When Tim Hossler, an assistant professor in KU’s Department of Design, approached us last fall with the idea of doing a series exploring modern architecture in film, we reached consensus almost immediately. The concept was appealing: examine the role that modern architecture has played in film — the modernist medium par excellence — appreciated through the eyes of KU School of Architecture faculty. The venue was ideal: the new Forum at Marvin Hall, a light-controlled glass box designed by students in Prof. Dan Rockhill’s Studio 804 class. How could we refuse? Indeed, we are thrilled about this connection with the School and delighted to have award-winning author and Professor of Architecture Stephen Grabow introduce the first two films of our modernism in cinema series.

On April 1st, appropriately enough, we will screen Playtime, French director Jacques Tati’s 1967 film that, along with his earlier film Mon Oncle, is the basis of our “Can Architecture be Funny?” tagline. Tati creates architectural jokes, in which people’s interaction with modern architecture, or modernity, is oftentimes quite funny. “Playtime is a great start to this series because it illustrates the dysfunctionality of certain aspects of modern architecture,” Grabow says. “The contrast between organic and mechanical — with people being organic and modernism being mechanical — is brilliant and very entertaining.”

Please join us at The Forum on April 1st. Prof. Grabow will introduce Playtime at 7 p.m. A discussion will follow the screening of the movie. Please see the flyer for details about the next film in the series, Mon Oncle, which we will screen May 6. (The flyer can be enlarged for high-resolution viewing by double-clicking.)

We wish to thank Prof. Hossler (who also designed the poster above), Prof. Grabow, and the KU School of Architecture for facilitating this exciting new franchise.

All films are free and open to the public.

- Tom, Bill & Dennis

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)

In Memoriam – Betty Jo Charlton


Betty Jo Charlton (1923-2014) at her 1624 Indiana home during the mid-1980’s.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: