On a recent Sunday last month Lawrence Modern 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 event 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. Simply put, there is no other property quite like it in Lawrence.
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 delve into all of them, but a few impressions stood out.
The interaction between the building and the landscape is inspiring on many levels. Arriving at the house, you walk 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 area 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 also provides space to showcase their artwork — a kind of mini-museum — 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 commented. “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 the 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.