Linden Hills, a leafy neighborhood in southwest Minneapolis abutting recreational Lake Calhoun, is a spot where few fences divide the ranch houses from the Cape Cods and the bungalows, most of them modest exercises in Midwestern economy. Parks abound and the place smacks of the middle-class wholesomeness and comfort of friendly public schools and copious ice-skating. Change is afoot, however, as the occasional 3,000-plus-square-foot abode muscles its way into this urban enclave, prompting unhappy residents to post signs in their lawns proclaiming "Monster Houses Make Bad Neighbors." One such brand-new monster house—complete with a sign of its own reading "For Sale"—seems a dodgy candidate for purchase given the hackles it’s so manifestly raised and the damning signage from the neighbors. If you’re moving into the most ostentatious house on the block, it seems, you should at least have the gall to build it yourself. Vacant lots are rare in Linden Hills, though, and more common than outsized new development are footprint-expanding renovations and additions.
Architect Christian Dean, a third of the three-man operation City Desk Studio, is tall, fair, and lean (and bears a passing resemblance, not due solely to his 6'5" frame, to NBA MVP Dirk Nowitzki). He and his wife Karie moved into a traditional, 1,000-square-foot house in Linden Hills in 1994, its cedar shakes, screened-in porch, and two dormers the picture of the neighborhood’s building vernacular. But as the Dean family grew—their two cats now jockey for space with their three sons—it became clear that the crowded Cape Cod, not unlike Hyannis Port in August, would need to grow. Expanding the house well into the yard, as the Deans decided to do, may seem heretical for a family with three growing boys, but as Christian explains: "We don’t need a big yard. There’s a park a block and a half away and that’s our social outdoor space. What we needed was more living space."
"We wanted to follow the pattern of the neighborhood," says Christian of the addition they completed in early 2005. "Many houses have added attached garages [the Deans’ is detached and sits behind the house]; ours is an addition to the living space." Instead of adding to the upstairs—whose two small bedrooms and full bath house Mason, Quentin, and Owen, all under seven—the Deans opted to add to the back of the house. "Lots of the additions around here are heavy-handed," says Christian. "Usually you’ll just get some more space upstairs with a dormer out back."
Christian took the lead on the project, aided by City Desk Studio partners Bob Ganser and Ben Awes, and decided to build two small, rectilinear additions to the back of the house. The larger one provides a small master bedroom and bath that connect to the original house via a "swingroom" that accommodates buckets of Star Wars action figures as easily as it does overnight guests. The other, shorter projection connects to the first by way of a small Mangaris wood deck, and extends the kitchen. Sorely needed space aside, the real coup de grâce is the 17 small windows in the kitchen and another 30 in the new bedroom, the largest no more than a foot square, glazed right into the sheathing. They provide ample diffuse light and fragmented but clear views of the outdoors. "We get some bang for our buck with the shell being more decorative," Christian says. "The windows aren’t about transparency, but about porosity, which isn’t always talked about in residential design."
The effect is repeated in the Deans’ new bedroom, which looks out onto the backyard and into the neigh-bors’ yard some 30 feet away. Clearly, privacy was a concern, but given the distance from the neighbors’ house it ends up mattering little. "If you stand at one of the windows you get a pretty decent range of the view outside, and the farther you back up the less you see," Christian explains. The same is true for someone looking in; a dedicated voyeur would have to stand right at the wall to catch a glimpse of the interior. "Looking at the façade you get almost a pixelated view of the inside," reasons Christian, "though it’s a very low DPI." Karie, a senior art director at Target’s corporate headquarters, opines, with Midwestern modesty: "I don’t mean to be too artsy, but it really is like an installation piece. The light dapples in as you move through the space."
While other denizens of Linden Hills were immediately sold on the windows—"We haven’t had any complaints from the neighbors," reports Karie—it was the builders who needed reassurance. "Part of saving money on a project like this is really doing the research and knowing what you’re talking about during construction," says Christian. "We worked with a great builder, but when I told him about the windows he was skeptical. He thought that it would require extra work, but when I told him that all the windows would be mounted on studs and glazed into the exterior he calmed down. To keep costs down we had to be our own advocates and get more hands-on."
Perhaps the most surprising element of the Deans’ addition is how well it integrates into the existing home. Neither an ostentatious move toward modernity nor a traditionalist expansion, the new home occupies a middle ground. "It’s not totally seamless," Christian says. "The pure form of the little Cape Cod is still legible, but they’re not wholly distinct from each other either. I wanted that tension."
The Deans’ house still looks very much like part of the neighborhood, and any hard feelings over the addition are softened by the sight of the boys playing in the yard. Massive new development still seems to be the local villain, as no one has yet put up any "Modern Houses Make Bad Neighbors" signs. And yet the residential makeup of the place is slightly changed. "I think this kind of design has a place in Minneapolis," says Christian of the art-friendly city with no shortage of starchitect projects. "I’ve always been inspired by Herzog + de Meuron’s take on the texture of buildings’ skin"—the metal façade of their addition to the Walker Art Center just miles away glints and bends, evoking the feel of crumpled paper—"I wanted to do some of the same things here, playing with textures." The Dean addition predates Herzog + de Meuron’s, a fact Christian doesn’t fail to point out in the midst of his admiration: "Ours was first, though."
For Christian and his partners at City Desk Studio, materiality was a point of abstraction, but one that’s firmly grounded in Minnesota’s architectural landscape. "The cedar shake is ubiquitous, this one-and-a-half-story house is ubiquitous," says Christian. "It gave us an opportunity to work with traditional cladding and to do a different sort of modernism, a more rustic sort. Not as taut or streamlined as some of the European stuff. There’s a long tradition here in Minnesota of talented people working in the vernacular."
Though monster houses are on the minds of Linden Hills residents, there looks to be little chance of them taking over the neighborhood. But as the American building vernacular lists away from the tradition of craft, no matter the aesthetic program, toward the solipsism of maximum square footage, modest additions like the Deans’ feel more thoughtful and more precious than ever. And not just for its perforated perfection.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.