Friday, August 08, 2008

America's House Redefined

Had it with seeing another vinyl-clad house and feel the typical American house is going by way of the developer tract? Here’s an example of an architect who is challenging our notion of the typical program and making well-designed, affordable! The latest incarnation from architect William Massie, head of the architecture department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, embarks on his re-invention of the prototypical American house and the state of the housing industry, utilizing efficient computer based pre-fabrication methods of his own development. “American House 08” is currently on exhibition on the grounds of the academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, north of Detroit, and is a startling manifestation of mass customization at the architectural scale. As a graduate of the architecture program under Massie and seeing many images of this house, I was excited by the idea of getting a first-hand look at the visual reality and to see the embodiment of his current sensibilities of design and making and made a trip last month to visit. Massie has emphatically embarked on a mission to create ten houses, this one being the first, through his radically re-defined traditional architectural practice. This is a house worth checking out.

“American House 08” is a rectangular box, faced on both of its longitudinal sides by a continuous roofline that meets wall and floor, broken at two points with a large “dip” in the roofline and an extrusion defining the secondary entry. It was constructed in several components and assembled in Massie’s Pontiac, Michigan shop, dis-assembled, then brought to the site where it will be dis-assembled again upon receiving a buyer. The house sits on the front lawn of the Cranbrook Art Museum and with its radical aesthetic, becomes a stark contrast to the current ensemble of Cranbrook buildings and natural conditions. And yet, by its contrast, it is so befitting the context of artwork by Mark di Suvero and the architectural legacy of Eliel Saarinin’s campus buildings at Cranbrook, both luminary figures in the world of art and architecture. The house is a continuum of that avant-garde artistic legacy and becomes appropriate with the surroundings. It appears to have landed there, with no evidence of any disturbance of the ground. A purposeful effect enhanced with the foot of space encircling the entire house at its base, perhaps Massie’s modern interpretation of the classical architectural base, but more likely in keeping with the language of lightness so common to the idea of “figure-ground” in modern architecture.

In studying the aesthetic appearance of AH8 one can’t help but be reminded of the classic modern houses of Richard Neutra’s California houses. The use of full height glass, minimal color, and a statement of the modern domestic condition is all here, including Massie’s master of the detail. The same linear geometry as the classic modern, but with curves, curves that speak more to the idea of a line born from completely different sources. Used for completely different strategies from drainage of a roof to organization of a circulation plan. Massie is not simply about the process of building, as a self-proclaimed challenger to the domesticity of the typical house, AH8 brings together several of Massie’s long considered ideas of public and private, and the shower, as opposed to the fireplace as the figurative and symbolic “center” of the home. Manifested here with a rain-fed (yes, rain-fed) shower stall as the principle organizer and feature of the living room space.

Most of the house is constructed on a steel-framed chassis, much like a mobile home. The roofline dip is formed through a clever utilization of 6” thick structural insulated sandwich panels or “SIPs”, cut by computer-controlled routers into the dip shape and sandwiched together much like the building of a contour terrain model, then coated with a water-proof compound. The dip begs the question of actual utility, but it could easily pass as roof access or rain scupper.

American House 08 is currently displayed at Cranbrook but only exterior viewing is allowed. It truly gives me a sense of the future of the process of building in the hands of a master architect. Docent-led tours of the house will start-up September 1, 2008 and will run until October 31, 2008 at which time the exhibit will close. However outside the Indianapols area, I thoroughly recommend making a pilgrimage to see this work in addition to the rest of the Cranbrook campus. Check out the museum’s permanent modern art collection. The campus is a stunning work of architecture and landscape architecture and it’s recommended that you visit during the warmer weather when the fountains are still running. Bloomfield Hills is about a 5 hour drive, 320 miles by way of I-69 and I-94. Hardly a day trip but worth the nights stay.

2 Responses to “America's House Redefined”

Christopher said...
August 8, 2008 at 3:19 PM


Craig said...
August 11, 2008 at 3:31 PM

Thanks for sharing this, Paul.

I deeply admire Massie's research and application of drawing -to-fabrication systems, but I also appreciate his sense of composition and modernist restraint. Juries that I have participated on in recent years have shown something of an enslavement by students to all of the hedonistic possibilities of form in vector-based design systems. While I appreciate pushing the thresholds of what is possible, work like Massies' is bridging the connection between realistic, economically-based construction systems of today and the forms of tomorrow.

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