DIY modernism June 7th

Lawrence Modern event poster

Design: Aimee Wray

Back in the days before Eisenhower was president, Bob and Elaine Blank were a typical young couple driving around Lawrence looking for a place to build their dream house when they found a barren-looking lot south of the KU campus for $2,000. At the time, Blank was a professional photographer who admired the architectural photography featured in House Beautiful magazine, which highlighted the seductive appeal of southern California modernism. After seeing plans for a modern house with a butterfly roof advertised in the magazine, they decided to go for it and build such a house themselves to save money. Blank purchased the plans in 1951 for $100, plus postage, and got to work.

After adding a basement and more windows to the original design, they completed the house with the help of Blank’s father-in-law and local contractors. Later on they added a covered breezeway and a double carport, punctuating the laid-back California contemporary feel of the property. The Blanks made all the right moves with their DIY project, including hiring a young modernist architect named Dick Peters to design their renovations, resulting in one of the most distinctive modern houses in Lawrence. The house is on our Baker’s Dozen list of top midcentury houses in the city. The Blanks lived in the house until Bob passed away a couple of years ago at age 83. We are fortunate that the new owners respect the integrity of the house and wish to share it with us. We look forward to seeing you June 7th.

PS: Please do not park on Owens Lane. It is a cul-de-sac and difficult to navigate with parked cars. Please park on 21st and Alabama.

-Tom, Bill, Dennis & Tim


Lawrence Modern in association with KU’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning presents Mon Oncle, the second film in our mini series that explores modern architecture’s role in cinema. The venue will again be the new Forum at Marvin Hall, the light-controlled glass box designed by students in Prof. Dan Rockhill’s Studio 804 class. Sit back, relax and enjoy the space. Be prepared to be entertained as Monsier Hulot struggles to understand modern architecture, mechanical efficiency and consumerism in postwar Paris. The great film critic Roger Ebert listed Mon Oncle as one of his top 100 movies of all time. Of the film’s director Ebert said, “Jacques Tati is the great philosophical tinkerer of comedy, taking meticulous care to arrange his films so that they unfold in a series of revelations and effortless delights.”

Please join us at The Forum on Wednesday, May 6th. KU Professor of Architecture Stephen Grabow will introduce Mon Oncle at 7 p.m. A short discussion will follow the screening. (The flyer can be enlarged for high-resolution viewing by double-clicking.)

Again we wish to thank the KU School of Architecture, Design and Planning for collaborating with us on this exciting film series and generously providing use of The Forum.

All films are free and open to the public, seating is limited.

Trailer for Mon Oncle | Roger Ebert’s review | Studio 804: The Forum | KU Parking Info

– Bill, Dennis & Tom

Shibui: ‘Easy to live with beauty’

Author Patricia Graham discusses her book, Japanese Design: Art, Aesthetics, and Culture at the Lawrence Public Library Jan. 11.

Author Patricia Graham discusses her book, Japanese Design: Art, Aesthetics, and Culture at the Lawrence Public Library Jan. 11.

It would be hard to overemphasize the influence that Japanese design has had on the development of modern architecture in the West. Nearly 400 years after the Katsura Imperial Villa was constructed in Kyoto, for example, modern architects are still in awe of the precise geometrical forms of its sukiya-style buildings and the abstract beauty of its gardens. Indeed, as local author Patricia Graham reminded a group of more than 100 who gathered on January 11th at the Lawrence Public Library, much of what we now view as modernist architecture has its origins hundreds of years ago in Japan. This truth has not been overlooked—the great German architect Bruno Taut wrote three incisive books about the contributions of Japanese architecture to modernism a century ago—but it bears repeating and humble respect.

Graham’s talk, which was coupled with the recent publication of her book, Japanese Design: Art, Aesthetics & Culture, celebrated not only Japan’s architecture and fine art but how Japanese refinement extends to even the most mundane objects, such as utensils and snack food packaging. She explained the origins of this refined aesthetic sense—clarifying the meaning of words like wabi, sabi and shibui, which are often carelessly used to describe it—in the context of Japan’s religious and cultural history. As an art historian and appraiser of Asian art, Graham also gave a bow to curators of Japanese art such as Langdon Warner, an art historian who traveled extensively throughout Japan in the early 1900’s, purchasing rare objects that are now preserved in museums. Another, of course, was Frank Lloyd Wright, who collected more Japanese woodblock prints than anyone in history and also was obsessed with Japanese art, design, and architecture. What goes around comes around.

It was an interesting presentation by Dr. Graham. Lawrence Modern appreciates her work and wishes her success with her new book. Arigatou Gozaimasu!

Lawrence Public Library, Jan. 11th:

midcentury design talk flyer - Patricia Graham

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.

A Lawrence residence

Sabatini residence

Sabatini residence

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.

In truth, 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.


House entry

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.


The living room. The alcove is at top right. (Photo: Akiko Takeyama)

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.


Lawrence Modern members and guests gather in the kitchen to hear architect Dan Sabatini talk about the design of his family’s residence.

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.


Looking east from the entry to the courtyard area. (Photo: Aaron Dougherty)


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