Almost White Box

In his 1984 Pritzker Prize acceptance speech, Richard Meier, FAIA, recalled discussions on color with his children, who professed to love green and blue. They were confounded by their father’s strange choice of white, prompting Meier to explain how all of the rainbow’s colors could be seen in this single color. “The whiteness of white is never just white,” he said. “It is almost always transformed by light and that which is changing.” How white became synonymous with Modernism and contemporary architecture can be traced back to Le Corbusier’s famous houses. Certainly one does not think of Villa Savoye without envisioning its whiteness. Later, Meier and Gwathmey Siegel would build upon Corbu’s ideals, designing houses of precise white abstraction.

This particular language of the new moderns was not prevalent in residential construction in Texas. Notable houses in Dallas of this style were done by nonnative architects Meier (the Rachofsky House of 1996) and Edward Larrabee Barnes (Preston Hollow home in 1984). While modernist design ideals were being employed, masonry was a more typical building material. The relative economy of construction in the state and an affinity for vernacular materials were likely the causes. Lionel Morrison, FAIA, thus stands out among his peers, his body of work aligning more with the modernist principles of Meier, Siegel, and the like. 

The owners of his recently completed Casa di Luce chose to work with him because of his design predilections. Despite a realtor shrugging Morrison off as an architect for those who just wanted a white box, they persisted. “We’re pretty committed modernists,” explained one of the owners, who wished to remain unnamed. “It’s the nexus of our leanings and knowing we wanted to work with Lionel. You don’t get a brick house when you work with him — unless it’s painted white.” 

A superficial perusal of Morrison’s residential portfolio might leave the impression of a parade of boxes rendered in white. This oversimplification discounts the geometric rigor, clear plan, and pure expression that characterize his houses. The clients recognized these qualities and sought them for their own home. 

Empty-nesters looking to downsize, they purchased a modestly sized lot in Dallas. Despite their reasonable programmatic requests, other desires made designing on the small, triangular-shaped lot a challenge. The narrow site fronts a busy street with parking limitations, necessitating guest parking accommodations. An existing mature oak in the front yard was to be preserved. In addition, the clients made 

specific request for a courtyard. The solution was an L-shaped plan with minimal side and rear setbacks, oriented to take advantage of the site geometry. The ‘L’ faces the alley, allowing the screened courtyard to fill the leftover wedge. The garage, storage, and pool equipment were located in the rear yard where the lot forms a pinch point.

The floor plan is clear and well organized. Gathering areas are pushed to the front with private functions behind. The guest quarters are sequestered at the back of the second floor. The most striking feature of the house is the extension of living and sleeping areas into the courtyard. Floor-to-ceiling pocketing door panels allow both the combined living/dining/kitchen area and the master bedroom to meld into the interior courtyard. By removing the barrier of a glass wall, the spatial connection becomes physical instead of simply visual. The building front accomplishes equally well the opposite desire, for privacy. The large, glazed entry door faces the street, announced by a plinth and front steps, but is frosted to prevent views while allowing in light. A large vertical slot window above the kitchen sink affords a view out, but sits high enough from the street elevation to provide privacy. 

The white stucco exterior is interrupted only by a segment of travertine rainscreen panels on the front facade. White stucco walls in a stepped formation enclose the courtyard with horizontal wood slat panels as connectors. The interior, like the exterior, is sparse with minimal finishes. White oak cabinets and white marble occur in bathrooms and utility spaces. Elsewhere, crisp white wall and ceiling planes and concrete floors predominate. Storage and unsightly devices are concealed wherever possible. Openings to the exterior are minimal, placed carefully along with skylights to frame views and introduce a play of light and shadow on the interior. A two-story wall of glazing at the stair frames a view of a Japanese maple that turns brilliant red in the fall.

Casa di Luce is true to its modernist ideals. It satisfies a functional need while utilizing abstract form to fulfill aesthetic and experiential aspirations. Like Morrison’s other work, the house’s honest expression and simplicity expose it to criticism. To the discerning eye, however, it transcends the simplified label of “white box.”

Audrey Maxwell, AIA, is a principal at Malone Maxwell Borson Architects.

Originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Texas Architect.