Emerging from the devastation of World War II, Japan entered an intense period of reconstruction in the 1950s, propelled in large part by international successes in design-related industries. These attracted the interest of foreigners in residence and soon came to the attention of Elizabeth Gordon, editor-in-chief of House Beautiful magazine from 1941 to 1964, who set out to explain the beauty of Japanese design and its relevance to the modern American lifestyle in two issues of the magazine (August and September 1960). Both were highly influential among American architects and designers. A staunch advocate of a more comfortable alternative to the rigid anonymity of orthodox modernist architecture, Gordon admired the humanistic and livable qualities of Japan’s design aesthetic. This talk will explore what this aesthetic is all about, as discussed in Patricia Graham’s new book, Japanese Design: Art, Aesthetics, and Culture (Tuttle), and how it helped shape the appearance of mid-century modern design in America. Come join us for a stimulating conversation about this fascinating topic. The event is sponsored by Lawrence Modern and KU’s Center for East Asian Studies.
Lawrence Modern recently had the privilege of touring Dan and Nicole Sabatini’s decidedly contemporary home, which is tucked away largely out of view in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Lawrence. The gathering turned out to be an architectural surprise find: most of the more than 50 who attended were unaware that such a fabulous house existed in town.
Added to the delight of discovery was the realization that this cosmopolitan residence, which at first glance seems out of character in Lawrence, is actually well suited to its physical setting, climate, and local culture. The fact that it was designed by the Sabatinis, local architects who grew up in the region and were educated here, further authenticates its local fitness. At the very least, their work puts an ironic twist on the “we’re not in Kansas anymore” trope.
All kidding aside, the Sabatini House is a work of sophisticated modern architecture that offers many opportunities for case study. Our visit was too brief to explore all of them, but a few impressions stood out.
The interaction between the building and the landscape first grabbed our attention, particularly along the entryway. Arriving at the house, you stroll past the garage and look west into a big open throughspace between the garage and the house that freezes nature into a very orthogonal, very precise, and very minimalist frame. Turn the other direction and you see a semi-enclosed courtyard — a tremendously interactive and dynamic landscape — and the way in which the building interlocks with that landscape and takes on its dynamic is very interesting. As Dennis Domer noted, there is a kind of a double-sidedness at work here: on the one hand, looking at the entry, everything is framed and in its place, and you look at it almost like a painting; turn around and everything takes off. While it appears simple and easy to understand, the way in which the architects have brought it all together makes it much more complex.
This dynamic complexity is echoed in many areas of the house, most notably as you move from the white minimalist kitchen to the unscreened porch with fireplace. Here, the sleek visual seduction of the kitchen – dominated by a gorgeous Silestone island countertop — is balanced by a sensuous intimacy with nature. Indeed, the porch, which hovers above ground in the tree canopy, is not screened or glazed but simply enclosed by vertical frames. This direct exposure to the outdoors dramatically alters the feel of the space: it comes alive in a floating, shimmering, almost aquatic way. The Sabatini’s say they eventually plan to install screens in these frames to keep the bugs out in summer, but the dynamic contrast of interior-exterior space is so wonderful to behold without them they’d be forgiven for not doing it.
The living room is another fine architectural space that makes a memorable connection to the outdoors. Like the unscreened porch, it too appears to float among the treetops and has windows that open to allow cross-ventilation. One of the design challenges the Sabatini’s faced was screening the south side of the room from harsh sunlight and a neighboring apartment building. They accomplished this by constructing an alcove that frames the courtyard and has a glazed door to the outside that brings in natural light. The alcove provides space for storage and also serves as a kind of Japanese tokonoma — a space to appreciate art — in a house where nature is framed like art. While all too often contemporary architecture poses as avant-garde, resulting in austere and lifeless spaces, the architects have skillfully avoided this by taking the indoors and putting it in the outdoors, and vice-versa.
Admittedly, the Sabatini’s put their architecture in the context of Le Corbusier, and while their work clearly projects that aura, they aren’t purists to a style. The house has elements that identify it with the Bauhaus tradition, the French, the German, and the American. “It’s a wonderful confluence of modern architecture and a reinterpretation of it for the site,” Domer said. “But it still retains a strong tradition of modernism, and it hasn’t watered itself down to “‘Oh, we live in Kansas, so we must have a different roof.’”
The flat roof on the Sabatini House is of a special design, painted white to reflect sunlight, and it works in tandem with a geothermal heat pump system to regulate the house’s climate, which is nothing short of miraculous. On an August day where the mercury reached an egg-frying 104 degrees, the house stayed perfectly cool, even as groups of people traipsed in and out of the premises. Even more remarkable was the system’s complete silence. I strained to hear a mechanical groaning of some kind, evidence that the HVAC was contending with what must have been a tremendous amount of heat from the 3,600 sq. ft. structure, but could hear nothing. This is a real advance on modernism.
Part of the reason why the Sabatini House is worthy of case study is that it is somewhat experimental, as modernism originally was more than a century ago. It’s a gamble. While Frank Lloyd Wright was ahead of his time with radiant heating, how many houses do you see today that have this technology? How many houses do you see with flat roofs? Of course, context is everything. We are in Kansas after all, where we need more steel and less glass, and thick walls. But as the Sabatini’s have shown us, no-holds-barred modern architecture is worth the risks (and expense) when the rewards are this good. It is exciting to see these architects take that risk, and in doing so, continue a tradition of progressive modernism in Lawrence that began in the 1930s.
The Sabatini House tour was a tremendous architectural experience, one we don’t get very often in Lawrence.
Click here for more photos of the Sabatini House tour.
Betty Jo Charlton, who died on July 22 at age 91, was one of the last links to a nearly forgotten Frank Lloyd Wright-KU connection. Her home at 1624 Indiana St. was designed by KU Architecture School Dean George Beal, who was a good friend of Wright’s and often hosted him when he passed through Lawrence. Betty Jo served as the first woman legislator from Lawrence from 1979 to 1994. The Beal House provided her a refuge from public affairs and allowed her to remain there until she died 20 years after retirement. She died Tuesday, July 22. Among the legislation she helped sponsor over the years was the creation of the Kansas Land Trust for the preservation of properties across the State from destruction for perpetuity. She was also a charter member of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance and board member of the Douglas County Historical Museum. Lawrence Modern owes Betty Jo many thanks for allowing us to view her Wright-inspired, Usonian-style house and share it with the world. She will be missed.
One of Lawrence’s hidden gems, the Thomas House, was on full display Sunday, and polished to a high sheen by the current owners, Deb and Ray Rowden. More than 50 Lawrence Modern guests roamed the property, which in its design, siting, landscaping, and casual feel — you could say breeziness — is a fusion of modern ideas that work together beautifully. Architect Jim Williams, 78, gave a very humble talk about his 1967 design, giving much credit to the original owners, Al and Anne Thomas. Anne, in particular, had a clear vision for how the house should be built, Williams said. Like many of Lawrence’s best modern homes, the Thomas House was the work of a young modernist architect inspired by a woman, or perhaps taking direct orders from a woman. You can’t argue with the results.
“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything,” Frank Lloyd Wright famously advised. “It should be of the hill.” Few houses in Lawrence adhere to this Usonian principle better than Deb & Ray Rowden’s home at 1904 Meadowlark Lane in Lawrence, one of our top “Baker’s Dozen” houses. Designed in 1968 by Lawrence architect James Williams, AIA, and landscaped by KU’s first landscape architect, Alton Thomas, the house fulfills the rest of Wright’s decree: “Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.” Come see what this marriage of hill and house has wrought on Sunday, June 29th from 3:00 – 5:00. You won’t be disappointed!
Getting there: From Iowa Street, turn west on Clinton Parkway, right on Lawrence Ave., drive up Marvonne Road and turn right on Meadowlark Lane. Parking will be challenging so please carpool and or park on Marvonne. It is a pleasant short walk up the hill. You will see the Lawrence Modern signs.
We look forward to sharing this special home, the people who designed it, and those who are now the stewards.
Please bring a small treat to share with modern friends.