Monday, July 5, 2010

An American House

When we started thinking about what physical form and stylistic expression our house would take, we were completely open--the house had only the barest outline in our minds and was virtually a blank canvas. Since we had already designed our Whidbey house in a traditional style with allusions to Danish and Swedish country houses, we were thinking about building something completely different--a contemporary house. Something in wood, but definitely modern in its spaces and circulation.

And yet, the more time we spent on our site, the more we realized that a modern house would not be the best fit--for the site, for the block, or for us.

Starting with the site, I couldn't help but think about farmhouses when I walked the property and saw over the fencetops the little sheds, garages, and garden plots of our neighbors. And all that space--an 8100 sf lot vs. our old 5000 sf lot--it seemed positively pastoral! And then there was the matter of "fit" with neighboring properties. The majority of houses on the street are variations on farmhouses, Classic Box, and an occasional bungalow, with the commonality among them being a modestly-sized gable facing the street. Almost the only image I did have in my mind of a contemporary house that I liked was a Finnish one completely enclosed behind a high stucco wall with an interior courtyard of raked gravel and a solitary, but stately, birch tree just inside the entry gate. This clearly would not do on our street. Finally, I had to ask myself whether I was really ready to embrace modernism. The most contemporary I get in my tastes in furniture and art is somewhere around 1940-50! And what about all my tchotchkes?? A minimalist I am not.

So it dawned on us that perhaps we would, after all, stay with a traditional architectural style and venture only ever so slightly into modernism in the selection of some contemporary lighting fixtures, the occasional mid-century piece of furniture, and some (hopefully) hip color schemes. With a sense of relief (for "going modern" would have been a real stretch for me...), I started playing with some floor plans and analyzing the site to see where the best views and aspects are. Fairly quickly a concept for the project formed--it would be vaguely reminiscent of a farmstead that had been added to over time, thereby lending a sense of history--but with a more formal attitude toward the street. This idea also fit neatly with the notion of a small cottage for my mom on-site; multi-generational living having been common on old farms.

Because we had celebrated our Nordic and Russian heritage in the design and decoration of the Whidbey house, it seemed to me that this house ought to be thoroughly American. Sturdy, straightforward, elegant but simple, responsive to its site, and eminently practical. In addition, the setting kept reminding me of the coast of Maine--the sound of the gulls, the high bluff above the water, the big sky above where clouds whip around and we can see the weather coming in from the south--and all this pointed us inexorably toward that most American of styles, the Shingle Style.

Although I remembered a few things about the Shingle Style from architectural history classes, I started researching to find out more. The more I learned, the more the style seemed just right for the family home we wanted to create. This excerpt from "Classic American Shingle" by Stuart Disston, AIA captures the essence of the style perfectly:

The Shingle Style is as American as the buffalo nickel... It embodied a cultural democracy that was essentially American... These residences were not grand or pretentious, and the houses were not built to mimic any particular style… The particular charm of a Shingle Style house is its structural openness and its focus on use and function rather than on formality, a novel concept in the 1880s. Shingle Style houses are amorphous, and therefore very accommodating to informal gatherings and a casual lifestyle... And they were built with the intention of gathering the members of an extended family together under one roof...

The challenge is whether we can pull off a Shingle Style-inspired house on our limited budget. One of the hallmarks of the style is the rambling spaces and general impression of casual family living--the idea of a family compound with room for everybody and their dog! The paradox is that amid all that studied informality, it was historically only the wealthiest families who could afford such commodious houses and the materials and detailing they required. Roughsawn cedar shakes are not in our budget. Neither is a slate roof. What we'll be building is a house with just a hint of Shingle Style and a nod to the East Coast farmsteads described in one of my favorite books "Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn." Will we succeed? Time will tell.

Image: Bainbridge Island house, Stuart Silk Architects--Shingle style on the west coast.

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