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The Other Miller House

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Why a Modernist gem languishes in suburban Lexington, Kentucky

Located eight miles southeast of downtown Lexington, Kentucky, the Enclave at Chilesburg seems in all respects to be a standard American subdivision, boasting " tree-lined boulevards, signature plank and stone entrances," with traditional brick-clad homes available in a range of shapes, sizes, and floorplans. "Custom homes without the custom prices!" according to the cheery website of home builder Ball Homes.

One home in the neighborhood, at 832 Lochmere Place, doesn’t quite fit into the standard sales pitches or brochure. Built in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when this area was still mostly rural and under development, it used to sit, far from its neighbors, by itself, on 30 acres. Over the decades, encroaching suburbs have made its form, and its eccentricities, hard to ignore; at one point in 2007, teenagers vandalized the home and broke dozens of windows. In a sea of McMansions, this is a concrete cube of experimental Modernism, a home that seems more comfortable in the multi-dimensional layouts of Inception than a block of with such mundanities as lawn mowers and mailboxes. According to the architect, the series of boxes within boxes is "a recollection of the front facade. You enter everywhere."

It’s also an under-recognized building that traces its lineage back to one of Modernism’s godfathers, Le Corbusier. Designed by his associate Jose Oubrerie, who was then the dean of architecture at the nearby University of Kentucky, the home takes Corbusian principles and modern design philosophies and amplifies them, utilizing a complex grid system, vertically cast concrete, and an array of colorful touches to create a update on the much lauded machine for living. But in both its locations and construction, it’s a building out of time. Finished in 1992, it’s a Modernist statement that may have come a few decades late.

"The environment around it has changed so much, that today, it’s even more of an anomaly," says Melody Farris Jackson, a designer and architecture professor at the University of Kentucky who was a student at the school when the home was being built. "It’s the white elephant in the mix. It’s not that people are rejecting this house. It’s just off everyone’s radar. It’s still very much a secret in central Kentucky."

It almost seems off the radar of its current owner, Ball Homes. The company, which inherited the property in the process of developing the neighborhood, has no current long-term preservation plans for the home; they’ll show it if someone asks, but that doesn’t happen very often.

A strange set of circumstances needs to happen for a home with such a pedigree to be sitting on the edges of suburbia, marking time. Why is a French neo-Modernist home hidden in Bluegrass country? In part, it comes down to the architect, Frenchman Jose Oubrerie.

Mainly known for his formative experience working with the famed architect Le Corbusier, Oubrerie joined his office as a teenager in 1955, and worked with him until the master architect died a decade later. They collaborated on projects such as the Venice Hospital and the church of St. Pierre de Firminy-Vert, which Oubrerie would finish for the architect decades after his death. While Oubrerie has said he had to learn on the job for the first few years, he was pretty convincing during his job interview; he landed the position with Corbu simply by "telling him he could do it."

Decades after his time in Corbu’s Paris atelier, Oubrerie a modernist who has established his own body of work, was invited in 1986 by the University of Kentucky to be the dean of the school of architecture. He took the job, and while getting settled in a new city, struck up a friendship with a local attorney and real estate developer, Robert Miller. While he developed standard-issue suburban homes, he was a fan of Modernist design, and impressed with Oubrerie’s mentor. The two became close enough that Frenchman took the developer and his wife Penny on a tour of Europe, and showed him Corbusier’s greatest hits. By the time they returned to Kentucky, Bob and Penny had decided they needed a villa designed by Oubrerie. The dean took the gig, and recruited a team of teachers and students to help on what would become a four-year project.

Miller House In Motion - Rhythm & Speed from Andrew Suelki Choi on Vimeo.

Oubrerie responded by designing a complex, creative expression of the Modernist principles he learned from his first employer, perhaps riffing on Corbu’s cubic design for the Villa Shodhan, and giving them his own twist. Initial site plans featured three separate buildings, including a small tower and slender home, which was pared down into what would become the singular Miller House. The architect described the concept as "exploding the cube," building upon a complicated, nine-part grid system to create a bundle of forms and shapes. Ouberie would tell an interviewer that working on the home "kept my education and what I understood from Corbusier alive."

"It’s the only fully articulated work that comes directly down that line, the Corbusier pedigree; in North America," says Scott Guyon, a local architect who has worked to preserve the property.

The goal was to create three separate living areas, one for the parents and one each for the Miller’s two children (when discussing the layout, Oubrerie remembers being a child and hating when his parents had friends over, since that meant having to walk past all of them and say hello). While the complex spatial divisions in the multi-layered home seem stark, even futuristic, Guyon believes there’s a strong classical element at play. Oubrerie built three homes within a village, his response to the "terrible" layout of a typical suburban home (ironic considering the home’s present neighbors)

"Corbusier always tried to tie things back to classical techniques, and the home was built as a kind of miniaturized city," says Guyon. "There was a piazza in the middle, these discrete columns, and bi-level bedroom suites suspended like little buildings over the piazza."

Jackson also sees a sophisticated play between light and shadow in the interior layout, and a new take on the machine for living concept that knits an urban fabric inside the home.

"How do you put three groups of people in a house that want time alone and together?" she says. "There’s great separation between private and public. There are these interior balconies that allow you to look down on community space."

There’s also a sense of warmth, which may not be apparent based on the concrete exterior. Inside, however, the material palette includes various woods and metals, and colored panels and walls fill up the multi-layered living space, adding a certain dimensionality. Surrounded by sunlight, oak floors, and primary colors, the interior seems the antithesis of cold Modernism.

"There are moves within this that are painterly," she says. "I wouldn’t call them whimsical. There’s a playfulness with this house that’s remarkable."

Jackson, who was a student when the house was built, and "fell in love with the crazy thing" while it was being constructed from Oubrerie’s sketches for four years, before the Miller’s moved it. Some have said the student construction, and lack of a single unified plan, shows. Oubrerie says that Miller once asked him why it took so long to build, since the developer finished 100 homes in the time it took Oubrerie and his team of volunteers to finish. He replied, "you know, you wanted an architect, and we don’t do shit." Oubrerie didn't hear many complaints from the Millers, though Robert did say, when Oubrerie explained the meaning behind a particular feature, that "he'd never paid $15,000 for a metaphor before."

The home might have remained a lesser-known eccentric—it was published in a Japanese magazine—but when Robert Miller died of cancer in 2002, his wife began to spend time elsewhere, and by 2006, it became an orphan, sold by Penny to Chilesworth Development for $3.25 million. By that time, Oubrerie had moved on to teach at Ohio State University. The home remained empty and unused until vandals broke windows and fixtures and spray-painted the interior in 2007, making it clear to preservationists already engaged with the home that something more needed to be done.

In 2007, Guyon helped form a nonprofit trust to protect the Miller House, the Foundation for Advanced Architecture. After repairing the damages (Guyon estimates it was restored back to 85% of its original condition), the foundation started soliciting money to try and preserve and protect the building. Hundreds of inquiries were sent, local museums and universities were approached, politicians were contacted, and alternative uses for the building were explored (Neon Indian filmed a video for the song "Sleep Paralysist" in the Miller House), but nothing panned out. The house ended up getting auctioned off in 2011, first purchased by First Federal Bank, than Ball Homes.

"Once I exhausted almost every possibility I could think of, at least I knew we had stopped to vandalism," says Guyon. "We just couldn’t find a future for it."

According to Guyon, there are a few potential futures for the Miller House. He’s spoken with representatives of Ball Homes, who don’t want to be the ones to demolish it, so it’s in no immediate danger (repairs have fixed most of the immediate problems). He believes "an angel" would need to come along an endow the home, and free it from its current limbo, and perhaps turn it into a house museum. It could be properly preserved on site, or, if someone with deep enough pockets and enough ambition comes along, they could move it. After all, said Guyon, they moved Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House, which was sold at auction.

The original goal of the preservationists was to make it an oasis, a place to study (yes, an enclave in Enclave). Guyon, and many other admirers, believe it’s a masterpiece that’s been denied its proper due.

"It’s like Fallingwater in that it’s so ideologically extreme," he says. "It almost that it doesn’t want to be lived in. It’s an inspiration. It’s hard to understand unless you actually walk through it. You get an idea of its complexity."

· 13 Little-Known Facts about Le Corbusier's Life, Loves, and Modernist Designs [Curbed]

· Striking Modern Home Channels Le Corbusier in North Carolina, Asks $2.25M [Curbed]

· Curbed Pocket Guide: House Museums Across America [Curbed]