a modern birdhouse for a modern house

Etsy is a wonderful place. Despite being all crafty and whatnot, there are crafters on there with impeccable design and construction skills to fabricate accessories for the most modern of environments. Our mailbox came from Etsy, as do these birdhouses:

Wanting to install a birdhouse somewhere on the "back forty", the birdhouse we chose is made by HublerFurniture:

via HublerFurniture

Simple cube with nice variation of wood in the front. The design is clever in that the top is solid (no place for water to seep in) and that the house "hangs" off of the back which is attached to the tree (or whatever you want to attach is to).

Here's what we received in the mail:

A work of art, really. Hard for me to not just place it on a bookshelf and call it a day...

Here where we wanted to install it:

This is the window above our bed. The idea is that we can see it when looking out the window.

Installing the removable back of the birdhouse to the tree:

And now with the house slid over the back:

And here it is out the window:

And there you have it! With Austin rents the way they are, we're hoping to pull in $450 a month from our first renters!


What is Modern? 1. Lack of Ornamentation

Part 1 of a 10-part series on what is Modern.

Rococo (over)ornamentation (photo from Wikipedia)

Lack of ornamentation is key to Modern: Thou shall not adorn thy buildings with puffery. The rebellion against over-ornamentation goes back to the mid-1800s with the likes of William Morris, he in turn inspired by the writings of John Ruskin. Morris and his followers created the Arts and Crafts Movement in architecture (more commonly called Craftsman in the United States) that celebrated the handiwork of the craftsman in contrast to machine-generated lathe work lathered upon the gingerbread Victorians of the time.

The anti-over-ornamentation movement was furthered by Louis Sullivan (who wrote “It could only benefit us if for a time we were to abandon ornament and concentrate entirely on the erection of buildings that were finely shaped and charming in their sobriety.”) and then carried even farther by his one-time understudy Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1800s. Although Sullivan and Wright railed against ornamentation, they continued to ornament their work (Wright less so than Sullivan) albeit at a greatly reduced level than their contemporaries.

Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York, by Louis Sullivan (photo from Wikipedia)

Adolf Loos, inspired by the quote above from Sullivan, reached the apex of anti-ornamentation, at least theoretically, in 1910 when he provocatively (and entertainingly) equated ornamentation with criminality in a speech and later an essay titled “Ornamentation and Crime”. Loos wrote "To find beauty in form instead of making it depend on ornament is the goal to which humanity is aspiring."  He goes on to equate any kind of ornamentation with degenerate and illicit behavior: “The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate.” and “Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.”

I wonder what Adolf Loos would think about kids these days...

Rufer House, 1922, by Adolf Loos. Yo, Loos: What's with the frieze?!?!?

Because of Loos, the complete lack of ornamentation became the ideal and a major commandment of Modern architecture. However, even he, perhaps at the bitter behest of clients, included some ornamentation in his buildings. It was the next generation, the true Modernists, that erased ornamentation from buildings completely.

Put quite simply, Modern architecture is not ornamented. This does not mean that Modern architecture is not artful or pleasing to the eye, it’s just that its beauty is in the skin and bones, not the makeup or the jewelry.

A natural beauty.


Frank Lloyd Wright's cat house

No, no, no: Not that kind of cat house. We're talking truly a house for a cat! More after the jump.


we're in Austin Home Magazine!

We were interviewed several weeks ago for Austin Home Magazine, and the magazine is out now! Nifty article (maybe we'll post it once this issue is off the newsstands). Hard to find out and about town, but Bookpeople has it.


haiku for the book "Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration" by Henry-Russell Hitchcock

there is transition
connections to histories
before there is "new"

This book, published in 1929, is rather remarkable. It predates the 1932 MoMA show on Modern architecture by a few years (really, it laid the foundation for the show) and represents Henry-Russell Hitchcock's attempt to document the transition from traditional style to the International Style (and he uses those words [international style {lowercase}] in this book). He refers to the transitional period between classical architecture and "true" Modernism as the "New Tradition" (what I generally refer to as the proto-Modernists) and the practitioners of true Modernism as the "New Pioneers". He stresses that a primary triumph of the New Tradition was the reunification of engineering and art, something eagerly carried forward by the New Pioneers. The book also helps explain why R.M. Schindler was excluded from the 1932 Museum of Modern Art show on Modern architecture, and it has nothing to do with the previously published reasons I've seen.

Modernism has a root tapped deeply into neogothicism, at least on a theoretical basis. G.G. Scott's theories on architecture, articulated in his 1857 book On Gothic Architecture [Hitchcock refers to this title, but it appears he's really referring to Remarks on Secular and Domestic Architecture, Present and Future], stated that the architecture of the future needed to be "eminently practical" and "straight forward" [Scott's emphasis]. Future architecture "...must not strive unduly after artistic effects--it must avoid fantastic and strange forms; it must have a simple primary aim at utility; at, in the first place, thoroughly and in the best way providing for the object for which the building is erected; and, secondly, at expressing that purpose in its architectural aspect..." In other words, as Louis Sullivan stated decades later, form follows function.

G.G. Scott's 1857 book

Hitchcock considered H.H. Richardson in addition to Louis Sullivan as paving the way for Frank Lloyd Wright and further considered Richardson as great an architect as Wright. On Wright, Hitchcock writes (and I agree): "[i]t is pertinent to note that his house interiors...were never worthy of his exteriors despite the extraordinary thoroughness with which he studied their design and the excellence of their plans. His rooms were dark, uncomfortable and generally at once cluttered and monotonous." He considered the Barnsdall House "...one of his least successful buildings." (even Wright termed it "transitional").

Hitchcock noted that "Neutra alone is a worthy disciple of Wright." and observed that Neutra is "...definitely a New Pioneer." Hitchcock ends his discussion on Wright by noting that "[i]t remains to be said in conclusion that he is, without qualification and without the support of any worthy colleagues or important American followers, the greatest American architect of the first quarter of the twentieth century." I'm sure Frank hated that.

Hitchcock observed that Le Corbusier was among the few, if not the first, able to make his building and his theories work as "an integrated whole". Hitchcock credited Corbusier with being the first to break completely from the New Tradition. About Mies van der Rohe, Hitchcock wrote (and accurately predicted) that "[h]e remains still primarily a man of promise. The line of his works suggests that that promise will in time--for he does not build much nor move rapidly--be amply fulfilled."

Hitchcock observed that America had struggled up to that time with not only the work of the New Pioneers but even the New Tradition. He marked the competition for the Tribune Tower in Chicago as a turning point for introducing the New Pioneers (and the New Tradition) to the United States. In America, he recognized Neutra as the most important New Pioneer in America, impressed as he was by Neutra's book, Wie Baut Amerika? He also identifies Neutra as Wright's "most significant pupil" (I think it's a stretch to call Neutra a pupil of Wright via the few months he worked with Wright, but there it is).

Walter Gropius' submission to the Chicago Tribune tower competition in 1922

On Schindler, Hitchcock wrote: "Another Austrian in California, Schindler, has remained closer to the New Tradition. Yet at the same time he has paralleled with mediocre success the more extreme aesthetic researches of Le Corbusier and the men of de Stijl." This is a fascinating statement. One, it suggests Hitchcock had seen a wide swath of Schindler's structures. Two, it's clear he wasn't impressed with Schindler's earlier solo work (probably his house, perhaps the Pueblo-Ribera Apartments, and the How House) since they could be seen to have one foot in Arts and Crafts (and perhaps the New Traditionalist Wright). And three, Hitchcock recognized, perhaps in Schindler's contemporary work, he "paralleled" key elements of Corbusier and de Stijl. This last bit is remarkable, an acknowledgement that Schindler was independently developing the best bits of Modern architecture (the best bits as defined by Hitchcock) in southern California (but in a "mediocre" manner).

Being something of an academic in nature, Hitchcock gave greater credence to architects who published theories in addition to building based on those theories versus mere followers aping the new style. Although Schindler had a manifesto, it wasn't published at the time. Moving to America removed him from the network in Europe where he may have been able to publish in the architectural tomes of the times. Although Schindler had plans for a book on American construction, his early success as a builder and the need to support his family (and the Neutras...) kept him from publishing that book. Furthermore, Neutra reneged on his proposal to work with Schindler on the book, something Neutra wrote while living at Schindler's house.

Lovell Beach House, R.M. Schindler, 1922-1926

Hitchcock also closely associated the New Pioneers with new construction methods, namely ferroconcrete. In this, he shared the European bias toward solid construction (a bias that still exists today; Europeans are amazed at our affinity to stick [that is, wood] construction). Schindler had this same bias but recognized that pure concrete construction cost too much for the American market, a market used to costs associated with stick construction. At best, Schindler, in his earlier work, attempted to fuse the two before abandoning concrete altogether except for foundations. Hitchcock associated the new architecture with ferroconcrete construction, even scolding Mies for using brick and Corbu for using granite veneer. He was not impressed with Schindler's use of wood: "In the present period of transition, however...traditional materials in general imply the past rather than the present and must be avoided for psychological, not technical, reasons. This is clearly seen in certain Belgian houses in brick, and particularly in Schindler's premature attempt to place a wooden superstructure on a concrete base in 1928, although the result was, all the same, the best house he has so far built."

The above is another remarkable statement. One, it suggests Hitchcock was aware of (and perhaps had even seen) the Lovell Beach House (which was completed in 1927) or, perhaps, the Wolfe House (completed in 1928), both aesthetically in his New Pioneer camp. Two, it suggests that Schindler's use of wood is what excluded him from the 1932 MoMA show, not his aesthetics or, often repeated in publications, his association with Wright (note that Hitchcock's perceived close association of Neutra with Wright didn't exclude Neutra from the show). And three, Hitchcock's use of the word "premature" suggests he thought that wood would be "reintroduced" in the new architecture, but that there needed to be a clear break with the past before bringing back more conventional materials (For example, he wrote: "Once the traditional interpretation of brick and stone is forgotten there may well be a considerable return to their use where they are technically and economically satisfactory."). In this, he suggests Schindler was ahead of his time, at least in Hitchcock's opinion. In fact, Schindler was working with the reality of American construction, something Hitchcock, not an architect, wouldn't understand (the classic "the academic having no clue about how the real world works").

Wolfe House, R.M. Schindler, 1928

It's also been suggested that Schindler was excluded from the MoMA show because of an east-coast bias or a European-bias. Neutra was in the show, so that dismisses the east-coast bias. And Schindler, just like Neutra, was Austrian, so that dismisses the European bias. However, there was a European bias in construction techniques that hurt Hitchcock's perception of Schindler's work.

Interestingly, Hitchcock also mentioned the possibility of reintroducing ornamentation into the New Pioneer architecture: "Of equal importance to the relation of the now established aesthetic of the New Pioneers to materials and methods of construction is the possibility of the eventual reappearance of ornament..."

All in all, this is a well written and amazingly thorough book documenting Modern architecture as it was by 1929. Not inappropriately, Hitchcock connects the dots between classicism and the transition to the New Tradition from which the New Pioneers (and the new architecture) were born. With this book, he also set the stage for the 1932 MoMA show on Modernism, essentially more formally and more broadly introducing Modernism to the United States. Connections made at that show ultimately led to Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, among others, coming to the United States as Germany went down a path toward Nazism and war. And that injection of Germanic architects, along with the influence of Schindler and Neutra and their followers, ultimately led to mid-century modern and Modern conquering the corporate world.


What is Modern?

(photo from here)

Different experts define Modern differently. For some it’s an architectural style that existed back in the day and is no more. For others (myself included), it’s a more general movement that remains viable and active today and continues to evolve with new materials, new technology, and new living needs. The earliest innovators and adopters tended to rigidly define the new architecture with rigorously defended manifestos (at least until the manifestos became inconvenient and subsequently discarded, oftentimes by the manifesto writers themselves).

There are also various offshoots of Modern, including hybrids (Streamline Moderne, a fusion of Art Deco and Modern), Functionalism (supposedly no consideration of aesthetics), Googie (Modern gone wild), and the International Style. This last “offshoot” was conjured by Henry-Russell Hitchcock in his 1927 book, Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration and popularized after the 1932 Modern Architecture show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hitchcock noted that it really didn’t matter where a Modern building of that time was designed and built, it tended to look the same (flat roofs, flat surfaces, clean lines). Ironically, because photography back in those days was black and white, International Style also became synonymous with white structures, even though many of the buildings mentioned and exhibited in the 1932 show were not white. Many take the position that if a building is simply not white, it is not Modern. This creates endless entertainment when folks argue over whether a building is Modern or Contemporary.

Based on my readings, observations, and opinions, I’ve boiled Modern down to ten commandments: (1) lack of ornamentation, (2) form follows function, (3) honesty in materials and design, (4) embracing the environment, (5) eager adoption of new materials and technology, (6) a place for everything and everything in its place, (7) a focus on the human condition, (8) less is more, (9) use of the machine aesthetic, and (10) rules are meant to be broken.

Over the next several weeks I'll work my way down that list. Please jump in if you agree and/or disagree! Some answers are righter than other...

Commandment 1: Lack of Ornamentation
Commandment 2: Form Follows Function
Commandment 3: Honesty in Materials and Design
Commandment 4: Embracing the Environment
Commandment 5: Eager Adoption of New Materials and Technology
Commandment 6: A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place
Commandment 7: A Focus on the Human Condition
Commandment 8: Less is More
Commandment 9: Use of the Machine Aesthetic
Commandment 10: Rules Are Meant to be Broken 


interview with austin architect alex finnell by goodlife

An impressive house Alex designed for his parents has been on a couple of the home tours. Some of my shots below. Link to the article is here.


monitoring power with the pecan street project

Lilly helping with the installation.

We are now part of the Pecan Street Research Institute’s project to better understand how people use electricity. The Streeters sent over a friendly electrician to wire up our circuits to a wifi interface that collects and sends data back to their central facility for analysis. They measure nearly every circuit in the house by placing small clamp-on ampmeters around each wire heading out of the electric box and into the house. These devices connect into a collection/transmission device which then shoots the info through the interwebs to Pecan Central. We can then log in to see what's going on with each of our circuits.

The data is collected in real-time, so if someone turns on a light, I see it show up on a graph like one of the ones below. Once we get solar installed, we'll also be able to see how much electricity we're generating and then take a look at the net. Pretty neat! I hope to wander about the house and see what phantom power we have being used about the house.

Hopefully in the near future they will start doing something similar for water!

Whole house energy usage for past month.

Here's what the refrigerator looks like. Spikes are for defrosting.

Guest bedroom; increased activity due to bride sleeping upstairs because of my surgery and new kittens. This will allow the Pecaners to see (1) when we have company, (2) when we have kittens, and (3) when we are having marital difficulties.


you got IKEA in my Kovaks!

Despite terrible reviews (a favorite at allmodern.com summarized the light as "looks great, works poopie"), we chose the George Kovacs Madake Swing Arm Wall Lamp, in large part because it looked great, worked with our gestalt, and the next light up that met our design requirements required a $1,000 a piece (gulp).

One of the issues brought up in reviews of Kovacs' light is that the transformer for the little fluorescent bulb burnt themselves up in short order (with no hope of a replacement). Sure enough, a couple months in, I heard a disturbing crackling sound inside the base of my light and, after a short bright spell, the thing went dead. So I bought another one. A couple months after that, there goes the bride's light. A month after that there goes the replacement. A marvel of modern mis-engineering (and stunning that crap like this is sold years after it becomes evident that something is terribly wrong!).

After replacing the first one, I looked at the inside bits, and thought "Hmmmm: I could switch out the guts with an IKEA LED system." Acting on that hmmmmm'd moment, I did just that.

The results are not as bright as the previous light, but this actually is a good thing for us: There's enough light for reading when the lamp is swung around, but not so much that my partner complains it's too bright. And it is surely more energy efficient.

Not a task for a novice, but with a few bucks spent at the local IKEA store, I was able to save these lights from the landfill.


mies and lilly live here

Mies and Lilly

Well, we now have two new denizens of cubed central: Mies and Lilly! We adopted these two little puffballs last week and decided to name them after Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich (Corbu and Charlotte were in the running, but Lilly really seemed to be a Lilly...).

Mies and Lilly

Mies is a charmer. He has charisma (or is that catrisma?). When he enters a room, he owns it, and wants everyone inside to know and love him. And he typically succeeds. After Mies and Lilly’s first day in our home, he and Lilly were curled up on a blanket in the middle of the bed while I did a little reading before turning out the lights. At some point I looked up, and there was Mies, sitting on the blanket, looking at me. After our eyes met, he then walked over, carefully sauntered onto my chest, “claimed me” by rubbing his nose on my nose twice (something cats do to show affection), and then returned to his blanket, curled up, and went to sleep. That’s just about the sweetest thing a cat has ever done to me, especially given the circumstances. It was his way of saying “You know what? I really like you, and I really like it here. I’m staying!”

Another good thing about using two by six lumber for outside walls: They make for deep cat-friendly window sills.

The better to watch the bird feeder, one of Lilly's favorite pastimes.

Lilly is a thing of beauty, a soft as silk and cute as a ladybug. She’s more reserved than Mies (which isn’t saying much since Mies has no reservations), but opens up quickly and sweetly once she’s comfortable with you. She doesn’t meow, just emits tiny trills and squeaks here and there. Mostly she’s quiet as a shadow. Her foster name was Journey because she was abandoned out in the country and had to walk several miles to a farmhouse to be saved. 

That's right, that's right: I know how to scratch!

We had originally planned on only adopting Lilly but decided it would be good for her to have a companion other than our grumpy old cat, Comer. Mies (Ringo was his foster name), a month older than Lilly, was being fostered with Lilly, and the foster mom said they loved playing with each other. And the foster mom and the queen of the foster moms both said he was something special. Getting the two together was a great idea. They rough house each other, leaving us with just the kitten sweetness (except for the occasional under-the-comforter toe biting). They are amazingly well-behaved and well-adjusted kittens, a credit to their foster mom.

Comer, the older cat, has gotten on amazingly well with them, something that’s mostly the doing of Mies. Mies’s “You’re going to love me, dammit!!!” attitude wore Comer down quickly. They aren’t cuddling yet, but if anyone can make it happen, it will be Mies.

They are quite modest about their Barcelona chair...


to tub or not to tub: part deaux

Way back when, when we were in the early stages of putting together our wish list of what we wanted with the house, the topic of whether or not we should have a tub in the master came up. Ultimately, based on resale expectations of buyers and falling head over heels in love with this tub shown above, we tubbed. However, another item of consideration on whether to tub or not to tub came up recently: health.

When you are young, strapping, healthy, and (ahem) a wee bit on the handsome side of plain, you don't think as much about the future, and the future generally includes health issues. And those health issues may require the use of tub. I bring this up because I've been dealing with a health issue the past couple of weeks where the doc has prescribed, among post-surgery narcotics and muscle relaxants, three to four tub soakings a day. You gotta have a tub to soak.

I suppose you could still live without a tub in the master and have one elsewhere in the house, but if it's up on the second floor and you can't walk upstairs, that tub ain't going to help you. The tub could be in someone's else's bathroom on the first floor (easier if someone doesn't live there), but even that's not ideal (and probably requires a bit of scrubbing before the tubbing).

If you are designing for aging in place, or anything really, I recommend putting a tub in your master. Having spent quite a bit of time in ours recently, I can say that it is quite convenient and awesome (a cocoon, really).

Doctor's orders.