Up for auction in May, the Winton Guest House was the project a young Frank Gehry used to further develop his deconstructionism.
From above, the whimsical structure looks like the final submission from a team of grade-school architects, toy blocks and Seussical structural analysis at play. A sculpture and architectural experiment with shapes clad in stone, Finnish plywood, and lead-coated copper, the 1987 Winton Guest House was the playful creation of a then on-the-rise architect named Frank Gehry. Designed for Mike and Penny Winton, Minneapolis residents who needed more space than their Philip Johnson-designed brick home could provide, the commission proved a pivotal one for the future Pritzker winner; you can start to see the curves that would would soon ribbon into his signature style. After a series of moves over the last few years—the Wintons sold the property in 2002, and then the new owner donated the guest home to the University of St. Thomas, which moved it 110 miles to Owatonna—it’s now being sold by Wright Auctions on May 19, 2015. Dwell spoke with Richard Wright and a few architectural experts to understand what makes the Winton Guest House such an important creation.
The Wintons commissioned Gehry after reading about his work in The New York Times in 1982. It was the pick of a client with premonition, and as the final structure indicates, an open mind. The architect was asked to create a space for the Wintons' visiting family—five kids and plenty of grandchildren necessitated the extra room—and complement the main home, a brick Philip Johnson “donut” on a 12-acre plot on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. But Gehry followed his own muse, and often talked about the home he created as pure sculpture, according to Victoria Young, the Professor of Modern Architectural History at St. Thomas University and Coordinator of Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House. “Even the original models have all these disparate shapes,” she says. “The first model he presented to them had a log cabin, referencing the fact that the Wintons' fortune came from Canadian lumber." Since it was a guest house, Gehry felt free to experiment. "You can explore things in a way you can’t in a place people live in all the time.”
Gehry’s first project outside of California, the 2,300-square-foot guest house represented more than a geographic transition. According to Young, this home was a key moment for the evolution of Gehry’s style. At a time when Philip Johnson was designing that AT&T building and quintessential postmodern structures were being built, Gehry was “breaking apart the understanding of a building. That’s what postmodernists do, but not the way Gehry does. He was doing something completely different. With Winton, he breaks apart the building, but hasn’t cladded it in the same material. It’s a really pivotal moment of breaking apart the structure into these shapes.”
“Early in his career, Gehry was able to experiment with his own home—deconstructing rooms and functions into the shapes of the actual residence—and explore materials which are non-traditional,” says Christy MacLear, Executive Director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. “The Winton Guest House happens in ’87, and is the step between his own home and his commission at the University of Minnesota in ’90 where he moves his deconstructionist style toward what we see in ’97 in Bilbao.”
“The Winton House combines Gehry’s love of sculpture, his interest in urbanism—as each form is said to be a building in a village—and his expression as an artist, given the relationship he cited with the painter Morandi,” says MacLear. The guest home provided an interesting contrast to the classical, International-Style modernism of Johnson’s main residence, perhaps a physical metaphor to where both architects were at in their careers, one a known master, the other a young creative trying to find his voice. “Philip Johnson loved Frank Gehry not only because they both loved art and architecture,” says MacLear, “but because Frank gave Philip what all mentors want—a new view into the ideas of the future.”
“The grandkids loved it; they loved the loft space,” says Young. “The light in that space is fantastic, it just creeps up the wall. [The house] is filled with all these unexpected moments.”
Wright’s auction estimate, $1,000,000 to $1,500,000, is not a high bar for a Gehry, as Richard Wright explains, but there will be some added cost for whomever has the winning bid. Moving the structure, a condition of purchasing the home, will probably require complete disassembly and a cross-country move on a flatbed truck. Wright was quoted $800,000 for a 110-mile move, and says no move within the continental United States would be more than $2,000,000. It’ll be interesting to see where the structure lands, in private hands or a museum, because as Young puts it, “nobody has figured out how to live in it full time.” The guest bedrooms don’t have much space for extra furniture, and the kitchen is just a simple galley kitchen.
“It really synthesizes the ideas that turn out to be his signature style,” says Richard Wright, “The concept of a little village of disparate masses that come together to form a united structure, each with very different volumes and voices. You certainly see that in Bilbao and his true masterpieces. He was working on these ideas in houses before this, but I think he really nails it it with the Winton project.”