hearted.” They contend, “art [and, I would say, particularly architecture] can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions, and thereby restore a measure of equilibrium to our listing inner selves.”
Every person’s psychology has different spatial requirements, and working closely with an artist-architect can result in the right configuration for your own mind. As Botton points out, “we are not all missing the same things.” Pairing a photo of a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe sleek, wood-paneled room with a white rug and glass walls protected by oak trees (“a home to rebalance the nervous soul”) with a rococo Mexican cathedral (“art to rebalance a Norwegian civil servant”), he concludes, “the art that has the capacity to rebalance us, and therefore arouse our enthusiasm, will differ markedly.” He writes that the last thing a person in a boring job needs is the symmetrical and ordered Van der Rohe. Dyson told me that Van der Rohe’s own house was much busier and ornate than most of his designs. For the cubical worker, Botton and Armstrong prescribe instead, “Flamenco music, the paintings of Frieda Kahlo and the architecture of [Taxco] Mexico’s Catedral de Santa Prisca—varieties of art that might help restore life to our slumbering souls.”
In the River House, we love the wall of windows, but you may feel exposed; one house sitter shifted her eyes nervously and called it a “fishbowl.” You may prefer snug little rooms (you would be drawn then to our den). You might feel enlivened with all your stuff on display, while clutter makes me uncomfortable. For me, there’s the problem of the square and of confinement: when I must work in a close rectilinear space, I subconsciously cock my chair at an angle. My office at the college, for instance, has a fixed window facing the blank side of the Forestry building (“lack of escape options”) and on the opposite side a narrow glass panel (that some professors cover up!) and a solid door, which I (with apologies to my dear colleagues) never close and face when I’m not glued to the computer. “Do you want me to close the door, Mrs. Lapp?” students ask as they leave. It’s all I can do not to fling myself at the door to keep it from shutting. I lived for a short time in a travel trailer by the river, tight as a pocket. Fortunately, common picnic tables, laundry, sauna, and the river made it livable; I slipped myself inside my pocket-house only to sleep. Similarly, I only slept in my huge basement room in a house in San Francisco, a vast rectangle with windows well above my head–my view was my housemates’ ankles and the neighbors’ cats.
Art Dyson believes successful architecture elicits a soulful response. In the Creek House, the sun enters in panels of light on the floor through windows of all different shapes with precious few right angles. Light in the River House likewise refracts just as music from the piano resonates along the curved ceiling and wall. As musicians and brain scientists claim about the “Mozart Effect,” in which spatial-temporal reasoning is heightened by listening to complex classical music, this complex and flowing architecture stimulates my brain. “Humans are fascinating and complicated beings,” Art said, “and it is my solemn belief that architecture can substantially and meaningfully improve their condition and uplift their spirits.”
Color, texture, and sound impact us in the same way light and shadow do, so, if our choices reflect our needs and intention rather than fashion or custom, we’ll be more satisfied. “For most people, color has an enormous importance in the experience of architecture,” says Dyson. “Personal surroundings reflect emotional patterns and tendencies through the presence of hue, tone, and shade across the visible spectrum of light.” He spends an entire page in his planning questionnaire discerning a client’s response to color and another to sound: “Sound is a natural corollary to color,” he writes. For example, he says, fast food restaurants’ interior orange urges customers to eat quickly, get up and go (for quick turn-around). When Dennis died, I painted my bedroom walls orange to nudge myself out of bed. A friend painted her dining room a stunning and stylish “merlot,” but it tended to make me sleepier than the dinner wine warranted.
I asked Eric Wright, architect and grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright about the effect architecture has on people’s psyches, and his answer mostly dealt with color and texture. Wright said he’d discussed color with Art (Dyson’s research at the San Francisco Institute of Architecture was on the psychological effects of color). “I myself tend more towards earth tones. I like black and white, but in a room I think it’s deadly. If a client wants it light, I’ll go with more of an off-white.” He mixes three colors with the white—usually red, yellow, and blue: “Tint it with the three basic colors. That way it picks up what’s in a room–if you have red flowers, it picks that up.” In the Creek House, I chose a blue-infused white as a cool balance to so much wood. I chose a warmer white to balance the steel and greys in the River House. Wright said even the finishes on the wood affect the tenor of a room. He likes to leave the wood natural. When it was affordable, he liked to use copper and let it age naturally, or sometimes he’d even hasten the patina. With the wrong or right proportions of space and light and color Eric Wright said, “you could have a room that could drive you mad. Or,” indicating the view in his studio he shares with his artist wife Mary, of trees and the Pacific, “you could have another room that would relax and sooth; this [the room we were in] has repose.” He prefers opening up the room as much as possible and delivering light to both the middle and the dark edges of a room. In a living room, he said, “you want some areas that are slightly cave-like, and yet you can move out of that into a larger social space.”
Dyson recently designed a residential crisis center in Fresno implementing all these principles. “It had to be fresh, clean, and organized, as well as safe,” he said. The colors are muted greys and browns, soft and warm. The textures are varied, yet predictable—long, horizontal blocks, materials that look like natural wood, and quartz counters. Even if the residents’ lives are in a state of flux, “at least the materials will be honest and natural.” To make it more natural and less institutional, glass windows open up to planted areas outside, even at the ends of the hallways, and the hallways are lined with the residents’ artwork. The natural light and greenery is more humanizing and hopeful, he said, pointing to the grape ivy scaling the fence outside his conference room window. “See how it waves?”
Can architecture imprint on a child? Eric Wright especially espoused stimulating organic space for students in schools, dismissing proposals he heard that a storefront would suffice. “You can’t tell me,” he said, “that the environment that surrounds those children doesn’t have an impact. Especially if you’re doing it in an organic way—you’re bringing nature inside and it also moves outside, so the child is engrossed and develops in the natural environment.” Art Dyson has designed several schools, including University High School, where Greg teaches music. Greg’s choir room is painted yellow and emanates energy; the room where he teaches music theory is a calmer maroon. At UHS and other schools and libraries, Dyson includes cozy spaces that attract children’s curiosity. At the Orange Cove Children’s Center, child-high windows allow children to look out and see the green and natural world outside. A skylight in the center shines on a rug and hits each month in turn, so each child’s birthday month is eventually illuminated. Perhaps the most dramatic example of architecture impacting children I have heard is Dyson’s design for Webster Elementary School in Fresno. In an interview Elva Coronado described its impact as “a beacon of hope”:
It was designed so uniquely. There’d never been a school like this in Fresno. The design itself was something that you never would see in a school. The children were proud of it, you know, [as a result of the design] we didn’t have the crime there. We became very good friends with the people who lived on the perimeter of the school and they would watch the school for us on the weekends. I made personal contacts with them. [Dyson] would tell the parents, “This is going to be a school for your children, your families.” He wanted it to be the attraction there in the neighborhood. There was a lot of pride in the community from that school.
The AP scores rose 102 points the first year and 80 points the year after that, and Coronado attributed the continued improvement to the pride the teachers and the students took in the school. In a crime-stunted area of town, the school was uniquely crime-free. Coronado wanted to be available to the students, so Dyson designed the principal’s office with windows facing the playground/entrance and the library was close by per Coronado’s suggestion to make the library the hub of the school.
Photo-kids at ch
In a conversation in the Creek House, Al Struckus, a client of Bruce Goff’s, proposed that children might grow up more creative in a less restrictive space such as our houses (Goff’s Struckus and Dyson’s Lencioni Residences). I said children are inherently creative, that society conspires to choke them into conformity. We decided that at least the freer organic space doesn’t do anything to stifle their creativity, that the ready accessibility of nature is healthy and stimulating. While I didn’t ask about Struckus’ children (I should have; if you know, tell me!), my children are both creative in different ways. Marc Dyson, who grew up around his father’s houses, said co-existing with these unconventional shapes gave him permission to see forms in a vast variety of ways. “More important,” said Marc, “is the philosophy behind it—the way [the artist-architect/his father] solves problems—no matter what it is, he finds a creative solution.” Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland, in a 2010 announcement for a CELE Exchange competition entitled “Space to Develop: How Architecture Can Play a Vital Role in Young Children’s Lives” lists six premises for healthy child space:
- Offers the potential for creative play.
- Encourages the children to be more naturally active.
- Offers a flexible natural environment for exploring and learning and for enjoyment by children
of all ages.
- Provides an environment where children can learn to assess risk and make informed choices.
- Encourages wildlife habitation.
- Has social spaces for better interaction
Architecture can influence all of these. If the space is creative and has risked deviating from the cookie cutter, as Marc Dyson said, children must feel freer to follow the expressive example in which they live. If the house is situated with windows attentive to wildlife and the natural environment, even in cities where the wildlife are squirrels and pigeons, children can interact with the untamed natural world. And the third is most obvious: while too many children are sequestered in their own little box of a room with a television or video games, children who interact with each other and with adults in a common space have more opportunity to grow socially.
Architecture impacts behavior the way attire impacts behavior. I assume I am typical in that I dress differently for my different roles (in that way, fashion is more flexible than habitat): today, as I write, read and garden on a 90-degree day, I wear a t-shirt and shorts—my sandals wait by the door. I wear slacks, and a buttoned blouse to teach; and, when I go to an art museum opening, I might wear a dress and heels. I stand differently. I hold my glass differently. I have a different awareness of my surroundings depending on my costume. Sometimes I purposely dress for class in jeans as a license to be temporarily informal. When I take students on a field trip, I have them dress nicely (“what you’d wear to an afternoon wedding”), and they are on their best behavior as a result. Alain de Botton, in Architecture of Happiness, writes, “Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places–and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”
De Botton contends buildings talk to us. Of course they do. Houses speak in the imperative, the declarative, and the interrogatory voices. The River House imperatively urges me to look up, look out at the hills, sit down, relax, appreciate. She declares: you are free, you are balanced, you are safe, you are welcome, you are part of the larger world. She asks, “What do you want to do today?” “What do you think?” Mark Hammons, in “To Architecture” (1994) writes that architecture offers direction:
Take a dictionary and look up architecture: ‘the result or product of architectural work, or building.’ Follow the trail to build. That word derives from the ancient English dwelling. See dwell. The idea behind that verbalization is a sense of guiding. In due pursuit of guide we get to lead, and from there we learn we are being taken somewhere by previous experience. Architecture can be understood as a means of providing directions, some subtle and others overt, for our behavior.
Tom and Sue Jacksha tell a story of a time their Dyson home provided overt direction: Sue’s parents were visiting, and they turned all the lights off and turned on “this funky contemporary jazz.” Tom said the full moon cast a pattern on the floor, and they could see out to the lights of the city. “My dad was lying on the floor,” Sue said, indicating how unusual that would be. “We all sort of started dancing to the music. My mom has never been drunk or high, but she started dancing as if she were. She asked, ‘Is this what it’s like [to be high or drunk], because that’s how I feel.’ It was a magical feeling.”
I was able to visit the Jacksha Residence with new owner and a similar response. “When people come to the house they kind of melt,” said Susan Early, who herself relaxed on a stuffed armchair with her knees tucked under her, so calm and peaceful in this space. “When people see this house for the first time, they are surprised. It’s so unprepossessing from the road, then they step in and it’s so different. Then they’re surprised because it’s not just another variation on the same thing, but it’s unique and really works.” Referring to the boulder in the entry, she says people are impressed it is warmer or softer than one would expect a rock to be. “Approachable.”
Giuliano Chelazzi, the Italian architect and architectural scholar adds: “People are happy in Dyson houses. I met Susan Early [second owner of the Jaksha Residence], and, while the house was not built for her, she is very happy there. We talked about second owners who specifically choose a certain house finding a good fit. As De Botton writes, “It seems reasonable to suppose that people will possess some of the qualities of the buildings they are drawn to.” Of the Jacksha Residence, Chelazzi said (this is translated from Italian by Dani Lencioni), “The effort was realized, I think. For a house made like this, the house and the architect are raised together…Also the psychological, sociological and economical dimensions—everything—are very important. But it’s very important that the client makes an effort to understand that which is still incomprehensible. Non si arrivano un succeso. If not, they do not arrive at success.” The success is manifest in the compatibility between architecture and occupant.
“Sensitivity to architecture also has its more problematic aspects,” De Botton adds. “If one room can alter how we feel, what will happen to us in most of the places we are forced to look at and inhabit?” Of course, this book is an argument against being forced into the wrong architecture. De Botton continues, “It is to prevent the possibility of permanent anguish that we can be led to shut our eyes to most of what is around us.” I deeply desire everyone to experience his or her own best world with wide open eyes.
If people are insensitive to the environment, architecture won’t work its subtle power. I watched a woman in the Whitney Museum in New York, a building full of artwork, some beautiful, some provocative, designed by Renzo Piano with balconies overlooking the waterfront and the Highline, and she strolled the entire open hall talking on her cellphone, smiling and staring at the floor. Similarly, Dyson and his associates, Bob Siegrist and Doug Janzen designed a glorious Catholic church in my town of Sanger, California, which proves there is a limit to the effect elegant architecture has on inattentive occupants. I have been in this church three times. The first time, a woman busy setting the altar didn’t say anything when I slipped in. The 12,000 square foot space looked soaringly beautiful to me, so I wanted to come back on a Sunday. Pure white inside and out, the twelve columns, one for each apostle, line up along a reflecting pool. They don different colored banners depending on the liturgical season. Mother Mary hovers in insistent welcome. As the jury commented when they bestowed the American Institute of Architects, San Joaquin Chapter award in 2001: “The columns and cantilevered pipes extending over the entry evoke a sense of celebration as you approach the sanctuary. Beams of light stream through the glass entry across the pews towards the altar.” It struck me as a place that would please God. Empty and quiet, it felt so holy.
Although we’re not Catholic, Dani and I, one Sunday after her dad had died, drove to town to try the beautiful new St. Mary’s. Dani was probably 12. I followed the parishioners. My daughter followed me. I bowed on my way into the pew and knelt to pray quietly before sitting, as I had been raised to do in the Episcopal church. The pews, which seat 1,000 congregants were all crowded. We followed the service, sang the hymns, gave our offertory, and (because I wanted to), we went up for communion. In the church we had attended through the kids’ Sunday School years, the children go up the aisle with the parents, but, until they’ve been confirmed at age 13 or 14, the pastor simply blesses them with kind hands on their heads and sweet affirming words. So Dani kneeled trustingly beside me at the railing. I looked up at the pure white-on-white altar before bowing my head and cupped one hand in the other to receive the host. Dani held her hands clasped by her knees, as she’d been taught. The communicant reached down for Dani’s hand and thrust a wafer in her palm. Not knowing what to do with it, she closed her fist and held it. We were both more confused than inspired at this point, so I stood to leave and she followed, still clutching the wafer. We were half-way up the side aisle, the light flowing in in holy streaming beams, when the priest in his bulky flowing white vestments, swooped heavily up the aisle behind us, grabbed my daughter by the shoulder, and roughly turned her around. “What are you going to do with that?” he asked loudly in front of the whole congregation. “Who is it for?” I muttered that she wasn’t confirmed; she didn’t know what to do with it. Dani opened her hand and the priest snatched the host and wheeled around victorious to his flock. She looked at me with Cosette eyes. I took her hand and led her to the car.
Two years later, Dani and I had the inclination to give St. Mary’s another shot. We wouldn’t go up to communion; we’d sit in the back and observe. At the start of the service the pews were only half-full. The same priest began mass, but the parishioners never stop talking. They didn’t whisper; they talked conversationally in English or Spanish or a combination, half-heartedly standing, sitting and kneeling at the appropriate times, but clearly with no attention to the service. Family groups continued to arrive, greeting and jostling their ways into an open spot. We could hardly hear the readings. The priest came into the center to read the Gospel. We genuflected with our neighbors who simmered down a little for the Word–or at least the priest’s proximity. When he returned to the front of the congregation, he lit into them (us?), scolding them for ditching confession. When he headed up towards the altar, I whispered to Dani, “We don’t have to stay.” No one took the slightest notice when we gathered our coats and scarves and walked out. Even the most graceful architecture can’t teach manners and grace.
Anticipating need for separate space can minimize distress. The Creek House, intimate as it is, has a large and enclosed suite with a balcony for parents to retreat from teenagers’ activities downstairs (and yet we could have kept an eye on them if they had been troublemakers). The office space is a private refuge. In the River House, sliding doors have the ability to close off the den from the otherwise open space. Boback Emad told me about of one of Dyson’s homes, Vuelos de Cobre, designed with two wings—his and hers—with a bridge connecting. Dyson designed Lela and Charles Hilton a lovely home with soft curves, which makes the most of the Gulf view, but remains private to the street. A large circular window at the entry allows light into the hallway, but the way the wall undulates away from the door, deprives line of sight into the house. The Hilton Residence is large enough for many occupants, but they built a separate house for their adult son with special needs.
Art is proud of the Hilton House, but was most enthusiastic about planning a healing house adjacent to the parents’ for Chip. While the doctor saw Chip as a “case,” Art praised the schizophrenic-bipolar man’s intelligence and humor. Dyson’s idea was that if he could dramatically improve a person’s mental health with a home design, it would be “an amazing opportunity to offer something other folks would learn from.” Chip had been living in a “cave,” Art said, suspecting that the setting didn’t do his condition any good. The house was on an incline, so the garage and Chip’s room walk out from the dark underground level. Art thought he could do something with light and view and privacy for Chip as well, but first he needed the man’s trust. Art knew that Chip was an avid golfer, so Art asked Chip for golf lessons and paid him cash for lessons at the driving range. Art joked that the lessons didn’t do much good (Art doesn’t spend a lot of time out on the green), but with Chip in the position of expert, he’d shifted the power dynamic. At one point, Art said, “You know, I’d like to continue with golf lessons, but they’re getting a little expensive. How about, I trade you golf lessons for drawing lessons.” Chip had been drawing airplanes, lots and lots of airplanes, and Art thought he could learn something by observing Chip draw. Art said it was interesting, how, as an artist, if he were to draw a plane, he’d draw the line of the body and wing as a composition, but Chip visualized the construction of the plane and drew it plate by plate, as it would be welded together. Chip had done drawings, but he hadn’t painted, and Art said some of the pieces were very good, although limited in color. Chip would choose one color exclusively, then switch to another. Another clue. Art could make Chip laugh. When Chip didn’t want to talk about size of rooms or closets and wasn’t responding to questions like “shower or tub?” Art said, “Chip, you’re going to have this cool house, and you’ll have to fight the girls away. What if three of them want in the shower? What are you going to do—make them take turns?” In fact, Lela said Art was the first to get a rise of humor out of Chip.
Art said he designed Chip’s house to be “embrasive inside and abrasive outside.” Since Chip was concerned with living in a remote area, Art hoped he’d feel secure inside the thick stucco walls that appear fortress-like and private. While the parents’ house has more buoyant lighting, Chip’s house feels like a protective cape. As you look out the windows that face the Gulf of Mexico, your back and shoulders feel securely covered. The water is calm and serene. The colors are calm also, and each room is monochromatic. Sadly, Chip died soon after I visited and never lived in the house. His parents host the “Chip Hilton Celebration of Life Charity Golf Classic” in Chip’s memory benefitting charities such as The First Tee of Northwest Florida whose mission is “to positively impact the lives of young people by promoting character development and life-enhancing values through the First Tee’s ‘Life Skills Learning Experience’ and the game of golf.” Hopefully, the house can go on to positively impact the lives of new occupants and promote life-enhancing values.
Architecture cannot magically dissolve all anxiety. “We should be kind enough not to blame buildings for our own failure to honour the advice they can only ever subtly proffer,” says De Botton. Similarly, while many people experience a de-stressing with yoga, one yoga instructor I know struggles with OCD. She freely admits yoga doesn’t solve her obsessive behavior, but it does help her manage it. Botton and Armstrong call art a tool: “Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates for certain inborn…psychological frailties.” I can work at the River House for longer stretches than I can anywhere else, but after three hours at my computer, I must move to release the nervous demon. Unwound and reacquainted with the beauty around me, I return to work and am soothed all over again. Dyson likes to paraphrase John Wright talking about his father’s mission: “Frank Lloyd Wright designed a romance around his clients,” Dyson paraphrases. “He wanted to make their sunsets brighter, make them walk with more rhythm in their step. Maybe they’d see shadows with a paler shade of lavender.”
Chapter 9. House as Reflection of Our Selves
The space you choose to inhabit is an expression of your style, values, aspirations, and self-image. Architectural apathy, choosing not to consciously choose the fundamental design of your house, as with every choice, is also a decision. What you wear, what you eat, what you drive, where you vacation all express your style and your priorities. You have to live somewhere; you have to eat. Careless choices in food can have adverse health consequences; architectural fast food can likewise make you sick. To abdicate choice of dress for a uniform, say, or to submit to Thomas More’s or Chairman Mao’s fashion direction is to suppress your self and your soul. Since so many people choose a uniform design, our houses stand out like a Western-dressed woman in Riyadh—while the River House is more subtle than the sculptural Creek House, people still ask if it’s an event center.
Impression is important—curb appeal—and we pick up cues about people’s values and their personalities from the house they choose to live in. When people choose a uniform house, they unintentionally project a lack of personality; they have given up the opportunity to express themselves. Perhaps it’s a community of sameness that makes us fear being the nail that stands up lest a hammer comes to pound us down, but that’s counter-indicative of the American independent spirit. “Sometimes a man marches to a different beat,” says Whitman; but then, my mother says, that person may just be a weirdo.
Of course, there’s the perception, often real, of increased cost with a unique design. Pre-fab is cheaper, just as clothes and appliances are cheaper in bulk-style department stores. Like a chair purchased at a big box store, suburban tract homes have no innate personality. The occupants half-heartedly adorn them with sad little shrubs and plastic decorations. They cover the windows. The garages are full of stuff, so the cars (which are by contrast sleek and clean) sit in the driveway to distinguish one house from the other. Will Green, owner of the Barrett-Tuxford Residence in Wisconsin said, “We do have another home in California, and it is the aesthetic and spiritual equivalent of a disposable razor. I don’t mind disposable razors, but I have to not think about it too much.”
When we choose carefully, we waste less: how many clothes in your closet go unworn? I recently helped a friend move and, after hauling off two truckloads to Goodwill, she asked, “How did I accumulate all this worthless stuff?” Because a home is not an impulse buy, but an infrequent and major investment for most people, the choice of habitat is critical, second only to choice of life partner. In this day and age, it’s almost easier to divorce than to buy or sell a home.
I think people are afraid to authentically express themselves with architecture because it is such a major expense, and realtors warn about resale value to a generic buyer, who is imagined lacking any personality or style. It’s as if they all got together and said, “if we make them all the same, they can just exchange the old shelter for a new shelter that fits better, as if homebuyers were hermit crabs. Or, “now they have more money so they can have the same house, only larger.” It would be like saying, “now you can afford more food, so just eat more of it,” which unfortunately also happens.
The River House especially, with its high windows, high ceilings, and glass above the interior walls, reflects our generally open, guileless, welcoming personalities. We want to live outside or close to it, so the indoors and outdoors feather into one another, and the illusion keeps us from feeling hemmed in. Built-in furniture and storage means there’s minimal clutter; besides books, the coffee pot and the fruit bowl, everything can be put away. The windows are canvases framing color and movement. Guests (and the styles they bring with them) contribute to the color and ornamentation of the moment. Our style is sleek and spare, a blank canvas for nature and new ideas. Your style will reflect your personality. While our choices will be different, when they are sincere, our lives are mostly in balance.
A house reflects the occupants’ aspirations, and we have aspired to bring culture to country living (think Middlemarch or Far from the Madding Crowd) and to draw family and friends to our remote location. To that end, we offer hospitality, the view, and a relaxing, pleasing, even inspirational style. I do think it’s a community service to build beautiful architecture, but we don’t aspire to vapid grandeur. Reflecting the Sierra foothills as the River House does and hugging the hillside and flowing like the river beside it, the home harmonizes with the landscape. Harmony—we aspire to harmony.
Who would dislike this architecture? Mark Hammons writes: “Sometimes rejection is dressed courteously in remarks about artistic eccentricity, implying an untrustworthy frivolity or strangeness of character.” Direct scoffing, he writes, results from “virgin ignorance.” My first house has often been referred to as a sculpture, usually in a positive way, but even people close to me have remarked, “I don’t think it’s necessary to live in a sculpture.”
Some think it’s too much trouble to design and build when a “perfectly fine” home is move-in ready, but I argue that designing a home is like giving birth. Pregnancy is inconvenient and dangerous; there’s always the possibility of a defect or worse. People can just adopt and know that the baby is healthy. Many families are very happy and successful with adoption, and I admire adoption on many levels. But most people who can choose to pass on their own DNA to children who reflect not only their environment and values, but also their genes.
Expression of style is critical for identity, and architecture is arguably the most omnipresent and permanent opportunity to express yourself. I remember when my children were teenagers developing their personal style. It amused me how opposite two close siblings could be. I won’t go into hairstyles and fashion choices of my own kids. Think of yours instead, or of yourself as you were developing your image. Some people are authentically drawn to muted colors (in fashion or home), but some choose beige and understated design so as not to stand out or to avoid expression. Sanghita, who is from southern India was dressing me for a Bollywood party from her three (count ‘em) color-crowded closets of traditional dresses. We chose a bright pink sari with green accents and lots of silver and bangles and bindi. She said one adjustment of living in this country has been having to suppress her color preferences when she’s in “mixed company.” Her home is very nice, but outside the inside of her closets, a muted taupe. I’d love to see Sanghita express her love of color; it seems integral to her personality and style.
In contrast, of course, is an in-your-face garish style in fashion or architecture. As with the complicated piercings or revealing styles of my students or people on the street, I never know if I’m supposed to look away or if they are daring me to stare. Some architecture is likewise unpleasantly and randomly weird.
When people choose architecture simply to impress, disjointed from their personality or culture, or even era, everything seems out of balance. Reacting to a style of false fronts and displays of grandeur, Frank Lloyd Wright developed the Usonian plan to authentically represent the people inside. Sometimes the choice is to downplay the public view—I choose an understated car since I work at a rural college and don’t want to call attention to it. My parents designed a lovely home in Pasadena with an intentionally quiet façade; all its style is interior and directed onto a center courtyard.
Personality and style matter, the site and the surroundings matter, but so does the time period. The more personal a design, the less bound it is to the time it was designed. I admire buildings built in every decade, every century, and it’s worth preserving the best examples of all architecture. I often daydreamed in church when I was young about converting the old stone and stained glass space in which I worshipped into a house. Greg has friends in Belgium who converted a stone stable from the 1700s into a modern home. But if I’m building from scratch today in America, I’m building a contemporary American home, not a Tudor. I love to read and teach Shakespeare, but I don’t write in the same English as the Bard (forsooth), nor do I dress in Elizabethan fashion. In the 90s, the Creek House won Sunset’s award for a house ten years old; in its singularity, the design is timeless. “Architecture has joined the world of fashion, but fashion is passing and architecture is timeless,” says Israeli architect Moshe Safdie.
So, architecture produces our environment, our human habitat, and many people (not just the uber-wealthy) can choose to create a space that is stimulating or soothing. “One of the great, but often unmentioned, causes of both happiness and misery,” writes philosopher 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…it is architecture’s task to stand as an eloquent reminder of our full potential.” Writer Mark Hammons says architecture has the potential to wake us from our persistent torpor. “People need to wake up,” he insists. “And the single most profoundly powerful force that governs your waking, sleeping, and every moment in between is architecture. The choices that you make versus the choices that you allow other people to make–or which you must endure—are entirely up to you.” He sets his hands on the table in his Los Angeles garden apartment and leans forward. “You can resign yourself to a strip mall existence if you want.” He points to the shops at the end of his street. “You can pretend to be Lord or Lady Whatever if you want. But if instead you wish to encounter the substance of life, if you wish to engage your spiritual evolution as a human being in the here and now, this [the design of your surroundings] is something you need to consider.”
When considering a design that’s authentically their own, people sometimes counter: for the same money they could have twice the square feet. I ask what they would do with all those square feet? Too much space in a house is like too many words in a story or a song that has too many verses. Does that sprawling mansion house a family with 12 children and servants? In The Not So Big House, Sarah Susanka coins the “‘starter castle’ complex—the notion that houses should be designed to impress rather than nurture.” A doctor friend confides that his house literally gives him a stomach ache; he bought it because “it seemed like the kind of house a doctor should live in,” and as soon as the kids are grown he and his wife plan to find someplace that is “more them.”
For us, our values in every case have featured conservation of resources, and we’ve implemented every reasonable green innovation possible. “Innovation” implies new technology, but some of the innovations are prehistoric. The Creek House is based on the same passive solar principles employed by the Anazazi Indians. With relatives in southern Colorado, I’ve visited Mesa Verde more than once—in a photo from 1990, Dennis stands with 3-year-old Nico in front of the cliff dwellings. Dani, the papoose, is strapped to his back. The massive overhangs of the Cliff Palace protect the dug-out rooms from the summer sun when it’s high and allow the lower winter sun to enter. In the winter the south-facing windows of the Creek House let in the sun for light and warmth, and in the summer, a canvas drapes over beams that extend over the deck to shade the living area. Art wanted us to grow wisteria on both the front and back sides of the house. The purple flowers adorn the front, but he never agreed to come clean up the leaves or prune the wisteria, so in the back we went with canvas. In the 1980s, we read Mother Earth News, Utne Reader, and Living on the Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel and intended to live mainly off the grid. It’s a tight little cocoon; the electric bills at that house are still in two digits, as in $68/month. We pay more for satellite Internet.
Photo- mesa verde
Conserving fiscal resources reflects both our values and necessity. Dennis was self-employed and I was teaching high school English when we built the Creek House in the late 80s. There are economies I’ve had to compensate for over the years—a new roof, some upgrades in the decks, appliances and fixtures, but that would happen with any aging house. As we built the River House, I knew enough to reduce our “budget” by 50 percent when I approached contractors, subcontractors, even my dear architect. Just as $80K became $120K, our professed budget for the River House increased 50 percent. In both cases, the cost was worth it. I don’t feel uncomfortable revealing this to the architecture world since my research confirms that even (or especially) the architects with the deepest aesthetic integrity have a vague concept of the actual cost of building, and the ones who focus on cost don’t always challenge their clients to expand their willingness to engage their home’s potential.
Economy of scale is as important as economy of resources. I visited friends with four children in Charlottesville, Virginia, who lived in a two-story, three-bedroom 2,000 square foot house. The six of them used their space well, and the only change they were contemplating was an expanded kitchen table area with a window that would welcome more light into the whole kitchen area. What impressed me was that their house, like all the houses in the neighborhood, occupied about one-fifth of the plot or less. The houses are all situated in the middle of lots with lawns and trees. Gardens and garages are in back, out of sight. In suburban California, I see a two-car garage, packed to the gills with stuff, so the cars rest in the short plug of a driveway or out on the street. Looking town the street, you see a whole row of houses sticking out their automotive tongues. The front door is recessed with some token color spot flowers or a cute flag that might change with the season. The houses fill the lot width-wise, the minimum clearance from the neighbors allowed by code, so the side windows are usually covered for privacy. The back yard might have a little oasis of a pool and a patio, and a high fence on three sides. As close as these suburban dwellers are to their neighbors, few know the folks next door or even those on their cozy street.
While I do admit I am a space junkie and prefer natural to human-built vistas, I don’t want to separate us from our community. We have this space, and we want to share it. It’s a rare weekend when we aren’t hosting a benefit or a dinner or lunch. A good friend born in Paris grew up with a house in the city and a country house. We are happy to be their country house, and their guest bedroom is our pied-à-terre when we are out late in town.
Built space is not simply shelter. Most people live indoors and take for granted the form of those doors and walls and windows. They fill a house with things they find beautiful, hang beautiful art on the walls, but sometimes overlook the way we move in a space and the way space moves us. Sometimes decoration compensates effectively for pedestrian or stifling architecture, but it’s a slide show compared to a movie or a movie compared to a living, breathing experience.
I had begun writing my architectural apologia when we lived in the Creek House. For Journal of the Taliesin Fellows, edited by Michael Hawker, I wrote “Surrounded by Sculpture: The Joy and Value of Organic Architecture” (October 2011):
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. 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 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 wisteria, the chevron 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 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 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.