by Michael Malone, AIA
July/Aug 2012 Texas Architect
The Dallas neighborhood of Preston Hollow is home to a number of well-designed and often very significant houses by nationally recognized architects — Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Meier, Steven Holl, and Edward Larrabee Barnes, to name a few. The neighborhood also has a considerable representation of local talent (including Max Levy, Russell Buchanan, Mark Wellen, Svend Fruit, Frank Welch, and Howard Meyer). The larger, rambling lots — often skirted by creeks and sheltered by mature trees — seem appropriate for truly purposeful architectural design, perhaps more so than the sites in more typical suburban neighborhoods close by. The majority of Preston Hollow residents still opt for large, more traditional houses. But with the varied topography, even they seem to fit in better on the larger lots. It is a pattern for houses in this area to overwhelm their sites, dominating them and distracting attention from the beautiful trees and landforms (and the neighbors) with a sense of monumentality.
But not all of them. The Hodge Orr House, designed by David Webster George, FAIA, in collaboration with Jim Wheeler, AIA, is a reminder that a well-planned house can be both gracious and architecturally arresting, while still embodying principles of restraint and blending into the features of the site. These two architects — in tandem with a totally involved client who valued and insisted on simplicity — were able to follow their ideas to completion, fully integrating with the site. The house is so carefully tucked in under the canopy of existing oak trees, you can drive by and almost miss the house, unless you are looking for it. But close observation demands your consideration and rewards it with thoughtful lessons on how to make a beautiful thing using a restrained basket of tricks. It begins with the great care taken with the way the trees are incorporated into the design. Indeed. the entry sequence makes this priority clear as you walk past a portion of the roof that has been specially notched to allow a set of limbs to pass over it. Such care is witnessed again and again, but the myriad ways it is manifested is a delight to understand.
Indicative of David Webster George’s mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, and his concern for siting a building to take advantage of its natural characteristics, the house is set among 20 native live oak trees. The whole organization of the house, as well as the roof heights and placement of walks, drives, and decks, is adjusted to accommodate them, particularly the spread of the canopies. George is 89 years old, and proudly both an AIA and a Taliesin Fellow. The Orrs found him after seeing another of his houses and making an effort to track him down. Initially the project was an addition to an existing house, but subsequently the commission developed into an all-new structure, resulting in the original house being demolished. What remained was an incredible oak grove to plan a house in, an existing pool to focus the court around, and a lush bamboo thicket at the rear of the site.
George describes the house as very Texan, in fact, a “Texas Prairie Style” house, perhaps as a deferential reference to his time at Taliesin as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. If so, the reference is opaque at best. Other than its careful siting and the use of a repetitive grid as an organizing device, the house seems to be very much an original design, combining Mediterranean planning strategies with an Asian sensibility and scale. The result is a house in repose, designed to take advantage of its site and to make those inhabiting it more appreciative of its unique characteristics. Further, it is an exceptionally well-detailed and well-made house, sure in its execution as well as its design, not always characteristic of Frank Lloyd Wright’s later work. This is a house in which fit-and-finish is integral to the way the spaces are expressed and formed. It draws a considerable amount of its power from the sheer excellence of the construction. To be inside it is to experience a primer in the phrase “zero detailing.”
After demolition of the original house, the existing pool in what had formerly been the back yard was redesigned to be the one man-made feature of the center court. This distinctive element — in the shape of a quatrefoil — became the focal point of most major rooms in the house. The landscaped court is edged by rhythmic modules of bay windows set out from the main wall with its uniform cornice height. On the interior these bay windows front a continuous circulation space, which the owners refer to as a cloister, although inside it functions as a continuous linear living space. The existing pool is at the center of the composition, in effect becoming the intersection of the cross axis around which the plan is organized. Here the circulation is actually inhabitable, in counterpoint to the Mediterranean model, where it reads as exterior space.
The façades have a combination of flat and gable roofs that are used to articulate various spaces, and to accommodate the spreading limbs of the trees. The house is organized using a 10’-8’’ supergrid, which subdivides in a 32’’ grid for both the plan and section dimensions. This grid, in turn, subdivides to 8’’ modules or expands up to a 48’’ module — conforming dimensionally with most standard building materials. Manifestation of the grid is evident in the large bay windows (the same 8’-0’’ x 8’-0’’window module is used throughout the house), but it is not tyrannical or even immediately visible. The grid can only be sensed by the overall order and carefully developed proportions of the house, a sign of a sure hand and a great deal of experience in the use of a repetitive module for planning.
The exterior is finished in uniform, smooth plaster, with no joints or reveals. The interior wall color matches it, too, creating an intentionally monolithic character that makes the house look like “pottery” to David George and that serves as an excellent foil for the trees and the shadows they cast in the changing light. The large windows are of bronze aluminum, mimicking the verticality and bark of the trees. When an interior space is celebrated, a standing-seam gable roof is expressed on the façade.
Rainwater on the site is handled in an innovative and narrative manner, consistent with the careful siting of the house. In the areas where flat roofs occur, scuppers, designed as a recurring part of the façade, shed water. The gables, located over rooms where the spatial emphasis requires verticality, spring from the cornice line and are clad in standing-seam metal. There are no gutters or downspouts; rainwater simply sheets off the roofs and into the surrounding landscape. The house is set in what the architects call a dry creek bed, a stone-lined trough that borders the house and accommodates drainage. Access to the various doors located around the perimeter of the house is by pipe decks or bridges that span the creek bed and reinforce the water metaphor.
All of this planning organization is secondary to the role of ample natural light within the spaces. Light — its channeling, filtering, and the way it is introduced to the various spaces — is what you sense most inside the house. Skylights, roof lights and monitors are present in virtually every major space, but they are not just holes in the roof or mere windows. Here they are shielded and screened by a wide variety of sensitive millwork grids that soften the light and provide visual play. The effect is one of dappled light falling through tree branches and leaves, a fitting metaphor for a house literally inserted beneath a broad canopy of trees. The skylights provide a reminder of the trees, which are visible through them, but just barely. George and Wheeler are careful not to allow harsh direct light to penetrate the house, so views out are generally seen through a screen. These grids in the skylights and gable windows filter and screen the light. The architects refer to these screens as “sombras,” which translates as “shadows,” an apt descriptive term. Wheeler, who worked with O’Neil Ford in his early career, learned about sombras in Ford’s office. In every case, the interior and exterior grilles are demountable to take full advantage of the seasonal foliage. This introduction of wood near the ceilings also adds a touch of hand-crafted warmth in an unexpected place. Equally interesting is how these skylights are used thematically to introduce light into the space even when it’s dark outside. The large skylight over the dining room table is fitted with spot lights that can be aimed downward, extending the theme of lighting from above. With all of the glazing and the need for visual privacy above the windows, shades that can be lowered when necessary are concealed in the header.
The house is rich with wonderful (and useful) details. A favorite (in a house that is full of them) is the use of a single pane of frameless glass projecting over the exterior entry doors granting access via the decks to the exterior and providing cover when entering and exiting. This gesture has the effect of sheltering the door from rain, without spoiling the roof and cornice line, and the view of the trees.
George and Wheeler were aided in the design of the interior details and millwork by Dallas architect Jessica Stewart Lendvay, who with the owners developed the extensive, but restrained, millwork and finishes. Interiors are minimalist, but carefully considered. In addition to the smooth interior walls, they include white oak flooring and white oak cabinets. The same wood and stone are used throughout, extending even to bathrooms and closets. The interior paint colors, tiles, limestone, and stone for countertops were selected by the owner in collaboration with interior designer Beth Steinbauer.
In keeping with the minimalist detailing, no trim is used in the house; walls go to the floor in unbroken lines uninterrupted by base. Wood flooring is 8’’-wide oak planks, the same materials used throughout for all the millwork. Limestone is introduced at the fireplace hearths (flush with the adjacent wood floors) and as a band of paving around the pool. The only obvious decorative touch appears as wood grilles that form a cornice in some interior spaces and conceal return air. An extension of these wood grilles used in a different way is seen in the form of sliding screens that can divide and close off some areas of the house. Based on their similarity to Japanese latticework, Wheeler calls these “renji mado.” A house this open and flowing seems never to suggest the need to close off portions from one another, but George and Wheeler have built this contingency into the design. The kitchen can be screened completely from the surrounding spaces, although this capability would normally seem unnecessary, given the kitchen’s careful planning and execution. The kitchen itself is generous, open, and integral to the house. Simple base cabinets in a linear configuration define the space. Pantries and closets provide ample storage, dispensing with the need for upper cabinets that would disrupt the visual flow of space.
The interior cloister adjacent to the kitchen is usable space that George calls the sidewalk café. This continuous space surrounds the landscaped court and has the effect of providing every room with an associated living space. Most rooms have windows or views on two walls, into the central court and out to the perimeter of the site, which is lovingly landscaped and full of distinctive gardens and landscape features. The owners are avid readers and the display of books is a significant component of the design. As the cloister follows the perimeter of the courtyard, it fittingly becomes their library and study. Ultimately it becomes the master suite itself, where the view is across the court and the pool at its center.
Much is made of the modernist trope of bringing the outside inside, of blurring the line between the two realms, and creating views in and out that are informed by the architecture. Though often stated as a goal of a design, in practice it is more of a cliché than a reality. But this house could be a case study for the idea — a tree house on one level where basic circulation feels like a walk in the woods. In part due to the ample fenestration and the presence of the trees, you feel like you are outdoors, that the interior and the exterior are seamlessly joined. Overall this is a quiet house, expansive and filled with light filtered through leaves. Its orderly, almost luxuriously scaled spaces are inviting and seductive, suggestive of sheltered places for curling up with a book or taking a nap. This is a house in repose. To be in it is to experience a sense of calm and order, and the gift of well-being.
Michael Malone, AIA, is the founding principal of Michael Malone Architects in Dallas.