March 8, 2009

Despite a fierce loyalty and appreciation among certain diehard devotees, mid-century modern architecture seems to be slowly disappearing in this country. So it's always a pleasure for us to see a thoughtfully executed renovation of a home from this high point of design history. The Pinon House is one such example.

For those cold Colorado Winters, Sommerfield and Pyatt replaced some of the original windows and doors to minimize heat loss.
For those cold Colorado Winters, Sommerfield and Pyatt replaced some of the original windows and doors to minimize heat loss.
For those cold Colorado Winters, Sommerfield and Pyatt replaced some of the original windows and doors to minimize heat loss.
For those cold Colorado Winters, Sommerfield and Pyatt replaced some of the original windows and doors to minimize heat loss.

The redesign of this 1950's ranch house is the product of a collaboration between Rick Sommerfeld of the3rdspace and Rob Pyatt of Pyatt Studio. Previously, the duo worked together on The Box House, a beautiful contemporary addition built from compressed straw panels. Of their collaboration, Pyatt says "working together creates a dynamic design process that hopefully delivers better design." We'd have to agree, because with the Pinon House Pyatt and Sommerfeld are two for two.

The architects used the renovation as an opportunity to explore the home's Usonian characteristics, an idea that finds its origins in Frank Lloyd Wright's quest for a truly democratic expression of American architecture. In his statement, Concerning the Usonian House, written for the opening of the 1953 Guggenheim show Sixty Years of Living Architecture: The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Mr. Wright described one of the principles of Usonian architecture: "the materials of the outside walls came inside just as appropriately and freely as those of the inside walls went outside. Intimate harmony was thus established not only in the house but with its site." In adhering to such ideas, the Pinon House has an excellent sense of visual continuity as the square concrete blocks that make up both the interior and exterior walls provide both structure and ornament  (another Usonian principle). This can best be seen as one enters the home through a sheet steel door that pivots open in a manner designed to highlight this continuity of materials. Visible in the gap created by the unique hinge, an exterior wall slides behind the door into the central living space, where mahogany and cedar finishes echo the new cedar fence separating the entry from the private courtyard.

 

No strangers to sustainability, it was important for Sommerfeld and Pyatt to conserve what they could of the original ranch house. Even though poor soil conditions caused some structural problems, the bones of the original home were still good and the architects were able to preserve and refinish the original cork floors and cedar ceilings. But the Pinon House isn't just a loving restoration of a fine mid-century specimen, modern conveniences were added as well. Windows and doors were replaced to minimize heat loss and new lighting was installed to brighten the open spaces of the original home. Also upgraded: The kitchen. Frank Lloyd Wright famously kept his kitchens small—often even labeling them "workspace" in his drawings. The designers of the original 1950s kitchen apparently subscribed to this idea as well, so Sommerfeld and Pyatt opened up the design by lowering a full hight wall and installing a reflective galvalume ceiling to help illuminate the narrow space. In another nod to interior/exterior continuity, the galvalume ceilings passes through the kitchen wall to cover the soffit and wrap the home in a standing seam metal roof.

 

While Frank Lloyd Wright's dreams of national Usonian towns never quite materialized, his ideas of unity and continuity in architecture remain more relevant than ever. With the Pinon house, Rick Sommerfeld and Rob Pyatt were able to take the best aspects of the Usonian philosophy and adapt it for a more contemporary lifestyle. Frank Lloyd Wright may be the most famous architect this country will ever produce, but his ideas should never be taken as dogma. This was, after all, a man who was known to rationalize his homes as a champions of “housewifery.”

Images by Michael Deleon

 

 

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