The Gordon House

We were near Silverton, Oregon for a wedding last week and took the opportunity to visit the Gordon House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, at the Oregon Garden.

I was particularly curious to experience Wright’s low ceilings and dropped soffits. I’ve been reading Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House series, and she’s a big proponent of this kind of ceiling height variety.

There seemed to be two ceiling heights in the Gordon House: about 6’8″ in the entryway, halls and bedrooms, and about 11’8″ in the great room.

The theory is that ceiling height changes help to define distinct spaces and levels of intimacy within an open floor plan. This seems true to me. “They” also say lower ceilings in pass-through spaces create a feeling of compression that enhances the feeling of grandeur of arriving in the taller rooms. That one I’m less sure about.

This is on my mind because I wanted to vault the ceiling in the main room of our house, to create some grandeur. I eventually concluded that it was impractical, and started looking for other ways to solve the problem of an oppressive drywall ceiling. Going lower instead of higher seemed like a surprisingly risky move.

6’8″ is low. The Schindler House, built 40 years before the Gordon House, is also shockingly “horizontal.” Here’s a photo of my 6′ 6″ father encountering a beam there.

schindler house beamsIt’s interesting that strikingly low ceilings were used in modern architecture for several decades, and now nobody does them. Why did they go so low? And why has the standard 8′ ceiling has become a minimum now, with custom houses going higher instead of lower?

The tour guide pointed out two major patterns that organize the house.

The first is a 7′ square module: the scores in the slab, 7′ apart, align with the cinderblock pillars that support the ceiling beams. Thus, the ‘ribs’ of the building are 7′ on center. The module is old idea in architecture; Vitruvius describes using the width of a column as a module to determine other dimensions in a building, including the height of the column.

I’m not sure where the 7′ module went when it came to ceiling height – why weren’t the ceilings 7′ and 14′ instead of 6′ something and 11′ something? Apparently Wright wasn’t a slave to the module. (He does seem to have been a slave to alignment though. Notice how the built-in shelving and trim are aligned with the horizontal lines in the brickwork.)

The second pattern is a 15 degree angle. Custom furniture was part of Wright’s design package – whether you wanted it or not – but apparently Mr. Gordon thought Wright’s usual furniture looked very uncomfortable. Wright asked what was the most comfortable thing he could think of. Mr. Gordon cited his new ’57 Chevy pickup. Wright sent one of his apprentices to sit in the pickup and suss out what made it comfortable, and the apprentice determined that it was the 15 degree slant of the seat back. This angle is used not only for the built-in bench (which was indeed quite comfortable), but also on everything else, from the furniture and trim to the window fretwork.

On the one hand, these abstract systems of organizing the built environment seem uptight and disconnected, a way of grasping for control and order that has little to do with the needs of the person living in the building. On the other hand, the Gordon house feels calm and expansive, despite a lot of detail.

Given the choice between symmetry and asymmetry, Wright seems to choose the latter. The bedrooms, where the beds are centered and flanked by furniture on each side, are the most symmetrical rooms in the house. Other elements are, as Susanka would say, “one bubble off.” This kind of asymmetry (like the fireplace below) seems like one of the most non-intuitive aspects of the design. I think it looks great, and I never would have thought of it.

Our renovation is underway.

The framers have built many of the new walls and window frames, and I keep adjusting my drawings to reflect the new details as we work them out.

Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House series has been a big help in this process. Her books are like Pattern Language, but with fewer patterns and more pictures. Her light to walk towards idea is the reason I added the tall skinny window at the end of the kitchen wall, to draw you towards the hallway.

Isozaki Pavilions

Yesterday I was lucky enough  to be invited along on a field trip to see the three seasonal sleeping pavilions that Arata Isozaki built for Jerry Sohn in Pipes Canyon.

Pipes Canyon is about 40 minutes drive from our house, near Garth’s land, and the area is totally spectacular–equal to the National Park.

I was curious to see what Isozaki came up with. I would love to sleep outdoors more – especially on summer nights, when it’s hot inside and perfectly lovely outside – but it seems tricky: if you leave your bedding out, scorpions, snakes and black widows might burrow in. In other seasons, wind and chill can make sleeping outdoors less appealing, though the stars are amazing year round.

I was impressed by the designs:

The winter pavilion is a cube with glass on the south and west faces, as well as overhead. It’s oriented so the afternoon sun can heat up the slab and warm the small space. The ceiling glass lets the sleeper see the stars.

The summer pavilion is a cantilevered slab, away from snakes and open to the breeze.

The spring/fall pavilion is beautiful, though the function of its shape and orientation is less clear. Perhaps the roof and wall are meant to shelter against a prevailing wind, or the occasional rain? If nothing else, the barrel vault is sensual and welcoming and breaks open the formality of the other two.

And what about bedding? There are metal boxes near each pavilion that apparently hold sleeping bags (I wonder what they use for padding?).

It’s too bad most of us get one bedroom for all seasons (and one house) because really the shelter we need is so different from season to season, and there’s a lot to be gained by separating them.

Photos: domus.

 

Donald Judd’s Marfa kitchens

A few months ago I visited Donald Judd’s La Mansana de Chinati in Marfa, Texas.

I was most inspired by his domestic spaces, which were not really on the tour, but could be glimpsed around the periphery. Look at that shelf behind the kitchen counters – so handy and beautiful!

My photos of the house kitchen, below, are terrible, but I find myself coming back to them to study the details of the furniture and the room itself:

Another thing I liked about Judd’s studios is that there’s a daybed in almost every room. That level of human comfort seems rare among modernists. As my brother-in-law Ely said, “there can be a sense that the staging of human life is not their first purpose.”

If you have a chance to visit Judd’s Marfa house and studios, don’t miss it.

Cabin Before & After

The framers start repairs on our new house today. It seemed like a good time to reflect on the year or so that it took to turn the shed into the cabin (many intermediate steps blogged here).

Like tiny-homes-on-wheels, the cabin circumvented the permitting process by being classified as a temporary structure, because it is on skids. It’s 10′ x 20′ on the outside, but because we added framing inside to super-insulate it’s 8′ x 18′ inside (144 sq ft). Because the cabin only needs to serve as a bedroom (we have the trailer kitchen and a bathhouse), we’re not using the space nearly as intensively as a tiny house would.

The porch roof is designed to shade the south-facing glass doors in the summer and let sun in in the winter.

nbtsc in the desert

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I’ve been going to the Oregon sessions of Not Back to School Camp on and off since I was 16 – almost 20 years. It’s where my husband Nathen and I met, which means it’s also why I live in the desert. So imagine my delight when I found out there would be a session of camp just down the road from our house.

It’s been six months since that session wrapped up. It was totally lovely, and I look forward to the next one (it’s pencilled in for November 2016).

Here are the group photos my brother Rob took of the whole group, then staff, then just junior staff (the latter win for style).

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My Improv Handbook Test Quilt

Last spring I signed up to be a test quilter for The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters

I was assigned one of the scores in the book, and secret instructions arrived. The score was based on the flying geese block.

geese improv-1030108 I made many geese, and put them together in different ways. They became familiar. Composing on the scale of the block without thinking of the larger design kept me focused on finding something appealing in each block, rather than producing units for a larger design.  geese improv-1030124 I made nine small, lovely improv blocks and thought I was almost done. I just needed to frame them.

Except that looked quite boring when I laid it out. Maybe jam them together in the middle of a field? geese improv-1030138 Nope. I wrote to Sherri:

“Putting them together directly feels like crowding them and de-emphasizing the individual compositions. Setting them in a grid of sashing feels too conventional, like it would take the spirit out of them. So now what? How to bring them together into a larger whole? I feel like I need a recipe to guide me through larger scale composition choices.”

Sherri wrote back with some insightful suggestions: look for relationships between blocks, create rhythm, commit one step at a time.

Right: the improv process isn’t finished until the quilt is finished.

When I got stuck, I used my off-cuts to make tiny blocks until I found something interesting.

I started to get an inkling that the “geese” could create an offset, spiral diamond. That was pretty interesting. geese improv-1030328 I used a lot of linen, which I love, but I struggled with warp and wooble, particularly because of all the bias edges on the triangles. I used a dart technique suggested in the recipe, and I took out a lot of seams along the way. geese improv-1030316Improvising, rather than choosing a direction and powering through, takes time but is never boring. I knew where I was headed now, but I didn’t know how close to an Amish center diamond I wanted to go. I tried a LOT of variations before I got there.

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It took me quite a while to arrive at the right slightly wonky center diamond.

The main block style I ended up using is a single “goose” made of many smaller triangles, which I spiraled out from the middle. The border is oriented “with” the diamond, instead of against it, as is typical of those Amish center diamond quilts. And then there’s that square, off center and breaking away.

Patchwork quilt-top

As I said, I only used a few of my original blocks in the final quilt top, so I had lots of great orphan blocks left over. I made a second quilt right away with the extra pieces (see if you can spot the original blocks!)

See my previous post, What quilting does, about hand-quilting this top.

 I don’t tend do the exercises in books, but following this score built new skills and generated a quilt I never otherwise would have come up with, and am really happy with. That process was so valuable that I look forward to trying the other scores in the book.

The Improv Hand Book for Modern Quilters will be available at QuiltCon next weekend, and everywhere else in mid-March. Enjoy!

Edit: Here’s another account of working with the same score. Comment below if you have more!

What quilting does

This is the flying geese improv test quilt I made in response to Sherri Lynn Wood’s recipe.

Deciding what lines to quilt is always a challenge. Quilting lines change the design in ways that are hard to foresee. I wish I had before and after photos of all my quilts to study.

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In this case I started off “stitching in the ditch,” which means following the seams of the patchwork with my quilting lines. My thinking was that part of what was interesting about this design was that the areas of solid color were actually made of many small pieces, so I would emphasize that. Some of those lines I liked, and some I took out. By then I was in the rhythm and decided I was also interested in extending and joining some of the lines where seams on one side of the quilt lined up with seams on the other side (for example, the diagonal connections that cross the vertical grey band, in the detail shot), so I did that. Eventually, it felt done.