Midcentury mania has been raging for some time now. Whether seen in the popularity of Mad Men, Eichler homes, or vintage furniture reissues, people are clearly digging the architecture and design of the era. With clean lines, glass walls, open plans, and strong connections to the outdoors, midcentury modern homes are always striking, often sublime. But it's never just about the looks.
"The things that really make us love certain places and spaces in our lives are so much more complex than what they look like," architect Andrew Plumb writes in a blog post on LinkedIn. Plumb, who along with Mette Aamodt—his partner in work and life—form the Cambridge, MA firm Aamodt/Plumb (they're also members of the 2015 class of Curbed Groundbreakers), are teaching an architecture design studio at Roger Williams University this semester focusing on that exact idea: home and the senses. Lately, they've been pushing their students to understand how midcentury homes work, and more generally, how successful modern residential design can produce emotional responses.
To that end, the class ventured out. Earlier this month, the Aamodt/Plumb team took the students on a four-stop midcentury (snowy day!) home tour in New Canaan, Connecticut, home of Philip Johnson's iconic Glass House and dozens of modernist homes designed by his contemporaries, including Marcel Breuer, Eliot Noyes, and more. Curbed had the opportunity to tag along and see, up close, what the fuss is all about.
Our first stop was Noyes House 2 (1954), the second house Harvard-trained Eliot Noyes built for his family after they grew out of their first one, which has been demolished. The single-story woodland home, still owned by the Noyes family, is a sophisticated expression of public vs. private space. From the outside, it's like a fortress, thanks to the hulking fieldstone walls. But once you get inside those large barn doors, it's like an intimate glass house centered on an open courtyard.
Additionally, the home is split between two pavilions: one containing the more public spaces (living room, kitchen, work studio), and one holding the bedrooms and bathrooms. The concrete walkways connecting the two sides are covered but not enclosed, which means that, yes, even in the dead of New England winter, you'd have to "step outside" to, say, go to the loo after a meal. But because the floors have radiant heating, you don't really have time to get too cold before reaching the other side. Believe it or not, It's supposed to be a refreshing effect. (We can't share any interior shots this time around but, great additional photos of the home can be found in this circa-2006 story on the home, written by Curbed's very own critic, Alexandra Lange.)
Next up was Philip Johnson's Boissonas House (1956), originally built for a French engineer who loved the Glass House but wanted something more family-friendly and villa-like. Johnson's solution was built on something like a three-dimensional checkerboard, in which some boxes are enclosed into rooms, some are left open as outdoor space, and rectangular piers provide a sort of visual enclosure for the building. According to the current owners, Philip Johnson said this was his "best house"...that is, after his own house (the Glass House!)
To be honest, Johnson's checkerboard concept seemed a bit too abstract to grasp in the moment. What wasn't so abstract was the surprising drama of the two-story glazed living room, which was absurdly warm from all the sun's rays yet totally at one with the winter wonderland outside. Apparently Johnson described the space as a sort of "celestial elevator" that rises when snow falls. And then there's the kitchen, which looks vintage and trendy at the same time. Except for a few appliance upgrades, it's totally original!
Our tour of the Evans House (1961) was a special treat, because the architect himself came along. James Evans, now 80 years old, designed the home for his own family, slotting all the bedrooms in the more conventional basement. Currently on the market for $1.8M, the house features an unusual roof shaped like a saddle. Because the house is only supported on the roof's edges, it's a true, open-plan space where scents and sounds are free to flow and the roof really feels like it's floating.
When asked what his favorite part of the house is, Evans began to talk about how he didn't know what to design until he explored the property and the orientation of the site. He saw that there are views out to the Long Island Sound in the winter time, when the trees were bare and not so tall yet. And that's the direction one "peak" of the house opens towards...and it's also where a former resident of the home, a writer, chose to orient their desk.
The last stop, the rectangular Mills House 2(1956), was designed by architect Willis N. Mills as his own home. Perched on a rocky slope, it's a good example of a modern house built where traditional houses just couldn't be. In the early aughts, the house was purchased and renovated by design firm BassamFellows, who remodeled the kitchen on the lower level for a better flow with the living and dining areas.
The living room, a double-height cantilevered volume with soaring windows framing outside trees like an oversized painting, is a serious wow moment. It was also intriguing how the house, though filled with dramatic, open spaces, can be experienced in layers. The upper level entrance area, for example, overlooks the lofty living room, but you have to actually get down there to see the dining area tucked under the entrance area. And in an upper level sitting area/study, there are sliding panels that when open, can reveal views all the way out the large vertical window in the living room, and when closed, gives the space a much more intimate feel.
Last, but not least, no excursion to New Canaan is complete without the Glass House, right? Well, a tour wasn't in the stars for this trip, but we did manage a roadside peek from behind the stone wall right around dusk. 'Till next time!
∙ Frank Lloyd Wright on Arrogance [Blank on Blank]
∙ Frank Lloyd Wright's Final Home For Sale, Asks $3.6M [Curbed]
∙ Frank Lloyd Wright House Is Rebuilt Anew, Piece by Piece, in Arkansas [Curbed]
∙ What It's Like to Live in a Frank Lloyd Wright Home [Curbed]
∙ All Frank Lloyd Wright coverage [Curbed]