Architecture in Your Back Yard

Not long ago, some friends returned from a whirlwind European vacation. We gathered at their home to share in their experience and were treated to some spectacular photos from the trip. As I am an architect, they were especially pleased to present the many images of magnificent houses, noteworthy public buildings, and classic examples of civic grandeur. On this evening, and during their trip, architecture was and had been front and center, admired and enjoyed for all of its transcendent capacity. As we bade them goodnight and stepped out of their boxy Builder Colonial, I wondered: now that they were back in Connecticut, would these folks maintain their newfound enthusiasm for my chosen profession?

I suspected they would not. And so began my quest to raise community awareness through a house tour series, under the aegis of the Shoreline Arts Alliance, that will offer the public a chance to see what’s “right in our back yard.” Though many of us reside in repetitive developments, shop at box stores, and drive through the pharmacy, make no mistake: you don’t need to change your dollars for euros to find great architecture. It might be elusive: down that long driveway, behind the hedge, or past the gate. It could be a jewel of an interior in an unassuming wrapper. Or, it just might be right in front of your eyes, with only the need for a bit of education and history to make those eyes see better. But there’s plenty around, and as my wife will attest, I’m not shy about flashing my architectural access card and driving up that long driveway to find out what’s lurking ‘round the bend.

As an example, take a look at these images of a mid-century modern house in Essex.


I’d heard about it and a few years back, when a mechanical engineer I know mentioned that he was going over there to diagnose a heating problem, I tagged along and got the cook’s tour from the original owner himself. It had a profound effect on me. I never forgot the breathtaking views of the Connecticut River, the connection of indoors and outdoors, the jaw-dropping “floating” roof structure. Waking up in this house each day would doubtless transform one’s entire outlook, and I find it hard to believe that anyone, even the staunchest traditionalist, would be unmoved. At the risk of sounding sensational, to me, this type of house exemplifies the power of architecture to shape our lives.

Architecture is experiential. I had read about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Bear Run, PA. I had seen photos, I had studied floor plans. But only upon touring the house did I develop a true “body memory” of the place, one that remains with me to this day. I can take the tour anytime I want, in my mind, just as I can walk the streets of Charleston or ascend the Duomo in Florence. There is no substitute for the physical occupation and spatial experience of a work of architecture, and as such the images shown here, while compelling, are in no way the equal of a visit.

Architecture is art. Just as the art of painting should not be confused with rolling some linen white across the great room wall, architecture is not building, housing, shelter, or the like. LeCorbusier, a giant of 20th century modernism, put it well: “You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces: that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: this is beautiful. That is architecture.” I hope to show you what that means through our series.

Architecture matters. Whether we are aware of it or not, the built environment has an effect on us. Architecture, unlike any other art form, has or can have an impact on our daily existence. I am optimistic that, over time, our community-at-large will develop an increased understanding, awareness, and appreciation for the value and potential of great design through visits to houses such
as the one pictured. As such, it will be setting for the inaugural event in our series.

Excited as I am about the possibilities for my new program, I described it to my wife’s colleague, as a new offering by the Shoreline Arts. “But architecture’s not really an art, is it?” she replied. Clearly there’s work to be done.