More Progress in Woodstock and Ideas about Accessibility

My renovation project in Woodstock, NY for a repeat client is winding down. The interior is almost complete as is the building facade. What remains is the balance of the site work, which will be brought to a point of conclusion before the first frost but may take many seasons to complete. 

This renovation started with a modest scope and grew. Soon after closing on the three-story property, the owner purchased a vertical lift to provide access for a wheelchair bound family member. Then they called me. The lift had to be located and my solution was to center it in the existing stairwell and install a new cherry wood wrap-around stair.

The scope grew again. The owner decided to: re-make the front facade and re-situate the entry; install radiant heat throughout the house and new wood flooring all along the first floor; modify the master bedroom suite; finish the cellar; and re-grade the front yard. 

A ground floor bathroom adjacent to an existing bedroom was gutted and converted into a sleek and accessible bathroom. 

I like accessible design. I use its guidelines even when designing spaces that need not be accessible because I know that if I adhere to its basic principles, my spaces will be appropriately sized.

Accessible design has, in my mind, been tarnished by a medicalized aesthetic obsessed with safety, hygiene, and security. And, while those issues are of utmost importance, the manner in which they are often depicted contributes to the marginalization of people with disabilities. I, alternatively, argue for a comprehensive approach, one in which accessible design is personal, dignified, and integrated. Over the past decade, I have tried to achieve these goals in several New York area projects. Accessible design need not look institutional. And conversely, I think many principles of accessible design should be universalized. A grab bar in a tub or shower is always a good idea.

With the interior resolved, the outdoors remained inaccessible primarily because the house was raised a few feet above grade. Yet the landscape is beautiful and the idea that it couldn't be experienced was bothersome. The solution involved raising the grade along the primary facade to align with the first floor of the house so that a wheelchair could circumnavigate the new greenhouse going from inside to outside to inside, all the while enjoying the visual beauty of the rolling hills. Raising the grade eliminated the need for a ramp. At the same time, a number of drainage issues were resolved. 

Raising the grade required a retaining wall. Since a wall comprised of small stones alone could not retain the land, an 8" reinforced cast-in-place structural concrete wall was poured on a new elongated concrete footing known as the heel of the cantilever-type retaining wall. Interestingly, though, at the patio, where the grade change was most severe, the patio slab that is tied to the wall, resists overturning and obviates the heel. In effect, the stone, serving no structural purpose, may be considered a decorative veneer - albeit a thick one.

The sinuous wall will be capped with a 2" bluestone coping and a cast iron rail. Since the stone wall curves, there's been some debate about fabricating it digitally, which would require the surveyor to return, or making cardboard templates on-site. Architecture is all about locating points in space.

Graceful, but No Farm

Yesterday I took some time off from my busy Brooklyn architecture practice to visit SANAA's sinuous new building at Grace Farms in New Canaan, CT. Formerly a horse farm, Grace Farms is now a non-profit foundation/park open to the public six days a week. No animals.

I was drawn to this building by the way it looks. A long and meandering roof, connects a series pavilions ascending a hill and culminating in a sanctuary. Sometimes called the River Building, it reminded me of just that as well as the bucolic beauty of of a horse fence cascading along rolling hills or even a snake slithering along the grass.

In many ways, this building is unconventional and one wonders if it is, in fact, a building or, rather, a work of art or a landscape folly. Beneath the winding roof, each pavilion serves a single function within a single room - be it an athletic court, a library, or a commons area. It's an idealized paradigm unadaptable to the complexities of architectural problem solving yet light and beautiful. How many buildings solely serve one function? And is it appropriate for this climate? After all, if one need to use the bathroom, one needs to step outside to an adjacent structure.

This is luxe minimalism for the select few - those lucky enough to have time and means to get to a remote section of an affluent suburb. It is essentially functionless and, as a result, pristine.

Lastly, a nod to SANAA's furniture located in and around the pavilions. I heard a couple saying they were afraid to sit in the Drop Chair,  a  mirror finish stainless steel design inspired by Anish Kapoor, and Marc Newsom, because it didn't look comfortable and might not support them though I like it. I also enjoyed the whimsical and more functional Rabbit Ears Chairs, a lighthearted homage to Arne Jacobsen's classic stackable chairs.

The approach

The approach

Ascending the hill

Ascending the hill

Switchback - between the library and the sanctuary

Switchback - between the library and the sanctuary

Outside the sanctuary with a few Drop Chairs.

Outside the sanctuary with a few Drop Chairs.

Bunny Ears Chairs (or are those peace signs?)

Bunny Ears Chairs (or are those peace signs?)

Sarasota - Part 3, Final

My next destination was Paul Rudolph's 1962 Sarasota High School. While this building is characterized as an addition to the existing 1927 Collegiate Gothic style high school it is, in fact, a completely separate building having little to do with the original.

This is an important building in Rudolph's career demonstrating his transition away from small residential projects in lightweight wood to larger civic ones in concrete. However, Rudolph's use of concrete in this building is more akin to the International Style Modernists than the Brutalists he will soon become associated with. This building is still lightweight- after all, the entire facade is hung - and white.

This is a monumental building raised on a landscape plinth with a wide processional stair leading to a giant 3-bay entry portal defined by deep concrete piers. This building's structural module is insistent and repetitive. It's circulation is prescriptive. It's said that students don't like it much -- but I do!

Clearly, a large part of the design is devoted to passive cooling. There is the layered sunscreen hung from the projected roof like stalactites and the breezeways that offer respite from both the sun and the grid. On the second floor, there are outdoor enclosed walkways with open skylights, posing a significant issue during inclement weather.

Sarasota - Part 2

My aunt lives in Sarasota and, when I got called down there for a funeral, I immediately started to think about how I could fit in some architecture. I had heard of the Sarasota Modern Movement that occurred after World War II and that was lead by Paul Rudolph and a number of his acolytes. In preparation of the trip I reached out to the Sarasota Architecture Foundation (SAF) and was immediately called back to arrange a private tour of Rudolph's recently refurbished Umbrella House of 1952 located on Lido Key. SAF and the City of Sarasota both offer an excellent free architecture guide with maps.

The Umbrella house is both small and monumental. The actual indoor living areas occupy only about 40% of structure's volumes. The balance is devoted to the brise soleil, the giant wooden sunscreen that spans the entire building. While there are two floors inside, the exterior facade suggests a single story building that is almost public in scale.

This house is both modern and classical. It's plan is symmetrical in both directions . It is comprised of a regularly spaced column grid (3 bays wide by 7 bays deep) based on a module originating from the ubiquitous jalousie windows. From afar the building appears almost like an ancient temple, that is a temple to shade. Yet Rudolph subverts the classical. First, one enters through the central glazed bay though the bright yellow door is positioned off-center. Second, the living spaces are enclosed is a simple box that appears to slip relative to the fixed column grid. Third, and once inside, there is a straight-run stair running along the facade that creates a Corbusian slot of double-height space.  Rudolph proceeds to hang the second floor common space off the columns with cantilevered projecting edges. The rear facade facing the pool is all glass.

The architectural finishes are prosaic though the furniture, not original and likely chosen by others, is decisively mid-Century Modern with an exquisite bedroom headboard and an illuminated bookcase both designed by George Nelson. As part of the refurbishment, the exterior "umbrella" surrounding the pool was rebuilt and while, it was originally constructed of wood, it has now been recreated in aluminum. Though I'd like to have seen the original wooden structure, I wonder how it ever stood up given the choice of wood, rather than metal, and its exceedingly high slenderness ratio (a ration of a column's height to cross-sectional area).

The columns, taken by themselves, like those on the Walker guest house are interesting because each column is composed of two posts with a slot of space between them. In other words, Rudolph has inverted the idea of column by having it capture space rather than just displacing it.


While I was in Lido Key, I went around the corner to see Ruldoph's Martin Harkavy House of 1957. I could not go in or see much beyond the streetscape. The has has been added on to with the original Rudolph portion of the house is on the left and the newer chunky box on the right. Rudolph's part has an elegant delicacy tailored specifically to the warm climate with thin framing, deep overhangs, and finely scaled screens.

A Quick Visit to Sarasota - Part 1

One of the great things about liking architecture is that it provides an entry point to anywhere you go. In the summer of 1989, having just completed my first year of architecture school, I fled to LA, slept on a friend's couch, bought a few guidebooks, worked at an architecture firm, and drove around looking at noted buildings. I learned the city. My work the following semester was much improved.

When I travel, I do a similar thing -- find a few important buildings and use them as landmarks to orient my way around the city.

Last Thursday night I had to hurry down to Sarasota to go to a funeral. On Saturday, I got to squeeze in some time to see some buildings. I started at the Ringling Museum close to my hotel and airport. I was in a hurry, and showed up early when one could only walk the grounds but not enter the museum. I was there to see a full size replica of Paul Rudolph's 1952 Walker Guest House actually situated on Sanibel Island.

I was excited to see Paul Rudolph's Sarasota work. I went to the Yale School of Architecture and, while Paul Rudolph was the Dean there in the early 1960s, he completed Rudolph Hall, formerly and affectionately called the A&A and perhaps the most significant building in his entire oeuvre. Rudolph Hall, an icon of Brutalist architeture, is all about mass whereas the Sarasota houses from the early 1950's are light and thin.

Back to the Walker Guest House:

Re-Creation of Paul Rudolph's 1952 Walker Guest House,

Re-Creation of Paul Rudolph's 1952 Walker Guest House,

I approach the house as a pavilion in the landscape. While the house proper is a simple square in plan, its overall form, including the perimeter pergola support structure, is actually a Greek cross. It is bi-laterally symmetrical with four similar facades. I start to think of Palladio's Villa Rotunda. Is the Walker Guest House a classical building? No.

Rudolph incorporates elements of Wright, at least in plan. He violates the symmetry, puts the entry on the corner, and deploys a pinwheeling effect in positioning the window shades. And, oh those shades are interesting. They allow the building to change. They create a spatial zone around the building enclosure and the landscape, a sort of interstitial buffer between public an private space. Within the house, elements are set free from the structural grid established on the outside. Partitions are held back from the window wall, International Style.

While still at the Ringling, I strolled over to the brand new addition for the Center for Asian Art by Boston architects Machado and Silvetti. Because the museum wasn't open, I couldn't get inside but from the outside, it's straight Corbu - raised on pilotis (columns) and greatly recalling LeCorbusier's Unite d'habitation in Marseilles (1952). This is a striking building with a beautifully crafted facade but, perhaps, not a great one. I have questions about the overall massing (a bulky block) and the color (a bright bottle green) having nothing to do with the existing building and incapable of foiling it effectively. I do, however, like the way Machodo Silvetti created benches at the base of the columns, recalling some of their earlier work, and the way the facade panels wrap the soffit.


I liked the Ringling Campus and hope to return sometime to fully explore it. More on Sarasota architecture to come.







Aalto at Bard NYC

Yesterday afternoon, I visited the Bard Graduate Center Gallery on Manhattan's Upper West Side and saw "Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World," an exhibit devoted to the interior and furniture design of the Finnish modern masters Alvar and Aino Aalto.

I'm pretty familiar with Aaltos's work and his furniture in particular. I remember fist seeing his chairs at MOMA in the 70's and then, during my semester abroad in Copenhagen in 1987 it was everywhere - in schools, libraries, restaurants, homes, offices, etc. Their ubiquitous presence blended into a neutral Scando background.  The furniture was, in a sense, a great humanist equalizer. And, yes, I got tired of it though not the star pieces like the Paimio chair or the "39" chaise.

Artek was, in a sense, the homeware manufacturing branch of the Aalto office. And like any aspiring Modern movement, it was founded with a manifesto. The threefold mission of Artek was to: organize exhibits of modern art, design modern interiors, and to propagandize modernism. Idealism incarnate.

This is mass production furniture softened by its materiality. Wood is the primary material complemented with fabric cushions or webbing. This is not the cold International Style modernism of tublular steel and shiny leather (think Breuer or LeCorbusier) but a warmer, more regionally inspired modernism meant to be touched. Aalto's furniture is completely in sync with his buildings.

I confess though, that I'm not so fond of the Aalto's lighting primarily because I view it as an inchoate version of Poul Henningsen's roughly contemporaneous work. In fact, there's quite a similarity between their fixtures but Henningsen's are far more refined with crisper and sleeker lines that convey speed. But I love the Aino Aalto drinking glasses with their inherently anti-slip, saw-toothed profile.

Behind the Aaltos and their business partners, stands silent hero Maija Heikinheimo, who served as Aalto's right hand man and a key force in the development of Artek. His drawings are phenomenal and convey a skill and visual acuity that are rarely found. He drew as well or better than Alvar himself. That said, one could argue that some of the most compelling drawings in the show are those Alvar made of his wife as she was dying of breast cancer.

Model 39, designed in 1938. Look at that cantilever...and it's wood!

Model 39, designed in 1938. Look at that cantilever...and it's wood!

Aino Aalto drinking glass designed in 1932.

Aino Aalto drinking glass designed in 1932.

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Progress in Woodstock

My job in Woodstock, NY is progressing.

What you'll see this week is the completion of the flooring installation. The 3/4" tongue and groove flooring is 150 year old reclaimed pine fabricated by Excelsior Wood Floor to our specifications. It is being installed over new hydronic radiant heating. In this photo the floor has not yet been coated, though we'll attempt to maintain the rustic finish while stabilizing and protecting it. The 5" tongue and groove is interrupted by a "carpet" composed of a 3 unit by 5 unit grid of a woven pattern. Each unit had 50 pieces that were assembled on site by master carpenter Jason Haynes.

The other pictures relate to the extensive site work occurring outside the front of the house. The overall change in grade was about 8'. The objective of raising the land was to create a large flat surface on the same level as the ground floor of the house that could be navigated by a wheelchair bound teen with cerebral palsy. The wheel chair will approach the house from the highest grade. Raising the grade affords him the full appreciation of the panoramic landscape.

The retaining wall is 8" of reinforced concrete clad with another 8" of non-structural river stone to match the existing stonework. This type of retaining wall is, technically, referred to as a cantilever retaining wall because it is cantilevered from an footing that is greatly extended to prevent overturning. At the patio the cantilever concept is, in a sense, inverted because their restraint is achieved by tying the wall into a new 4" structural floor slab that will serve as a substrate for new bluestone pavers.

The exterior site work was started about 4 weeks ago. Everything is being done by a small crew that varies from 2 - 3. There's something nice about knowing that the guy digging the hole is the owner of the company. He installs his own forms and when a radius is required he fabricates a form out of wood.

After the wall is poured and the forms removed, the construction of the 8" stone wall in front of it, sometimes called a veneer, begins. The stone only goes about 8" below grade so, in order to support it, concrete block is positioned on the footing and built up to the appropriate level.

More to come...


New "old" flooring in Woodstock, NY

New "old" flooring in Woodstock, NY

A poured in place concrete wall prepped to receive a "decorative" natural stone facing.

A poured in place concrete wall prepped to receive a "decorative" natural stone facing.

It's going to be a long sinuous wall that, when viewed from above, will resemble a guitar.

It's going to be a long sinuous wall that, when viewed from above, will resemble a guitar.

Sometimes a plinth helps a building.

Sometimes a plinth helps a building.

FLW in Great Neck

I grew up in Great Neck, New York in the 1980's. There's not much architecture in Great Neck. Lots of buildings, of course, and even ones that solved architectural problems but few that tap into the cultural, artistic, and intellectual qualities that distinguish architecture from building. 

Last week I visited Great Neck to look at a potential job. Since I was early, I stopped by one of my favorite jaunts (and perhaps the best example of modern architecture on Long Island), Frank Lloyd Wright's Ben Rebhuhn House of 1937. Located on Myrtle Drive in Great Neck Estates, the house is partially concealed behind a perimeter band of greenery. It is a small house - modest in size yet heroic in form. It is both tied to the landscape and soaring above it. It is powerful and proud with an overhanging eave rivaling the best modernist cantilevers.