SI Vault
Cranston Jones
January 14, 1963
That 'little place in the country' has turned into a billion-dollar-a-year business, powerful enough to inspire radical changes in building methods and the most exciting domestic architecture being created in America today
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January 14, 1963

The New Architecture Of Leisure

That 'little place in the country' has turned into a billion-dollar-a-year business, powerful enough to inspire radical changes in building methods and the most exciting domestic architecture being created in America today

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In a vacation house," says Architect Eliot Noyes, "you have a desire for a kind of space and character quite different from any other type of structure. It must be invested with a special feeling. It is not just another home."

And Eliot Noyes, and architects everywhere, are suddenly finding more opportunities to "invest a house with special feeling" than they've ever had before. For Americans, who already own 1.2 million vacation houses, will build 100,000 more of them, worth a billion dollars, in 1963. Whether built on a dune, by a lake, in the mountains, woods or desert, they all serve a common need—getting away from it all. They range all the way from do-it-yourself precut cabins, for $695, to $200,000 travertine-floored beach palaces.

For community planners and the building industry, the leisure-house business could not come along at a better time—just at the end of the great postwar housing shortage. And for the architect there are fresh opportunities to create pleasures and delights, major ingredients of the place that's designed to house a family at play.

The laboratory in which the architect most often feels himself free to create these special qualities is the pleasure dome he builds for himself and his own family. He is forced to battle with his own budget, but he also knows his client. There is no one to blame but himself if he fails, so he dares to risk his most novel solutions. The houses that architects are designing for themselves today forecast the shape of the leisure houses of tomorrow.

One such idea house, immensely influential if little known, is the cottage built by the Hungarian-born, Bauhaus-trained architect, Marcel Breuer, overlooking the ponds of the Cape Cod town of Wellfleet. Breuer found the spot on a motoring trip in 1943, when he was teaching at Harvard, and the site, with its tall pine trees and dunes, its rugged, dry landscape, appealed to him instantly. He decided to leave the sloping dune with its natural brush and pine needle coverage undisturbed and did this by "floating" the house on posts, resting on circular concrete foundations poured in the sand. Not only was the dune coverage untouched, but the posts took care of the slope of the ground. He wanted the simplest kind of construction, both for economy and because the house had to be assembled at the end of a long sandy lane. He positioned the bathroom and kitchen units back to back, thus grouping the service pipes into one cluster column.

Breuer also figured that he would save time and money if the walls, of quarter-inch plywood (later covered with vertical cedar siding), were assembled on the ground. To get them into place he used a rope-and-tackle rig attached to the surrounding pines. Opening out from the kitchen was the living room, which focused on a cement-block chimney, and the 12-foot hung porch, suspended on trusses; the other end of the house was a long corridor with two bedrooms leading off and terminating in a full-width studio. To shield the glass areas he extended the roof on the side facing south. Since 1948, when this snug rectangle on stilts was finished, hurricanes have ripped across the area, uprooting some of the tall pines, but they have left the house as solid as before.

Once seen, the idea of placing a box on stilts and floating it over the dune seems simplicity itself. And so does that ubiquitous challenger of the last decade, the popular A-frame, the granddaddy of which is still perched serenely on the side of a mountain in Mill Valley across the Golden Gate Bridge. That an equilateral triangle is one of the strongest geometric forms conceivable has long been known, but the credit of employing it first as the basic form for a vacation house is given, in architectural circles at least, to the Bay Area firm of Campbell & Wong, which erected its first one in 1950 on the minuscule budget of $4,500. Essentially all roof and a floor, easy to build, indefinitely extendable (one just adds more triangles), the A-frame has proved flexible enough to suit the deep-snow Sierras and the searing sun of the seashore.

The A-frame, of course, has its drawbacks—one is that heat tends to gather high up at the peak. A distressed owner of a New England A-frame ski lodge has rigged a recirculating pipe and fan to pull the heat back down to the floor, where it is needed. But the A-frame can also be the basis of a structural system capable of great spaciousness and drama, as has been proved by San Francisco Architect Nathaniel Owings, whose $100,000 aerie perched 600 feet above the Pacific near Carmel, Calif. has been called "the most beautiful house on the most beautiful site in the U.S."

George Rockrise, another San Francisco architect, has designed more than 150 houses from Alaska to Florida. Rockrise also is an A-frame enthusiast, but for his own year-round vacation house at Squaw Valley he designed a square house, a form that he dramatized and kept from resembling a box by placing a peaked roof at each corner. The floor-to-ceiling glass lets in an eyeful of blue sky and snow-covered Sierras as well as a dramatic underfoot view of rock-strewn Squaw Creek, a stream that runs right past the foot of the house. Architect Rockrise wanted a lot for his $25,000 investment: room for himself, wife and two children, guest rooms, a big communal room and all the view he could get, including an outdoor deck for summer right over the banks of the creek. And to make sure that the upstairs wasn't treated as second-class territory, he built an interior balcony with a view through the expanse of glass. Now the possessor of a year-round vacation lodge that can sleep up to 18, he feels he has gotten his money's worth.

Olav Hammarstrom, a Finnish-born architect, created a leisure house of great beauty on a shoestring $7,500. Hammarstrom resolved not to cut a single tree on his woodsy Cape Cod site. This decision forced him to build an elbow-shaped house with an unusual interior perspective that appears to add feet to the spacious feeling of the living room. At one end of the living room there is a raised platform for dining Japanese fashion, and the step-up does double duty by serving as a bench for the fireplace set in the elbow crook. This slight elevation also gives a better view of the sea. Since the sheets of glass that form the walls are set below the platform level, they become all but invisible, giving one the impression of being in an open pavilion. The floor is covered with fabrics made by Mrs. Hammarstrom, who as Marianne Strengell is a world-famous weaver. Where's the sauna for piping-hot steam baths? Hammarstrom is busy designing one now.

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