piano noble – architect's glossary

The “piano noble” is not a fancy musical instrument, rather it is the “noble floor”.  In a traditional Italian palace, the most important  floors were at least one story above the ground level which was often used for storage or, in Venice, as a rather damp entryway from the canals.

Venetian palazzo

This elevated level for the family’s most impressive public rooms – salons and receiving rooms – allowed for greater views and in urban palaces better access to sunlight amongst the narrow streets.

Villa Savoye by LeCorbusier

For more contemporary houses, not having store rooms and servant rooms to occupy the ground level, the piano noble design places the family’s private rooms on the lower level and grants the upper level to living room, dining room, kitchen etc.  This reverses the typical configuration of the usual house and paradoxically places the most private rooms on the ground floor in the least private location.  It does however, give to the main rooms what might be panoramic views that are available with the additional elevation.  This situation occurs often in Colorado where the mountain views may be blocked at the ground but open dramatically just 12 feet or so up.

The piano noble reverses the usual evening course of living in a multi-level house in that you do not go up to the stars and moon to go to sleep, but rather down to the earth.  For most people the loss of privacy on the lower level in especially urban areas as well as this odd phenomenological reversal of the place of sleep can not be overcome.  But, with good design and sensitivity to privacy issues, I think the piano noble can be very interesting and make for extraordinary houses.

Southern vernacular housing

On a recent trip to rural Virginia, I was particularly struck by the beautiful simplicity of a few of the typical vernacular housing types. I am not talking about the Georgian-red-brick-with-white-trim nor the more contemporary vernacular of manufactured housing. The simple, white-painted wood framed and sided houses of rural Virginia are so simple and straight-forward that they end up being a bold, clear statement in the lush green landscape.

What I saw consisted largely of two types: two-story, single-room deep houses with or without porches and gable-broken front eaves; and, one-story, four room hip roofed houses with integral porches. Both demonstrate the best aspects of vernacular housing – a continuity of building type and building and material technology, and environmental responsiveness.

It is hot and humid in rural Virginia. In the pre-air conditioned South, establishing and maintaining cross ventilation was paramount. The two-story, flat front houses are usually one-room deep allowing for each room to have front and back windows. A central stair and hall is commonly found running right down the middle of the building maximizing the amount of usable space vs. circulation. Most of these houses sport some amount of front porch, shading lower windows as well as providing for an exterior room to escape the heat of the house.

There are two variants of this type: the flat-front and the gable-front. The flat front houses are as simple as they come, most likely balloon-framed right up to the eave, windows stacked over windows. The gable-fronted versions have a small sense of grandeur lent by the partial gable that marks the center of the house and the location of the front door. This is technically a gable, but as it does not serve an attic space nor even a sloping ceiling in the central stair hall, it is really more of a sign of entry and mark of house-proud.

The other common housing type is the hip-roofed, single-story house that completely encompasses a porch under the form of the hip roof. The porch here is not an after-thought but a real extension of the space of the house to create an outdoor room. Again, this shelters front-facing windows from the sun, provides a shady, outdoor room and establishes a site of social interaction. These houses will sometimes have a kind of low-ceilinged second floor, but most often that little front dormer is used to pull the heat of the house up into the roof and out.

Both of these housing types are of course white – the cheapest paint available but also the best at reflecting the heat of the sun. Except for clearly defined porches, they do not have large overhangs to shade windows. This lack of deep eaves may be a response to the lack of available electric lighting at the period of construction. Deep overhangs protect from direct sunlight but also create deeply shadowed interiors, that along with Southern dampness, would make for long, dank winter days.

I love these houses. They are so simple and frank. They stand up from the landscape, not afraid of being a house, a mark of occupation and maybe even civilization. They are not at all ranches – they don’t ramble or flap large wings, they don’t shirk away from their “house-ness”. And of course like all vernacular buildings, they are not trying too hard for your attention. They are a part of their culture, their society. They are not screaming for recognition or uniqueness or even their owner’s desires. First and foremost, they are of a place.

Shutters – architect's pet peeve no. 8

Anyone involved with traditional residential housing for any time can not help but run headlong into the annoying shutter question. It would be my hope that no one ever install shutters that does not plan to actually use them. Believe it or not, shutters have a function other than earrings alongside windows.

too narrow and inoperable

In the United States, shutters were traditionally the simple ones that closed and opened, held open on wall-mounted metal fittings called shutter dogs.

shutter dog, with lock for locking the shutters when away
real shutters, still operable, proper widths

In replicating the look but not the function, shutters have become ridiculous ornaments, none the more so when the two shutters don’t actually equal the width of the window they are meant to cover. Never mind the lack of hinges or other hardware, these skinny shutters are ridiculous and should be banned. Even a really traditional house doesn’t necessarily need them.

Admissions, Hampden Syndey College, circa 1826

A quick trip to your local building supply depot will reveal that most of these ornamental shutters aren’t even wood, but vinyl or fiberglass, low-maintenance but poor copies. So please,

For real shutters, interior or exterior, there are plenty of manufacturers, a variety of types and functions. Kestrel makes excellent ones, as do many other companies. So either get rid of them or get real.

And as it is summer in Boulder and the sun is blazing, let’s go ahead and make screens operable so you can actually reach outside and close a shutter during the heat of the day. And better yet, let’s look to traditional Italian-type shutters that have bottom panels that awning-swing allowing ventilation while still shading.

photo (partial) by Ariel Churnin

Shutters – architect’s pet peeve no. 8

Anyone involved with traditional residential housing for any time can not help but run headlong into the annoying shutter question. It would be my hope that no one ever install shutters that does not plan to actually use them. Believe it or not, shutters have a function other than earrings alongside windows.

too narrow and inoperable

In the United States, shutters were traditionally the simple ones that closed and opened, held open on wall-mounted metal fittings called shutter dogs.

shutter dog, with lock for locking the shutters when away
real shutters, still operable, proper widths

In replicating the look but not the function, shutters have become ridiculous ornaments, none the more so when the two shutters don’t actually equal the width of the window they are meant to cover. Never mind the lack of hinges or other hardware, these skinny shutters are ridiculous and should be banned. Even a really traditional house doesn’t necessarily need them.

Admissions, Hampden Syndey College, circa 1826

A quick trip to your local building supply depot will reveal that most of these ornamental shutters aren’t even wood, but vinyl or fiberglass, low-maintenance but poor copies. So please,

For real shutters, interior or exterior, there are plenty of manufacturers, a variety of types and functions. Kestrel makes excellent ones, as do many other companies. So either get rid of them or get real.

And as it is summer in Boulder and the sun is blazing, let’s go ahead and make screens operable so you can actually reach outside and close a shutter during the heat of the day. And better yet, let’s look to traditional Italian-type shutters that have bottom panels that awning-swing allowing ventilation while still shading.

photo (partial) by Ariel Churnin

architecture, houses and history

In light of some recent posts here on Colorado vernacular architecture and my recent appointment to the City of Boulder’s Landmark Preservation Advisory Board, I have been thinking a lot about the received cultural knowledge that architecture provides.  For the most part, the vase majority of single family houses are designed, built and occupied without the slightest thought toward “Architecture”.  But throughout the last 100 years or more, the house, the single family detached dwelling, has been the acknowledged testing ground for architectural ideas.  This may mean that these architect-designed houses are a prime reflection of our culture, or that they simply describe the gulf between the culture of “Architecture” and the lives of most people.

2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

Typically I do not save the various architecture and design magazines that come across my desk.  However, Architectural Record’s annual April issue, Record Houses, is an exception.  While I am missing some issues (notably absence after my great Purge of 2007), for the most part, I have a continuous series from about 1990 to 2010.

2003, and the missing years - 2004, 2005, 2006

What is striking about at least the images chosen by the editors to grace the front pages of that yearly issue, is the increasing level of formal abstraction that you can see over the twenty years.

1999, 2000, 2001, 2002

With few exceptions the designs have become more stark, if not outright alien, to what most laymen would recognize as a house form.

1995, 1996, 1997, 1999

Many of the projects of the 1990’s were modern reinterpretations or “modernist” transformations of vernacular forms, as if architect’s had just rediscovered the local buildings that were not part of the received canon of either modern or post-modern educations.

1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 (missing)

Even the more modernist or formally  abstract houses of the early 1990’s often executed these geometries in building materials that would not have seemed foriegn to architects and buildings 100 years prior.

1986, 1988, 1989 (missing), 1990

What remains consistent is that these images all depict the houses in either their rural settings or carefully eliminate any other architectural context.  How these buildings participate in a larger context of community or place only sullies their identity as “exceptional” objects.

I am eager to begin work on the Landmarks Board, looking at not the “architecturally significant” cultural production deemed worthy by architectural historians in approved histories, but real houses lived in by real people.  The houses addressed by preservation boards are not frozen in time like the images above, rather they have been occupied, altered, and most importantly retained, by generations of owners.  They are “historically or architecturally significant” as determined by the community and are inextricably linked to place, neighborhood and community.  It is a kind of richness that the Record Houses can hope to achieve.

Will we be fighting to preserve any of the houses above?  Maybe a little plaque will mark the place where a Record Houses building once stood.

atmosphere

For as much as I am engaged everyday in making ‘new’ spaces, many of the places that most stick in my memory and that I am consistently attracted to are once quite nice or fancy places that have seen better days.  It is not the historical architectural language or details, but rather the sense of time passing and maybe the sense of mortality that these places exhibit.  That these rooms were once so special, the need, desire or expense required to change them or erase them has been suppressed and these “grand” rooms still exist.

(It may also be the recognition and appreciation of the role of significantly more vertically proportioned spaces than we have come to build in the last 40 years or so.)

These spaces have “atmosphere” as I think Peter Zumthor would define it – they invoke an almost immediate reaction.  However, beyond that they also show signs of occupation, over time, by many people, and as such, have a history of human lives, of joy and despair having played out by many people over many years.

In designing new spaces, I think many architects think only of the beauty and function of the rooms and building.  There is not much discussion or conjecture on what is so profoundly out of the control of the architect – the lives that are going to be lived in these rooms.  A kitchen is certainly a place to cook and clean, but it will also be the place that family frets over a child’s school or the cost of next month’s bills.  A living room is a place for entertaining and relaxation, but it may also be where a baby took its first steps, where a boyfriend meets the parents for the first time.

These aged rooms show those signs, those scars, of the events and lives that have passed through them.  They are not simply recorded in photos or journals, but are keenly felt in the air and space of the room.  As an architect, I hope that the spaces that I make can accommodate these events, for they are inevitable and more than mere walls and ceilings and floors, make the real life of a house.

(Photos from the excellent book The Way We Live by Stafford Cliff and Giles de Chabaneix)