Home & Design October 22, 2010

Influential Dwellings

In October the Sun Valley Center for the Arts sent out invitations for an exclusive event to the roughly ninety architects practicing in the Wood River Valley. The invitees were asked to participate in the development of an exhibition of the influences that have informed their work. Interested architects would need to identify “one home or dwelling that embodies philosophies, design elements or revolutionary ideas that have had a lasting impact” on their practice. Personal design work would not be considered.

Further instructions for would-be participants called for the submission of a short, written description of the structure’s location, architect, year of construction, relevant history, and architectural style, and why it deserved attention. The written portion was to be accompanied by a “visual of the residence.” The final selected entries (fourteen, as it turned out) would be on display in the Center’s gallery from mid-December through February. The show would also include related lectures and panel discussions.

It was anticipated that the exercise would encourage local architects to take some (perhaps welcome) time for reflection and review and, optimally, engage members of the community in a discussion of this often-misunderstood form of artistic expression. This was certainly the hope of Jennifer Gately, the Center’s Director of Visual Arts, when she initiated the project. And, even though many architects declined the opportunity, the show exceeded expectations.

Unlike many Center offerings, “Informing Architecture”—aside from its general subject matter—did not feel thematically arranged. The informing architects, their works, and their influencing aspects were, with a few overlaps, a mixed lot. The inspiring architects came from Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, and various areas of the United States, including Disneyland. The informing structures ranged in size from a tree house to a 600-room tribal dwelling, and in age from the 10th century to the 1990s. And the influencing factors covered the whole gamut of architectural references, including nostalgia, spiritualism, fantasy, and music. The display of such an interesting variety of tastes and sensibilities made, on that basis alone, for a compelling show. But more intriguing perhaps, even if less obvious by example, was the common appreciation for connectedness.

The connectedness in these cases was not just about the flow of rooms or the ordering of space but, more elementally, about the mixture of energies, natural boundaries, and human desires. The energy of the site in David Wright’s Sea Ranch, for instance, was adapted and used to create comfortable living situations. “The home,” as local architect Tobin Dougherty exalted, “open to the coastal wind, the sun and environment…screamed warmth and comfort.” Wright, champion in the 1970s of the Passive Solar Movement, continues today to use designs that encourage collaboration between humans and nature.

A different sort of collaboration and connectedness was explored in the Villa Hvitträsk outside Helsinki, Finland. Here three young friends, Eliel Saarinen, Herman Gesellius, and Armas Lindgren, barely out of architecture school but already successful as co-designers of the Finnish pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition, literally threw their lots together and designed a single structure to house all of their studio/offices and their new families. This arrangement required confidence, imagination and, as it happened, a finer sense of boundaries than was humanly possible. The resulting building, however, according to Linda Bergerson, continues to “delight and surprise.” All the rooms, hallways, landings, and stairways move organically up and down in a warren of different levels, “each with proper space and light for its purpose,” while the whole is constructed on a comfortable, residential scale.

The architects used traditional, native materials to connect their monument-to-communality and its wooded, lakeside site. For historical reference, they incorporated links to their national heritage in the trim details, which include such fanciful motifs as dragons and other creations from the Finnish epic poem, Kalevala. The group’s fantasy of harmonious, productive cohabitation ended after just three years. Its by-product, on the other hand, still stands and inspires. The fantasy/reality connection took on another perspective in Jill Corney’s unreserved tribute to the Walt Disney Company’s formulation of the Swiss Family Tree House. “It contained an entire home constructed with rustic materials,” she remembered. Her feelings as a ten year old resonate still: “For me, it was the accumulation of all my childhood fantasies. The enormous Banyan tree…the intimate shipwreck décor, the amazing water system…I wanted to live there forever.” Who wouldn’t? The possibility of finding ultimate comfort in the branches of a huge, exotic tree would entrance any adventurous spirit. Although the future architect’s delight abruptly gave way to its counterpart, surprise—“Hey! This tree is made of concrete!”—the seed was planted.

The unabashed joy and challenge of “blending fantasy and reality” that had stirred Corney as a child were palpably present in the simple imagery (an evocative Disneyland poster) on display at the Center. An equally powerful image was Curtis Kemp’s drawing representing the essence of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Anasazi ruins, in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. The geometric pattern of circles, squares, trapezoids, and triangles, linked by shared walls, appeared seamlessly joined to the landscape. Built during the period from 850 to 1150 A.D., the structure at one time contained over six hundred rooms and 40 kivas (ceremonial spaces). They reflect in their design two of the architectural principles that guide Kemp today, Formalism and Humanism. “Formalism,” he explained, “pertains to…volumes created by planes—flat or curved, real or imagined…arranged to intersect in various combinations to define space and sculpt light,” while Humanism “involves…intrinsic human feelings—a strong connection with Earth.”

The interaction of these two energies, even on such a large scale, produced a sense of unity, human-to-human and human-to-earth, that characterized the ancient Pueblo culture and was well conveyed at the Center through Kemp’s pen and ink rendering. Almost all of the show’s participants referenced structures or architects that expound on connection on a human scale. And although the exhibit represented diverse influences, there was, of course, one visionary of connectedness who received multiple mentions. Frank Lloyd Wright continues to leave his imprint on Wood River Valley architects, with a living room built in 1912, both Herbert Jacobs houses (1937 and 1944), and his tutelage of Arkansas architect Fay Jones.

Jeff Williams noted Wright’s famous use of the horizontal line “grounding the composition and creating a connection to the human point of reference” in the Francis Little living room (now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York), and the sense that the room “wraps around you like…your favorite easy chair.” Dale Bates chose the second Jacobs House as “a home for life, supporting the full potential for living in harmony with nature. Every room connected to the garden.” It is his constant reminder “to transcend dressing up plywood boxes.” And in Reed House, in Hogeye, Arkansas, Carolyn Wicklund found an example of Wright’s organic principles turned ninety degrees and “soaring through vertical planes,” enhancing the interaction between space and daylight but maintaining a central core, a simplicity of composition, cohesive design elements, and a strong relationship to site.

Despite Wright’s unquestionable influence, the show was empowered by an intriguing variety of informing architecture. The substance and visuals of the exhibit may have honored non-local architects, but in the final consideration it was the local participants who came across as the artists. By articulating their architectural philosophies and revealing their artistic souls, they have encouraged us to open our imaginations and make our own connections.

Brought up and educated in New England, and professionalized in New York City, Bill Lowe came here in 1982 to raise a family and explore new horizons. Currently, he’s developing an optical technology based on vector logic.




This article appears in the Fall 2003 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.