Update: Modern House – Friendly Neighbor?

Bob Borson —  July 12, 2011 — 32 Comments

Just over a year ago I wrote an article titled “Modern House, Friendly Neighbor?” which was about a house that was going up along my drive to work. It was a very modern style house set in an area consisting of a mix of small bungalow and new larger homes. To this day, this post gets a lot of views and the comment section started a great conversation about scale/ context and the responsibility of clients and architects – if there is even any required. In that post I said I would keep an eye on this project and provide an update at some point as the progress developed.

 

Original Street View prior to demolition

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This is a picture taken from Google maps, the green house in the middle is the site of the new project – prior to demolition. This picture pre-dates my post from last year.

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Modern House - Context Last Year (June 2010)

This is a what the project looked like on June 20, 2010 when I wrote the original post. There was work going on as evidenced by the dumpster out front. Sadly, I found out after the fact that there was a tour of this project just a few days prior to me writing about the project. If I had known, I would have enjoyed walkig through – I heard from other architects who did take the tour that the house was really interesting.

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Modern House Current Front View (June 2011)

So here is the project as it looks today: more than a year later and there hasn’t been any progress on the site. In fact, there hasn’t been anybody on the site doing anything other than removing the dumpster. What happened?

Modern House - Context Last Year

I was really disappointed to see that for some reason, everyone was removed from the project and work halted. When I originally posed the question whether an architect had a responsibility to its neighbors, the comment section on  “Modern House, Friendly Neighbor” lit up with mostly negative comments. Out of all the posts I’ve written on this site, this is the only one where the people I worked for expressed some sort of reservation. Luckily, they realized that I didn’t say anything negative about this project, just wanted to know what other people thought. One of my favorite comments from tat original post was left was from Doug, aka “architectrunnerguy” and he summed it up in the following manner:

One thing hammered into us at architecture school (Va. Tech) is to think, not in terms of creating objects, but to think in terms of creating relationships and let the object be born out of that.

The reason so many buildings fail is the relationships fail. For this house, the relationships may or may not work well on the inside but from the outside it’s a disaster (and the inside/outside issue is a relationship right there). As a matter of fact it looks to me like it was designed with the intent of breaking any relation to the neighborhood.

But at least it appears intentional. What’s really more sad is the huge McMansions being built in places like Arlington, Virginia. There, there are these 5000SF 3 story boxes crammed on these small lots surrounded by 1700SF 1 1/2 story bungalows. And of course, the architect slaps some shutters on the windows so the house “relates” to the neighborhood.

Small consulation but at least the HP house is honest.

The comment section on the original post was really good and I can imagine getting a roundtable group together of those people and having a quality conversation on this topic. I was really hoping to provide an update on this project that would help that discussion along but it looks as though something has gone horribly wrong.

Modern House with sunflower
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Cheers and thanks for reading Life of an Architect.

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  • Observational

    I can appreciate modern design, but this project makes me sad. It’s so out of context, it feels almost like an act of aggression. I guess people are legally entitled to build whatever they want. Still doesn’t make it right, though.

  • Endeavour2828

    It is my belief that site response in this type of context should relate to the materiality and scale of the residences within that neighborhood. Notice I said nothing of perceived ‘style’ although that is the first thing experts (architects) & the layperson think of when the subject of context is approached.

    As it relates to this project, I have no issue with style, although as Bob states, without seeingbhe finished product it’s tough to tell. My issue lies in the scaling- it seems too large, a bit massive compared to the neighbor (same problem as McMansions).

    There’s no sense of breaking down the scale using materials, setback, or visual cues to discern different levels (1st vs 2nd story as house on the right). When building a modern home in a context of traditional homes, the issue of scale is important however difficult for many to pull off. Frank Lloyd Wright was attacked as not respecting the neighbors of his designs, however when you visit them they work because the scaling works.

    Thanks Bob for offering this discussion as it is very important in this age. Simply mimicking the same style as your neighbor is not the answer in 2011. The Arts and Crafts house to the left was of its age, and a new intervention should also be of its age.

    Julio

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks for adding such a considered response to the conversation. I agree with your opinion on most points however I don’t agree when you say (at least I think you are saying) that breaking down the scale using materials, setbacks or other visual cues when contextually comparing modern homes in the context of a more traditional environment of residential projects. Scale has nothing to do with style and scale is a significant consideration when siting any building.

      • Endeavour2828

        Wow, thanks for the response.  I do understand that scale and style are two distinctly different things and my original post is a bit unclear.

        My point is that I believe one can intervene in a traditionally styled neighborhood with modernist grammar, however it is difficult.  The key for me is that you cannot be ‘modern’ & overtly large – the house in question appears too massive, too much of a billboard without any elements relating to the neighbors or to break down its monumentality.  

        For example, the Art & Crafts house to the left, as small as it is, uses a wrap-around porch to break down from its main mass acting as a visual and physical transition from the street/entry.  Buchanan’s house doesn’t attempt to do any of that.  There’s no fenestration on the street elevation or changes in the massing to articulate level changes to show a sense of human scale (ala Blackwell’s house).

        Thanks for the discussion!

        Happy Thanksgiving!

  • The Canuck

    Trying to look at this on a more positive note, it definitely makes it easy for the pizza delivery guy to find the place.  

    Pizza Place – “whats your address?”
    Owner – “123 some street, its the big modern house with no windows on the front.”
    Pizza Place – “oh yeah, that house.  Got it.  Be there in 30 to 40 min.”

    I have to agree with most everyone’s comments that it is fine to push the envelope in architecture, but in residential architecture, since it is a smaller scale, the relationships to the neighbors needs to be taken into account.  On the flip side of the coin, how do know that the client wasn’t driving the design, or wanted no windows and just a blank wall for the front elevation.  The Architect might have proposed that, but it was nixed by the client.  I am sure there is a lot to the story that no one will really know about.

    • Richard

      Good point fellow Canuck. Clients are paying the bills and as such do have the deciding vote. Still, I have walked away from projects and would have wit hthis one because of the neighbourhood. It’s completely out of touch with the surrounding homes. it needed an anchour and nothing provides it from the looks of the houses beside it. As I said, the architect failed in doing this. House looks great though. let’s hope whoever purchases it changes things and finds a way of anchouring it to the “hood’.

    • Anonymous

      So I was lying awake in bed the other night plagued by images of this huge monolithic monstrosity and couldn’t sleep. The more I think about this, the more I realize how wrong this project is.

      Now I understand that the client might not have wanted windows or what have you. But at the same time as architects it is our job to steer our clients away from awful decisions. Especially ones that will sully our good name. 

      Now Bob says that this architect usually does good work, so I can only assume it was the clients choice, but now that architect has to live with the image that this is his/her work. 

      I understand in this economy you take the work you can get, but at what cost? Where do you draw the line between keeping your office open and keeping your integrity and image? Sounds like a good idea for a new post huh Bob?  

    • paul

      It is only in the eyes of the beholder if a design is right or wrong. “FORMS FOLLOWS FUNCTION” by Frank Lloyd Wright, as long as it is functional the design is morally correct.

  • architectrunnerguy

    Bob, you commented about another house that it  “made my head hurt”. So for me, this house being featured again yesterday is timely as I had a root canal that day. And believe me, the root canal pain is mild compared to seeing this house again (for some posts you really need to prescribe painkillers).

    I’m figuring the lack of progress might, in part, be owner financial situation related, especially given the state of the economy. The good thing is it provides an opportunity for the guy next door to get some ivy going…….

    Doug

    • architectrunnerguy

      ……and oh yeah, since I can’t revise a post, I almost forgot, regarding the round table discussion, count me in too!

      Doug

    • architectrunnerguy

      ……and oh yeah, since I can’t revise a post, I almost forgot, regarding the round table discussion, count me in too!

      Doug

  • http://twitter.com/mondo_tiki_man Jonathan Brown

    Did someone say round table discussion?  I’m in.

  • Richard

    I actually like the design but Doug nailed it with “relations”. If it were me designing this house, I would have suggested they find another neighbourhood more supportive of this style of house. The failure was of the architect, no the design.

  • http://twitter.com/jyosiv Jyotsna Sivaguru

    The house does seem like something I would like to go into, not because it is inviting, but because it is curious to the trained eye what could be going on behind that huge blank wall that needs to be hidden from everyone’s view. intuition tells me that I will like what is going on inside, but not agree with the stoic facade it presents to the neighborhood. I would walk past it everyday, wondering and trying to figure out what is going on. 

    Architecture school teaches you to make objects that relate. And then, we have buildings like the Stata center in the middle of all the glass buildings at MIT, which is very widely loved, for its extremity. Of course, it is also because it has enough going on to make a passer-by curious, and the colors might be welcoming for people who spend 18 hours a day cooped up indoors – a lot of times in windowless rooms. I dont agree with the building, but I think it is successful because of its extremity, that it pushes all the envelopes and does something radical. I think that is what this project is lacking. It pushes the boundaries, but not enough to evoke positive reactions to its boldness. 

  • http://twitter.com/jyosiv Jyotsna Sivaguru

    The house does seem like something I would like to go into, not because it is inviting, but because it is curious to the trained eye what could be going on behind that huge blank wall that needs to be hidden from everyone’s view. intuition tells me that I will like what is going on inside, but not agree with the stoic facade it presents to the neighborhood. I would walk past it everyday, wondering and trying to figure out what is going on. 

    Architecture school teaches you to make objects that relate. And then, we have buildings like the Stata center in the middle of all the glass buildings at MIT, which is very widely loved, for its extremity. Of course, it is also because it has enough going on to make a passer-by curious, and the colors might be welcoming for people who spend 18 hours a day cooped up indoors – a lot of times in windowless rooms. I dont agree with the building, but I think it is successful because of its extremity, that it pushes all the envelopes and does something radical. I think that is what this project is lacking. It pushes the boundaries, but not enough to evoke positive reactions to its boldness. 

  • http://www.duquellatile.com DuQuella Tile

    This makes me cringe. I would not want to be a neighbor. Another strike to not finish the house – so just an empty eyesore. And I thought it was bad when my next door neighbor had their house painted greenish yellow with turquoise trim. Fine for some areas in the world but Portland, OR on a street with 100 year old bungalows? Some people just don’t see the “big” picture.

  • http://www.duquellatile.com DuQuella Tile

    This makes me cringe. I would not want to be a neighbor. Another strike to not finish the house – so just an empty eyesore. And I thought it was bad when my next door neighbor had their house painted greenish yellow with turquoise trim. Fine for some areas in the world but Portland, OR on a street with 100 year old bungalows? Some people just don’t see the “big” picture.

  • Repparch

    This is appalling.  No wonder architects are not well received; context is so important.  What was the architect thinking? 

    • jbushkey

      I wanted to post the same idea, but could not state it as eloquently as you have.  Architects are confused as to why their star is falling.

    • Anonymous

      While context is important, there are two ways to tackle the situation. Either design the project to fit the context or design it to break it. Either way it must be an intentional decision. 

      My stand on the topic is in residential projects the design should fit the context while updating it to modern practices. Of course if we’re talking McMansions all this seems to go out the window as no one seems to care.

      • Anonymous

        Agreed, design should not be forced to follow bad designers before them just to fit the “context”. In this case I think they went to far in breaking that rule however. This is a solid behemoth that appears to be closer to the street than the neighbors, making it even more obvious. I can picture many sites where I would love to own a house like this, but this particular site is not one of them.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I really struggle with the idea that this is somehow the architects fault. This particular architect is exceptionally talented and this is the type of work that he produces – which I am absolutely certain is why he was hired. 

      Architects have a long history of pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable given the context of it’s location. I can drive down  as many streets as not and find mismatched styles of houses sitting next to  one another. This is only different in that regard because it is so extreme. 

      We go through a process during the construction of most of our project where the perception of scale gets thrown off. The slab gets poured and everything seems too small; then the studs go up and things get perceived as larger, then sheet rock goes on and we’re too small again. I mention this because right now there isn’t anything providing scale on this project. If there was a window on the front, something that would the viewer to relate in someway, I think the response at this point would be sightly less extreme.

      Again, I don’t think I would have done this but I really did want to see how this project was going to evolve – because I think it would have.

      • http://www.henriquebgomes.com Henrique Barros-Gomes

        Bob, I think you are right. The house design lacks some kind of details (a window, a door?) in the front elevation to provide scale and easen the relation with the surrounding buildings. As it is, it simply doesn’t work. Being myself a convinced supporter of modern and minimalist architecture, I have to agree with the comments that state that context wasn’t taken into consideration.

  • jbushkey

    I am guessing the neighbors got together and sued to stop the project.

    • jbushkey

      I just reread the comments from the other post. Bob may have jinxed this project.

      “I have faith in this particular architect’s ability to, at the very
      least, produce a finished product that will actually look finished.”

      I am sure it isn’t the architects fault the project is incomplete.  I couldn’t ignore the irony.  :) 

      • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

        From what I understand through the architectural grapevine, the owner stopped the project and is possibly in litigation with the contractor over the finish of the concrete slab floors. I would rather not speculate until I know for certain what is going on, but I still hold my position that Russell (the architect) is a great architect and person. I really did want to see how this one turned out – very sad.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if the property is on the market, and if it is how much they are asking for it.

    Maybe Bob could help us out with this, as I am really interested to know. 

    Its very sad when you see projects fall into discourse like this. Im not saying the project would have been a success, but it still would have been nice to see it completed. 

    I too am curious to see if this will affect the property values of the neighborhood, I would only assume that it will. In which case if I was a member of the neighborhood, I would be irate, home values are low enough as it is. 

    So now it comes down to what happens next?

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if the property is on the market, and if it is how much they are asking for it.

    Maybe Bob could help us out with this, as I am really interested to know. 

    Its very sad when you see projects fall into discourse like this. Im not saying the project would have been a success, but it still would have been nice to see it completed. 

    I too am curious to see if this will affect the property values of the neighborhood, I would only assume that it will. In which case if I was a member of the neighborhood, I would be irate, home values are low enough as it is. 

    So now it comes down to what happens next?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      If the surrounding homeowners were unhappy before, you’re probably right that there even more so now.

      There isn’t a sign in the yard so there aren’t any outward indications that the house is for sale. If I remember correctly, it has been in this state for almost a year and nothing has changed.I suppose another update will be in order at some point

  • http://twitter.com/Splintergirl Amy Good

    Hmmm…I’m left sitting here also wondering what happened.  Did the client not have proper approval?  Did the bank pull funds?  So, what happens now?

    Does a new buyer come on the scene and need to convert the house to look like the neighborhood, demo, or just live in it?  I suspect the property is cause of much arguing and I have to further wonder how long it would stay on the market and what it may/may not do to the property value of the homes around it.

    Interesting post.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      I know the landscape architect who was on the project but I’m not much on gossip. Part of me thinks the story is better left untold, rampant speculation is a lot more interesting.

  • http://twitter.com/Splintergirl Amy Good

    Hmmm…I’m left sitting here also wondering what happened.  Did the client not have proper approval?  Did the bank pull funds?  So, what happens now?

    Does a new buyer come on the scene and need to convert the house to look like the neighborhood, demo, or just live in it?  I suspect the property is cause of much arguing and I have to further wonder how long it would stay on the market and what it may/may not do to the property value of the homes around it.

    Interesting post.