Magic Box prefab cute cube

On a city rooftop or as a "summerhouse" on the edge of the property, this prefab structure is light-filled and fun. Created by Jun Ueno of Magic Box Inc., the Magic Box takes about a week to put up, after foundation and any other site work is done. – GF (via inhabitat and MocoLoco)

Coming to the Aldrich

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT is worth visiting anytime, but those interested in sort of the "back end" of modern architecture might make a point of visiting the show called "Painting the Glass House" when it opens March 9th.

There is a good description of the exhibition at e-flux, although it contains a sentence picked up from the Aldrich's own description which I stumble over no matter how I try to understand it: 'The artists featured in the exhibition are interested not only in the potential of utopian ideas, but also the sense of a passing idealism that modern architecture now embodies'. Wha?

Works of 16 artists will be shown. One of the curators, Jessica Hough says, “The artists are less interested in the built structures themselves and what it might feel like to be inside one, and more interested in the philosophy and idealism they represent. The way in which the buildings signal a possibility of utopia is essential—a future that could have been. Sentimentality runs through much of the work.”

The other curator, Mónica Ramírez-Montagut adds, “This melancholic remembrance comes at a time when great works of modern architecture are at risk due to neglect, deterioration, and demolition. Underlying all the artworks is a feeling of deep admiration for the architects who sought to elevate culture and bring it to the broad masses, yet their sense of failure is also prevalent; the artists’ knowledge of modern architecture’s crisis and demise tints their works with some kind of nostalgia.”

Not sure how this works, but portions of the exhibition will be shown concurrently at Yale University's Art + Architecture Gallery (where it opened February 11) to May 9, when it closes at Yale. Following its closing at the Ridgefield Museum on July 27, the exhibition will travel to Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, CA, where it will be on view from January 14 to March 22, 2009. A book related to the exhibition is being co-published by The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Mills College Art Museum and Yale University Press.

There's a reception on Sunday, March 9, 2008, from 3 to 5 pm and a panel discussion: Painting the Glass House: Artists Revisit Modern Architecture, with curators Jessica Hough and Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, and artists Daniel Arsham, Angela Dufresne, and Terence Gower at 2pm. The reception is free for members but there's a $7 admission charge for the rest of us.

A great thing is that the Aldrich offers non-stop, round-trip coach transportation from New York City to its exhibition receptions. It's free for Aldrich members and exhibiting artists, $15 for nonmembers. Coach leaves from near the Columbia University gate on the north side of Broadway, between 117th and 118th Streets. Call 203.438.4519 to reserve. – GF

A tiny Modern pops up in the mountains

While most of the houses in the town we visit in Switzerland look like this:
we were not altogether surprised to see this little house that, sort of like a mushroom or a periscope which it resembles, popped right up when we weren't looking.
There will be 5 of them eventually, side by side, oriented to look across the lower old town and up the valley. They will have 3.5 or 4.5 rooms, have 92 square meters of floor space, and sell for 490,000 Swiss francs, or $460,095.40 at the time of this post. The website promoting them,, says they possess these qualities: a view, fireplace, cable TV, parking and garage, balcony (and sitzplatz), internet connection (I think . . .) and that it is child-friendly. My on-line translator describes it as: Contemporary architecture, light-through-flooded areas with prospect into the mountain world.

When I passed the house in the evening or at night, it looked glowy, warm and inviting. No curtains were drawn so I could see the family gathered in the livingroom, relaxing on what looked like fittingly modern, simple furniture. Unfortunately, when I went back with my camera, no one was home, the curtains were drawn and the look really changed back to a job site.

If we are so fortunate to be able to go back next year, it will be interesting to see how the project Surfabricaziun 5 turns out. I only wish that they would be adorned with the traditional exterior decoration of the Engadin area, sgraffito. – GF

See You After February 24!

Philip Johnson said, “I hate vacations. If you can build buildings, why sit on the beach?”.

Well, we don't build buildings and we love vacations . . . but instead of the beach, we're going where the modern house down the road looks like this, Designed by studio d'architettura maurizio in Maloja, Switzerland:

Marcel Breuer @ the National Building Museum

I'm sorry to be missing this show at the National Building Museum (it ends Feb. 17). Not only that, I'm sorry I didn't even know that there was a National Building Museum in Wshington D.C. before a Google alert told me that there was a show called Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture!

Although I never met him, I could have (he died the year I graduated from art school, 1981). My parents were friendly with him and lived in this house (at left) for two summers while designing and building their own modern house in neighboring Pound Ridge, NY. The summers must have been 1949 and 1950, or maybe shift it back one to 1948 and 1949 . . .? But the house I grew up in bears more than a passing resemblance to the house on Sunset Hill Road. Only better: thanks to the radiant heat in our floors and the level rock-ledge the house grows up from, our shoes and leather items didn't sprout hairy green mold as things did at the Breuer house. Built on a hillside, rain or spring water apparently was drawn downhill, and moisture sort of got stuck in the lower floor of the house. A muggy summer meant moldy, green shoes. So goes the family story!

We visited this same house just this past Autumn as part of the New Canaan Modern House Day Tour + Symposium. The agreement with the New Canaan Historical Society was that the tour groups (16 people or so at a time) were not allowed to go in the house - or even peer in the windows! But as soon as we showed up, the gracious and willing-to-answer-questions homeowner invited us right in. A wonderful surprise and happy ending to the MHD tours, and, although I wasn't born until maybe 10 years after my parents rented the house, a sort of homecoming for me.

Here's one of those odd things that happens when you grow up hearing the names of famous people mentioned casually at home in daily conversation . . . I read the bios of these people, and I'm blown away by the brilliance they were recognized for. They spun out and away so obviously from all else that was happening at the time because of that brilliance. Their contributions have made all the difference. – GF

The Threat to Philip Johnson's Alice Ball House: A Further Explanation

An acquaintance in New Canaan sent us a long, thoughftul and, it seems, well-informed reply to our post about our visit to the Alice Ball House and our talk with its owner, Cristina Ross (here's the post). Here it is:

I have a couple of thoughts on the AB scenerio to pass on, where there may be confusion either on your or my part:

Asking Price: It is not considered a "Fair asking price" by many who otherwise appear to have been interested and have made inquiries. Owner paid $1.5 million in 2005 and two years later listed it at double that price; it's a tiny house - 1440 net sf living area including two small bedrooms. I believe it is smaller than many of the comps you mention.

I understand she would like to recoup her legal expenses and whatever she has put into the house, but now, especially in a "down" market, that probably is unrealistic. As I was told she had a permit for "cosmetic improvements" which I believe cap out at $2,500; if that is true, then the improvements could not have been very costly. I suggest you check out the permit.
Asking a lot of money for a house in New Canaan can also mean you are not really interested in selling it, sending a negative message to a potential buyer.

Environmental Commission: The letter that the Commission wrote to the owner clearly states the reasons her application was denied: too much filling of the wetlands, adverse impact of upland activities far greater than they need to be, and there are feasible alternatives that would cause little or no impact on the wetlands.

It then suggested she reapply, keeping in mind 12 points (some paraphrased):
1 Reduce the width of the driveway crossing the wetlands
2 Use grass pavers instead of gravel on driveway and parking areas
3 Straighten the driveway
4 Reduce the flare out of the driveway as it approaches the parking area
4 Rotate the garages in order to pull more of the parking area out of the wetlands and buffer area
5 Reduce the size of the parking area
6 Restore existing grass area currently located in wetlands for mitigation to offset some of the proposed wetland filling
7 Pull back the terrace and stone wall in front of the proposed house away from the wetlands
8 Reduce the amount and area of grading around the proposed house
9 Reduce the overall activity in the uplands in order to reduce the run off into the wetlands
10 Investigate whether adding onto or renovating the Philip Johnson house or otherwise building up front is a prudent alternative in lieu of a driveway crossing
11 Push the house upslope on the lot and further away from the wetlands

Only #10 would suggest that in order to "build up front" she might have to tear down the Alice Ball house, but it is not explicitly recommended.

You may obtain the letter from the Environmental Commission office in Town Hall. When I examined the plans, the recommendations all seemed quite doable and encouraging a re-application. I suggest you review the plans and the letter from the Environmental Commission.

I am certainly sympathetic to her, but is unclear to me why the owner did not reapply with a scaled back version, "that preserves the integrity of the Alice Ball House and respects the scale and character of the site" (as stated in a letter to Christina Ross signed by the Glass house, the National Trust and the New Canaan Historical Society Aug 17, 2007).

I do not believe anything has been heard before the Planning and Zoning Commission. I understand that the neighbors sued the Zoning Board of Appeals for giving a variance to allow the AB House to remain as a secondary residence on the property.

The neighbors are evidently going to object to anyone building a house on the rear of the lot, where there is more high ground than in front of the wetlands; and the wetlands, which cut across the width of the property, then curve around toward the road on the north side, eliminating that end of the front section as a build-able area. Not many options here at all!

Rocio 'round the corner

I will certainly consider traveling up the Hudson Valley a little ways to Rocio Romero's LVL open house in Gallatin, NY.

Go to the website for specifics, but the basics are:
Event Date: Saturday, March 1, 2008
Tour Times: 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Tour Fee: $40 per person
Registration Closes: Thursday, February 28, 2008 at Noon CST
A chartered coach will transport attendees to the LVL Open House tour site, approximately 20 miles from the registration site. During the shuttle transport, Rocio Romero staff will discuss their latest LV builds and the customization options available to LV homeowners. – GF

Arts + Architecture Magazine repackaged

Issues of Art and Architecture from 1945 – 1967 (with their wonderful covers designed by Herbert Matter, Ray Eames, Alvin Lustig and others) will be reproduced as a collection in book form this Spring by Täschen. This website will tide you over until the book becomes available. (via DWR design notes) – GF

Alice Ball House: The Owner's Perspective, and Ours

We spent well over an hour inside the Alice Ball House yesterday morning, talking to its owner, Cristina Ross. Philip Johnson designed the house in 1953, and we left thinking that it’s nicer and more spacious than it seems from the outside – serene, comfortable and warm, well-proportioned, and beautifully lit with natural light. The Alice Ball House has been the center of a controversy over its future for months now (background is here and here); we went to talk to the owner not because we thought we could get to the bottom of anything but rather because we wanted to hear her side of the story, which I think has been lacking from the many newspapers and preservation website accounts (including our own).

alice ball house front and side
Here are my impressions:

Ross bought the house and the property it’s on – 2.2 acres – as an investment, to develop it in a manner consistent with all the other development that has happened recently on Oenoeke Ridge Road – that is, to build the same kind of big house that everyone else has built (like this one, which is next door).

She said that when she was looking to buy, she told her broker “anything but a modern,” fearing that she’d get caught in a vise by preservationists newly aware that modern houses were worthy of protection but that the town of New Canaan was doing next to nothing to protect them. Nevertheless, she bought the Alice Ball House.

She received a variance from the town’s planning and zoning commission to build a new house in the rear portion of the 2.2-acre lot and to make the Alice Ball House a pool house for the new structure, with the condition that she restore the Alice Ball House to its original configuration as Philip Johnson designed it. She agreed.

Throughout the planning and zoning process, a neighbor objected to the plans because the new house Ross wanted to build would be visible from his house; instead, he urged the planning and zoning commission to require Ross to tear down the Alice Ball House and build her new house in its place, away from the part of her property that is nearest his. When the planning and zoning commission declined, he sued and named Cristina Ross in the suit.

With her variance in hand, Ross then asked the town for a permit to build a driveway along what she described as an old farm road, across a wetland, and to the back of her property. After a fairly lengthy review, which included what Ross considered to be a healthy amount of back-and-forth and compromise, the town commission that decides wetlands permits said no. They added, essentially, that if she didn’t like the decision, she could always tear down the Alice Ball House and build her new house there, which would absolve her from having to get a wetlands permit. She then sued to overturn the wetlands decision.

With the variance and the permit up in the air because of the court cases, Ross put the house on the market last year for $3.1 million. In recent months, other modern and contemporary houses have gone on the market in New Canaan and nearby for $2.1 million, $3.3, $2, $3.1, $3.1, $1.8, $2.3, $1.8, and $2.6 million (according to the William Raveis Agency); Johnson’s Hodgson House, across the road from his Glass House, went on the market in 2006 for $4.3 million and sold for something close to that; a Marcel Breuer house, on West Road in New Canaan, sold a couple of years ago for just shy of $3 million and is being rebuilt with a new design by Toshiko Mori. So an asking price of $3.1 million for a Philip Johnson house is far from being out of line; and in any case, it’s a free market – she can ask whatever she wants and if no one thinks it’s worth that much, they’ll offer less. Asking for a lot of money for a house in New Canaan isn’t a sign of greed; it’s a sign that you live in New Canaan and you want to cash in on real estate the way everyone else is.

alice ball house back

Late last summer, Ross began the process of asking the town for a demolition permit to tear down the Alice Ball House – which, as you’ll remember, is what the wetlands commission suggested she do and what her neighbor is suing the town and her to force her to do. The permit process brought out a large number of preservationists to protest, including representatives of the New Canaan Historical Society and of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Glass House; the preservationists, Ross says, had previously either ignored or were unhelpful to her efforts to get a wetlands permit. Ross feels that the preservationists unnecessarily turned the process into a confrontation that has led to her being unfairly vilified.

Ross said she thinks it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect one individual to be responsible for the stewardship of a building that some people consider culturally important. Having watched numerous important modern houses in New Canaan get torn down, and others be renovated and expanded with no outcry about the integrity of the original design, I tend to agree with her. Why hold her to a standard that others weren’t held to, particularly when the town government either doesn’t particularly care if these cultural assets are destroyed or, in the case of the wetlands board, is happy to see them destroyed if that’s what it takes to protect a small and (in my opinion) insignificant strip of swamp?

Ross said that last week she met with a handful of people from the National Trust/Glass House and is hoping they can work together to find a buyer for the house.

So that’s where it stands. Ross didn’t answer directly when I asked about specific plans for demolishing the house. Our sense from talking to her is that she clearly doesn’t want to do that but if she’s pushed hard enough and if she’s denied a chance to at least make back her investment, she will. She clearly wants out, and clearly feels as if she’s been treated unfairly by pretty much everyone except perhaps the planning and zoning commission. And it seems as if she is a tiny bit optimistic now that a buyer will come forward and relieve her of her misery.

It’s hard for me to say who is wrong in all this. The answer probably is just about everybody, although in a country and in a town (that is, New Canaan) that prizes real estate values and ownership of private property almost above all else, I’m sympathetic to Cristina Ross. It’s not that I hold real estate value and ownership of private property above all else, or that I think it’s right to do so. But that’s our system, and I think it’s unfair to demonize someone who is playing within the system.

I particularly think it’s unfair and maybe even hypocritical to criticize her when New Canaan has allowed far, far worse affronts to its history and culture. Its lassez-faire attitude toward the destruction of old buildings – farmhouses and barns from the colonial era and the early years of the country as well as mid-century moderns – is scandalous. You occasionally hear New Canaan officials claim that their hands are tied because if they regulate tear-downs they’d be interfering with private property rights and the free market.

That, of course, is baloney. The town already heavily, heavily controls the supply of land and its useability through its zoning regulations. It could do a lot more to protect its cultural heritage, if it wanted to. But it doesn’t want to. Instead it wants to hassle landowners for years under the pretense that it’s doing something constructive. - TA

indoor/outdoor:Shigeru Ban Architects

Shigeru Ban Architects of Japan designed the Curtain Wall house and the Picture Window house (right) which take that thing that I love so about Modern houses - experiencing the out-of-doors so nicely from inside - to the ultimate level (walls – who needs 'em?!). There are a few other interesting and less well publicized examples of their work here. – GF

more Modern Alpine

Modern + Alpine = Heaven on earth for me . . . simple, fresh and elemental; warmth of inside welcoming the fresh wake-up of outside – reveling in both at the same time. I'd be here in a heartbeat. Moormannberge are apartments for rent in Aschau im Chiemgau, Germany. Reading the website, my very basic knowledge of German tells me that they are in Bavaria, a southern and incredibly beautiful part of the country, and that that the buildings seem to be a former factory for making furniture(?).

The buildings have been transformed into a maybe 13 or more Wohnungen - rental vacation apartments. The ones to the left above are more "hostel-like". And these, below, are more private and refined. ALL seem to be renovated and outfitted beautifully - I'd like to go right now! – GF

Anticipating climate change

I posted something a couple of days ago about houses in Holland that can deal with rising sea levels and flooding. In a similar vein, here's a modern houseboat in Victoria, B.C. (Via Contemporist's friend, John.) – GF

Everything you need in a shoebox

For dorms, monk's cells, maybe emergency housing . . . From Rotterdam's design office De Vijf. (via . . . uh-oh – sorry! I can't find it!) – GF

Rebuilding New Orleans in a modern key

Here are some ideas – thanks to Brad and Make It Right – for rebuilding New Orleans' lower 9th ward homes. Seems like some of the thinking behind these designs could be useful for other cities and towns interested in revitalizing their residential neighborhoods. (via plataforma arquitectura and dezeen)– GF