The image was a striking black-and-white photo that was taken by photographer Walter Boychuk, who happened to capture the Watzek House, a home in the hills of Portland that the 26-year-old Yeon had designed for the lumber magnate, Aubrey R. Watzek. It was taken at an auspicious moment when Mount Hood was peeking through the clouds. The image—with a perspective that appeared almost collapsed like a Japanese print—showcased the beautiful lines of the modernist wooden house, which perfectly mirrored the distant mountain. MoMA curators included the photo in their 1939 10th anniversary book, Art in Our Time, alongside Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Jacobs House. The world took note.
The Watzek House stood out for multiple reasons. The most obvious was that the wooden home—which was constructed from almost knot-free specimens of Douglas and Noble fir—defied International Style conventions.
What also set the home apart was its stark geometry and its integration into the Pacific Northwest landscape. The Watzek House immediately caught the eye of East Coast editors and curators who were quick to use the image of the home to support a regional aesthetic agenda. This vision was not necessarily aligned with Yeon's original intentions, but it fit—and thus, the Northwest Regional style of modernist architecture was born.
Once the U-shaped wooden home was thrown into the national spotlight, it was written about in numerous publications. Today, the Watzek House is still seen as a modern masterpiece. According to the National Register of Historic Places, it "has remained the most pivotal and famous example of modern domestic architecture in the Pacific Northwest." In fact, it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011.
Many of the elements of the home are extremely visionary—from the use of sustainable, locally-sourced materials (travertine marble being the only non-local material used), to the passive ventilation systems that Yeon invented and the double-paned windows. As the first such glazing to be used in the Pacific Northwest, the windows were designed to insulate the home against winds. Though all of these features are common elements in energy-efficient homes today, it was quite innovative for the time.
Yeon also rejected the open-plan design that was so prevalent, opting instead for enclosed rooms. "As European and American architects were abandoning interior walls and moldings for the cool, clean lines and open plans of the International Style, Yeon fearlessly turned the Watzek House into a 'sequence of revelations,'" explains Randy Gragg, head of the University of Oregon's John Yeon Center for Architecture and Landscape.
Yeon was involved not only in the design of the home, but he also played a major role in its interior design and the designing of furniture, fixtures, and lighting. In fact, a visit to the Watzek House by Rejuvenation inspired the company's Northwest Modern Collection. His passion for craft and collecting inspired his extensive personal collection of Asian and European decorative arts, some of which remain on display at the Watzek House today.
Although Yeon's reputation is limited outside the Pacific Northwest, the largely self-taught architect left a strong imprint on the region. In the years to come, Yeon engaged in a variety of architectural projects, including a series of "Speculative Houses"—the first in the U.S. to be constructed in plywood. The inexpensive series of nine homes were built between 1938 and 1940 and fit a need for cost-effective housing. They were painted a range of vibrant blue-green, which would come to be known as "Yeon blue." Over the course of his career, Yeon designed over 65 houses and buildings. However, only 18 of them were actually built. He placed the residences he designed into two categories, which he described as the "barn-style" and the "palace-style." His one public commission, the Portland Visitors Information Center, was almost as celebrated as the Watzek House—and was also published by MoMA.
Born into a wealthy Portland family, his limited portfolio was in part due to the fact that Yeon had the luxury of being able to pick and choose his projects. However, he was raised with a strong sense of social responsibility, and often used his means for causes he was passionate about—particularly environmental ones. Already a dedicated conservationist at 22, he borrowed against his life insurance policy to purchase a section of the Oregon coast, saving it from development. This portion of the coastline is now known as the John Yeon State Natural Area.
In 1965, Yeon purchased a 78-acre stretch of land directly across from Multnomah Falls in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge to protect it from possible industrial development. The Shire, which he developed over a 25-year period, is a carefully designed landscape with a sculpted lawn, a series of meadows, wetlands, vista points, river bays, and walking paths that are still enjoyed today.
Currently, Yeon is back in the spotlight as the subject of a retrospective at the Portland Art Museum entitled Quest For Beauty. The museum's largest show ever dedicated to a single architect, the exhibition features a wide selection of art, decorative arts, and historic materials lent by Richard Louis Brown—Yeon's longtime partner who founded the Yeon Center in 1995 with his gift of the Watzek House to the University of Oregon. The exhibition, which is a mix of Yeon's architecture and his eclectic art collection that inspired it, is a look at the architect as a "Renaissance Man." It highlights the range of his extraordinary talent, as well as his contemporary approach to design and his original vision for the Pacific Northwest. To accompany the exhibit, two books detailing his life and work, John Yeon: Architecture and John Yeon: Landscape, have been published by Andrea Monfried Editions and the John Yeon Center for Architecture and Landscape.
Curator and architecture scholar Barry Bergdoll sums it up best in his essay for John Yeon: Architecture, stating that Yeon once mused, "Nothing was written about the MoMA exhibit in the papers here (in Portland). So after the publication of the MoMA catalog, I was much more recognized elsewhere than in the Northwest." Bergdoll himself continues to observe, "Ironically enough, the state of affairs is reversed today: although in survey books he is a passing reference, in the Pacific Northwest, Yeon's work is better known and poised to recapture the wider attention it once commanded."
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