"We have much to learn from the timber constructivists"

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Watzek House by John Yeon

"We have much to learn from the 'timber constructivists'"

Architects designing for America's future suburbs should look back to the country's unsung modernists, who created site-appropriate and liveable timber homes across the USA, says Aaron Betsky in this Opinion column.


Drive around the suburbs that arose around most American cities immediately before and after the second world war and you can spot them immediately: the homes that take the "ranchburger" just that much further, tilting the roof up, expressing the structure, stretching the proportions, and opening up the box.

They are constructed largely out of the same materials that you can see all around them: standard lumber, wood siding, glass, and perhaps a shingled roof. It is just that in these particular structures you can understand how those materials fit together, while their overall form is a refined version of the gabled, horizontally stretched version of the houses that were home to the American boom years. They are the promise of the suburban American home to make you at home in a new landscape fulfilled.

The further west you go across the country, the more expressive the forms become. While the presence on the East Coast of modern masters such as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer may have set the tone for a more reserved and monumental form of residential architecture there, by the time you get to the Midwest, the post-war homes begin to move out of the box in a Frank Lloyd Wright mode.

For eight years I lived in a house in Cincinnati designed by Carl Strauss, and I came to admire the free ways in which he created a skeleton of beams and posts sliding past brick walls for our split-level home.

In cities such as Minneapolis, which supported experimentation in art and architecture, architects such as Ralph Rapson and the Wright-trained John Howe pushed suburban forms even further beyond the confines of their roots in the balloon frame uprights American builders developed towards the end of the nineteenth century.

It is on the West Coast that the real experimentation became visible. The open plan the modernists were so fond of made sense in the gentle landscape, while technological innovation eased opening the house to the outside. The loosening of social relations contributed even further to development of open kitchens, conversation pits, and other ways to create more relaxed social and spatial nodes.

The "timber constructivists" developed an American architecture tradition based on the making of the core of American culture: the single-family home

The "timber constructivists" who designed these structures worked in and developed an American architecture tradition based not on monuments and abstraction, but on the making of the core of American culture: the single-family home.

They took the balloon frame, with its standardisation of wood construction and the freedom of spaces that implied, and understood the way in which the Shingle Style – and later the Prairie School – was able to push out its walls and lengthen its roof.

They also accepted the breakdown of hierarchies that both modernity (modern social conditions) and modernism (the attempt to represent those realities) brought with them, and, finally integrated the lessons of craft and rambling shelter generations of architects learned from the bungalow, that Indian colonial type that spread down from the Pacific Northwest and across the country.

The architects did not stop there. They brought out the timbers that held the structure together and found ways to express them, sliding beams past posts and eaves alike. They lengthened gables and stretched planes. They turned the walls into modest planes of vertical batten on the outside and plywood or wood veneer cocoons on the inside.

They lightened the homes with glass and anchored them with local stones. They eschewed monumentality, but not sweep or even grandeur. They made homes that worked, sheltered, and opened their inhabitants up to the possibilities of their landscape and the brave new world Americans were building.

In Los Angeles I once lived in a design by a master of suburban push, pull and soar: Edward Fickett, a now largely unknown architect from whose office plans for hundreds of San Fernando Valley forms flowed.

It is on the West Coast that the real experimentation became visible

Let the famous architects, who were part of the Case Study program sponsored by Arts & Architecture Magazine, design beautiful steel and glass boxes that were supposed to be mass producible; architects such as Fickett actually used standardised methods to make houses that might not have looked as startling of anything the likes of Craig Elwood or Charles and Ray Eames could produce, but responded with more verve to the realities of post-war American suburban life.

The experimentation also became more refined as you moved up the coast from Southern California. In San Francisco, the Bay Area School such as William Wurster built on the tradition of unconventional architects, most notably Bernard Maybeck, as well as on the realities of the climate where they built, to create a modernism that used gabled roofs, wood siding, and sometimes-rambling floor plans to make comfortable and striking homes.

These pioneers, in turn, made possible the work of Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker, the San Francisco-based design firm that revolutionised the single-family American home in the 1960s and 1970s.

Further up the coast, the influences of Japan and China become more evident in the work, as does the desire to create shapes that are more humble and use lumber to its fullest extent. One of the prime proponents of this form of Timber Constructivism, John Yeon, is the subject of an exhibition at the Portland Art Museum this summer.

His Watzek House, constructed right before the second world war for a timber baron, is a grid that turns the ceiling and walls, as well as the exterior, into a play of wood members and planes. Its main facade is a temple front whose columns are thin wood posts, mixing hints of colonial homes with echoes of the tall firs of the Pacific Northwest forests.

Yeon also designed the simpler Speculative House, of which nine were built, beautifully scaling the Watzek's House down to suburban lots and lives. Yeon went on to have a successful career after the second world war, designing both private homes and small institutional structures.

The single-family home is dissolving and may even disappear

He established a gentle form of modernism as a domestic setting that deliberately opened itself up not just to the flowing spaces structured by exposed timber modernist architects loved seeing in traditional Japanese architecture, but also to the detailing he saw in Chinese and Korean art and architecture – as well as in local vernacular building traditions.

The same was true of the Seattle architect Paul Kirk. Originally born in Salt Lake City, he moved to the Northwest when he was eight years old and started his practice immediately after graduating.

In his work he combined gestures that could bowl you over – such as the boulder wall around the fireplace in the 1962 Buckley Residence — with refined and recessive grids that opened his homes up to the surrounding nature.

He designed a number of houses for himself, each of which pushed the expression of wood beams, supported by a lattice of glass and more wood posed against stone walls, further than the one before. His houses ramble and open up, while providing moments of shelter within roofs that always gesture to the views beyond the confines of the house.

The architect Jim Olsen, partner in the firm Olsen Kundig, worked for Kirk, and you can see the influences of that Timber Constructivism in the work of his firm, as well as in the designs of Jim Cutler, Miller Hull, and other local firms.

Eschewing the excesses of both modernism and postmodernism, they have sought ways to accept, honour, and draw out the working methods, materials, and functional logic of a vernacular that is itself a combination or reaction to both local conditions and building materials, and to modern ways of living and making homes.

These days the single-family home is dissolving and may even disappear. We have to figure out how to build without using up non-renewable resources such as wood (which, though it can be grown on plantation and farms, by that method reduces biodiversity and threatens complex natural habitats). Yet, if we want to be at home in our sprawling world, we have much to learn from the timber constructivists.