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November 12, 2010

The Miller House is an unusual architectural specimen. No, not the Miller House by Richard Neutra or Eero Saarinen. This Miller house was designed by Jose Oubrerie, and most likely, you haven't heard of it. Designed over a course of five years with the cooperation of his students and local master builders, Oubrerie's 1988 Miller House is a testament to architectural discovery through variation and applied testing. Located on the outskirts of horse country in the suburban fringe of Lexington, Kentucky, this onetime residence is now a resource of public domain (at least for now). While clearly in the lineage of Le Corbusier, with whom Oubrerie was a student and protégé, the structure's current accessibility and context is threatened. Foundation for Advanced Architecture, a nonprofit trust founded and headed by local architect Scott Guyon, has pledged to save what author Kenneth Frampton has deemed a “master work” from ruin. Yet this neo-Cubist gem still faces an uncertain future.

While Dean of the college of Design and Architecture at University of Kentucky, Oubrerie was commissioned by attorney Robert Miller to design his dream home. It would be situated on a 30-acre lot, around which Miller and his partner planned to develop a neighborhood of suburban tract homes. Though Miller had the foresight to plant what serves now as a curtain of trees that blocks out two adjacent neighborhoods, there remains a striking dichotomy between the house's current field condition—literally a highly articulated object in a seemingly rural plane—to that of the Agrestic-like neighborhood one must pass through to reach it.

Proposals to save the house have come in several guises, from celebrity endorsement and a proposal to reprogram the building as a community center to outright sale. But why not benefit from the chance of an early zoning law—which until the late nineties deemed the lot outside the urban service boundary, protecting it from similar development? It wouldn’t take much to transform the land and house into a nature reserve and architectural retreat for the local and international design community to enjoy for years to come. It's easy to imagine this place as an oasis, invigorating creative minds of young and old alike, but like most things, ultimately it’s a matter of funding.

  • 
  Oubrerie was moved by the predicament of urbanity and domesticity, in an arguably neoclassical and self-proclaimed lineage, from fifteenth century Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti to 1960s Dutch Structuralist Aldo Van Eyck, and he addressed the notion of the city in this house. Whereas Oubrerie obeys the rules of human-centered proportions, in typical Modernist irreverence, he defies expectations, taking every opportunity to call attention to breaks in geometric patterning.
    Oubrerie was moved by the predicament of urbanity and domesticity, in an arguably neoclassical and self-proclaimed lineage, from fifteenth century Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti to 1960s Dutch Structuralist Aldo Van Eyck, and he addressed the notion of the city in this house. Whereas Oubrerie obeys the rules of human-centered proportions, in typical Modernist irreverence, he defies expectations, taking every opportunity to call attention to breaks in geometric patterning.
  • 
  While contemplating the sunscreen slab, Scott Guyon declared, “every chance Oubrerie gets he expresses the structure in some slip or revealing way” braces are pulled outside the envelope and tied back, “its like a lab on methods and materials.” Indeed there was no fixed set of drawings, and none of the final drawings represented what was actually built.
    While contemplating the sunscreen slab, Scott Guyon declared, “every chance Oubrerie gets he expresses the structure in some slip or revealing way” braces are pulled outside the envelope and tied back, “its like a lab on methods and materials.” Indeed there was no fixed set of drawings, and none of the final drawings represented what was actually built.
  • 
  “You have this very unusual situation you could never reproduce: a masterwork house finds itself in the suburbs, and the development is stalled and they both need repurposing, and now we need to get someone to partner,“ explains Guyon. He estimates it would take an additional seven million dollars to keep and maintain in the house as a public house museum and park. From the second-floor balcony bathed in late afternoon light, one can see a field of bluegrass, and the grid of Lexington suburbs in the distance.
    “You have this very unusual situation you could never reproduce: a masterwork house finds itself in the suburbs, and the development is stalled and they both need repurposing, and now we need to get someone to partner,“ explains Guyon. He estimates it would take an additional seven million dollars to keep and maintain in the house as a public house museum and park. From the second-floor balcony bathed in late afternoon light, one can see a field of bluegrass, and the grid of Lexington suburbs in the distance.
  • 
  The hearth is central, and like the rest of the house, reassuring in its classism, in both proportion and assembly. While in a way austere, the richness of material keeps the house from feeling cold or operational. Still, it has to be understood as an exercise in Architecture for architectures sake, high couture, embracing certain abstract ideas of architecture and not necessarily a practical application in society.
    The hearth is central, and like the rest of the house, reassuring in its classism, in both proportion and assembly. While in a way austere, the richness of material keeps the house from feeling cold or operational. Still, it has to be understood as an exercise in Architecture for architectures sake, high couture, embracing certain abstract ideas of architecture and not necessarily a practical application in society.
  • 
  Above the fireplace, one can see the confluence of three bi-level cubes comprising apartment-volumes for parents (master suite), children, and public (piazza). And while the totality might elaborate notions of mansion-house or programs like foyer and hallway for example, one must traverse a network of stairs, exterior balconies and interior bridges, which seem to confound clear notions of programmatic space.
    Above the fireplace, one can see the confluence of three bi-level cubes comprising apartment-volumes for parents (master suite), children, and public (piazza). And while the totality might elaborate notions of mansion-house or programs like foyer and hallway for example, one must traverse a network of stairs, exterior balconies and interior bridges, which seem to confound clear notions of programmatic space.
  • 
  But don’t mistake the vibrant colors or hovering masses for Postmodernist work like the colliding geometries of Daniel Libeskind, Guyon warns, the narrative for this building could not be more different.
    But don’t mistake the vibrant colors or hovering masses for Postmodernist work like the colliding geometries of Daniel Libeskind, Guyon warns, the narrative for this building could not be more different.
  • 
  He asserts that Oubrerie “did everything he ever wanted to do here. The more you experience the house, the more intensely you will see the assemblage. “He went to great pains so that you would ultimately see differences in what at first seem repeatable instances.” Visible in the stairs, the underside of balconies, the infill of railings, they are all handled oppositely, with different mountings—“conditions, conditions, conditions, it’s almost baroque. Ornament on top of ornament.”
    He asserts that Oubrerie “did everything he ever wanted to do here. The more you experience the house, the more intensely you will see the assemblage. “He went to great pains so that you would ultimately see differences in what at first seem repeatable instances.” Visible in the stairs, the underside of balconies, the infill of railings, they are all handled oppositely, with different mountings—“conditions, conditions, conditions, it’s almost baroque. Ornament on top of ornament.”
  • 
  Guyon continues: “people have misgivings about pure modernism being sterile, too object driven and not feminine enough, [but here] its more than just white oak, sure materials are part of it and has an interesting value that’s really not typical of the first generation modernist houses…it’s not all ideology, it’s a friendly house, and it has these beautiful opportunities for transparency and light.”
    Guyon continues: “people have misgivings about pure modernism being sterile, too object driven and not feminine enough, [but here] its more than just white oak, sure materials are part of it and has an interesting value that’s really not typical of the first generation modernist houses…it’s not all ideology, it’s a friendly house, and it has these beautiful opportunities for transparency and light.”
  • 
  A view of one of the boys’ bedroom shows how the furniture was built into the wall and the relationship of walls to the floor, making clear, as Guyon has described, that this is really “an experiment masquerading as a house.” As is indicative of a pure Modernist home, all glass is fixed, with separate screened compartments for ventilation. Circulation and places of repose are also separated. As one can see at the right of the frame, the box is denied, the cube explodes, things come apart and nothing directly touches. “Its not egalitarian, its completely elite. Though many find it to be bare bones, its just really intense in its craft,” says Guyon.
    A view of one of the boys’ bedroom shows how the furniture was built into the wall and the relationship of walls to the floor, making clear, as Guyon has described, that this is really “an experiment masquerading as a house.” As is indicative of a pure Modernist home, all glass is fixed, with separate screened compartments for ventilation. Circulation and places of repose are also separated. As one can see at the right of the frame, the box is denied, the cube explodes, things come apart and nothing directly touches. “Its not egalitarian, its completely elite. Though many find it to be bare bones, its just really intense in its craft,” says Guyon.
  • 
  It was Oubrerie’s intention that the house be considered from all sides, and indeed its cinematic qualities undeniably experienced as a series of frames, make it difficult to capture. According to Oubrerie, “in terms of construction, [the aim was] to give to each piece its identity. Each piece is a project in itself. This was a classical facade (front), while the back is closer to Destijl; each facade becomes a dwelling unto itself.” To experience the Miller House is both an intellectual and intuitive delight, and at the very least one must appreciate that, in the words of Guyon, “someone actually financed a studio project to the end.” Sadly, and inevitably, in the words of its architect:  “The fate of the work today is out of my control.”
    It was Oubrerie’s intention that the house be considered from all sides, and indeed its cinematic qualities undeniably experienced as a series of frames, make it difficult to capture. According to Oubrerie, “in terms of construction, [the aim was] to give to each piece its identity. Each piece is a project in itself. This was a classical facade (front), while the back is closer to Destijl; each facade becomes a dwelling unto itself.” To experience the Miller House is both an intellectual and intuitive delight, and at the very least one must appreciate that, in the words of Guyon, “someone actually financed a studio project to the end.” Sadly, and inevitably, in the words of its architect: “The fate of the work today is out of my control.”
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Oubrerie was moved by the predicament of urbanity and domesticity, in an arguably neoclassical and self-proclaimed lineage, from fifteenth century Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti to 1960s Dutch Structuralist Aldo Van Eyck, and he addressed the noti
Oubrerie was moved by the predicament of urbanity and domesticity, in an arguably neoclassical and self-proclaimed lineage, from fifteenth century Italian humanist Leon Battista Alberti to 1960s Dutch Structuralist Aldo Van Eyck, and he addressed the notion of the city in this house. Whereas Oubrerie obeys the rules of human-centered proportions, in typical Modernist irreverence, he defies expectations, taking every opportunity to call attention to breaks in geometric patterning.

To learn more about the house and its history, please visit the slideshow.

For more information see the Miller House website:
thefoundationforadvancedarchitecture.org or modernacommunity.com

To help save the Miller House contact:
Scott Guyon, c/o Guyon Architects Inc.
401 West Main Street, Suite 321, Lexington, KY 40507
email at: guyon_design@msn.com

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