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MATTER OF COURSE

The House: Regionalism in a Global Environment

I love to attend architecture lectures. Not so long ago I scored a difficult-to-obtain ticket to a Moshe Safdie talk at the Museum of Fine Arts. That featured an insider’s explication of his new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and ended with an immodest reading of the maestro’s poetry. Which wasn’t half bad.

A great architecture talk can resemble a perfect movie, that is, beautiful images interacting with an erudite script. So here is my review of what felt like a festival of Oscar-nominated shorts: Jeremiah Eck’s summer seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, devoted to the humble building block of architecture, the house. This year’s theme, sometimes addressed, occasionally ignored, was “Regionalism in a Global Environment.”

A successful architect and landscape painter who exudes a folksy, patrician air, Eck runs the seminar like a lion tamer. He balances the considerable egos of his accomplished lecturers with judicious ques-tioning, and solicits — and gets — participation from the audience of about 60 architects.

Eck kicked off this year’s seminar with a question: Does regionalism still play a role in residential housing, or have we sunk to building “a sort of iHouse, that is universally accepted and app-adapted to [a] particular place or set of needs? . . . Isn’t a sense of place, or a sense of region, the most important attribute a house can have?”

Architect Matthew Elliott of Blue Hill, Maine, answered that question with a resounding yes. Elliott showed one of his early home designs, a pretty baby-blue shingled job that might be found anywhere in the Northeast. Then he veered into more interesting work, inspired by the serial layout of the traditional Maine farm — main house, summer kitchen, barn, outbuilding — and showed how he used that template to transform a small Cape from a claustrophobic, inward-facing box into a bright daisy chain of garden-facing rooms.

A 19th-century Cape Cod footprint in Maine reinterpreted for modern minimalism by Matthew Elliott.
Photo: Wayne N. T. Fuji’i/Fuji’iMage.

Elliott also showed us a dramatic, over-the-water footprint he inherited for a residential home makeover on Mount Desert Island, called the Pond House. Here, the Elliotts — he practices with his wife, Elizabeth — channeled the layout of Maine’s ubiquitous wharf buildings, with freestanding structures (a sail loft, a repair shop) perched above a tidal flat. The Elliotts’ client agreed to have the living area in a separate building from the sleeping quarters, so it was not uncommon for family members to dash through a driving rainstorm or winter squall to get to their bedrooms. “They saw it as a character-building exercise,” Elliott deadpanned.

Pond House, in Maine, also by Matthew Elliott, was inspired by fishing shacks and wharf architecture.
Photo: Tom Crane Photography.

Michael Imber, born on the barren flatlands of West Texas, proved to be a second powerful voice for regionalism. An avid sketcher and an accomplished watercolorist, Imber, now based in San Antonio, showed many of his Western-themed homes, almost all of them style-checking adobe construction, hacienda towers, stockyard gates, or other key components of Spanish and/or cowboy vernacular.

One of his most successful and understated creations was the Butcher House, a one-room-wide ranch home closely modeled on the 19th-century German “Sunday house.” That was a small, second home that many rural farmers built to accommodate their weekend supply-purchasing trips into town. The Butcher House, Imber’s first residential commission, won an aia Honor Award in 2005.


Butcher Ranch in Texas, by Michael Imber, was modeled on 19th-century German second homes.
Photo: Erik Kvalsvik.

Noting the succession of Western- and Spanish- themed slides, Eck playfully asked Imber: “Do you think you could do a house in Ohio?”

“Ohio would be hard,” Imber replied.

A great movie has a great ending, in this case Peter Bohlin’s two-hour-long bravura presentation of recent work. Bohlin, best known for designing Apple’s distinctive US retail stores, and Bill Gates’ Lake Washington mansion in Seattle, showed homes from such diverse locales as Lake Michigan; Aspen, Colorado; Block Island, Rhode Island; and the Rhode Island seashore.

Bohlin’s portfolio, which he generally categorized as “soft Modernism,” reminded the audience of one architectural ingredient that transcends regionalism in the bespoke residential marketplace: wealth. Although Bohlin did display a charming 1,100-square-foot cabin he was building for a friend outside Seattle, more typical of his work was a massive, James Bond–style aerie he recently completed for a London-based financier in Whistler, British Columbia.

When he showed the home’s infinity pool cantilevered above a 60-foot precipice, Bohlin asked out loud: “Is this moral? I don’t know.” I don’t know, either. But it was an interesting question and a provocative end to a great show.