ARCCA Archives, Specialist|

arcCA 01.1, “Awarding Honor.”] Author John Loomis, AIA, is Chair of the Department of Architecture at CCAC and an executive editor of Design Book Review. He is the author of The Architecture of Revolution: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998) and of the forthcoming A House for Weston Havens by Harwell Hamilton Harris. __________ High in the hills above Berkeley sits a forgotten masterpiece of California modern architecture, the Weston Havens House of 1941 by Harwell Hamilton Harris. Its presence can barely be detected. It merges with the landscape, nestled in the treetops against a steeply inclined slope, around which winds Panoramic Way. At one time it was a highly acclaimed example of California modern architecture. In fact, in 1957, to commemorate the centennial of the AIA, Architectural Record conducted a survey of fifty important architects and scholars and produced a list of the one hundred most significant works of architecture in the United States. Among them were fourteen houses. Harris’s Havens house tied for ninth place with Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House. One juror compared the Havens House in significance to Wright’s Falling Water for its original and dramatic response to site. Yet, while Falling Water and the Lovell House have assumed prominent places in the canon of modern architecture, the Weston Havens House has not. Its reputation has receded into history much in the way its architecture has receded into the landscape. Architecture today is largely preoccupied with form, with the creation of the smartly designed object. For Harris, however, the design of the Havens House was not about formal manipulation, but instead about a spatial response to site and path. The visitor engages this architecture experientially, and a memorable experience it is. The seven-foot high redwood wall, now covered with Boston ivy, and the simple, carved volume of the two-car garage present an understated, almost anonymous façade to the street, obscuring any direct view of the house. The entrance, a portion of the fence at a right angle to the street, is easily missed. This entry opens up to a path perpendicular to the street that is actually a covered bridge leading to the house. The high, inclined sides of this bridge reveal only the sky and block the view below, leaving the visitor temporarily disoriented. The axis of the bridge continues through the front door under a low ceiling and ends in a freestanding wall. If the visitor turns to the right or left or goes down the stair, the more intimate spaces of the kitchen and bedrooms are found, as well as the sunken court, hidden from view by the inclined sides of the bridge. To proceed along the axis, the visitor must circumvent the freestanding wall, beyond which the ceiling lifts upward, and a dramatic, 180- degree panorama of the San Francisco Bay emerges. The viewer then stands directly on axis with the distant Golden Gate Bridge, the final visual destination of a masterful architectural promenade. The formal moves that shape this experience are not immediately perceived. The house consists of two volumes, separated by a court and linked by a bridge. One volume, with the maid’s apartment and the garage, is anchored to the upper part of the slope along the street. The other volume thrusts out from the slope, into the view. This second volume is comprised of three inverted trusses, stacked vertically, that open outward to the view. These vertically stacked roof/ceiling assemblies respond both to form and function. The inclined ceiling formed by the truss directs the space of the room toward the view. Meanwhile, the interiors of the truss structure serve as plenums for the radiant heating. In addition, the upper truss contains hidden clerestory windows that filter direct morning light and indirect afternoon light into the main room. The section is the key to this design. This sectionally driven scheme represents an interesting departure from Harris’s previous work. Harris’s career was still in its formative stages. He had worked under Neutra’s tutelage from 1929 to 1932. Nevertheless, the predominant influence on his work was Frank Lloyd Wright, tempered by an intuitive affinity for California’s Arts and Crafts movement, with occasional references to Neutra. The Depression provided a few opportunities for Harris to test his talent. Despite the economic deprivations, he produced a respectable body of residential work, including the Pauline Lowe House (Altadena, 1934), the Fellowship Park House (Los Angeles, 1935), the Helene Kershner House (Los Angeles, 1935), the De Steiguer House (Pasadena, 1936), the Greta Ganstedt House (Hollywood, 1938), and the Pumphrey House (Santa Monica, 1939). Harris was the master of the well-solved plan, and despite the individual differences among the work of this period, Harris’s houses, even those on slopes, are predominantly conceived in plan. The John Entenza House (Santa Monica, 1937), for example, thrusts out boldly into Santa Monica Canyon, but is essentially a one-story scheme. The Lee Blair House (Los Angeles, 1939), completed the year Harris began to design the Havens House, shows more volumetric development as a scheme of three interlocking trays stepping down the hillside. Yet none of the sloped sites previously encountered by Harris were as physically challenging or dramatic as the Panoramic Way site. Here, Harris was forced to abandon his plan-driven repertoire for a section strategy that also forced him to leave behind the residual influences of Wright and Neutra. The result was his most original work of architecture. The larger site of Panoramic Hill may also have inspired the path that takes one into and through the house. The developer of the first Panoramic Hill residences, Warren Cheny, had commissioned landscape architect Henry Atkins in 1909 to design a path named Orchard Lane to connect the shingled houses of the early development. Orchard Lane is really a series of stairs that acts as a vertical warp to the switchback weave of Panoramic Way. The stairs alternately are enveloped within deeply shaded, leafy bowers and emerge into the light as they intersect the road. Harris no doubt trudged up this steep and dramatic climb many times as he became acquainted with the site. Could it be that the path up the hill, with its compression and release, its transitions from shade to light, inspired the path through the house? Dramatic site conditions were one reason for the uniqueness of the Havens House within Harris’s career; another was his unique relationship with his client, John Weston Havens, Jr., who happily inhabits the house to this day. Harris and Havens had much in common. Born just four months apart, both were descendants of California pioneer stock. They shared the heritage of an Anglo-American California that valued individualism and pragmatism, a California viewed as a place apart, distinct from the rest of the country. During their youth, California retained an evident, if nostalgic, memory of its pioneer past. For these two men, this memory played a strong role in the formation of their identities. At the same time, they were both intellectually committed to a vision of modernism that was distinctly Californian. Their shared heritage and shared values created a bond that became a lifelong friendship. As a result of this friendship, Havens’s relationship with Harris was one of an engaged and critically involved client. In fact, Havens rejected Harris’s first scheme, an unremarkable, plan-driven proposal that stepped down the slope with none of the sectional brilliance of the final project. For Havens, the scheme occupied too much space and seemed too extravagant. He compelled Harris to completely rethink the design. The result is the undisputed highpoint of Harris’s career and a masterpiece of California modernism. The Havens House celebrates the experiential and the tactile over the formal. It represents a unique moment of cultural optimism when California sought to develop a distinct modernist vision. Moreover, the Havens House represents a creative synergy between a talented architect and an intelligent client that inspired the architect to transcend his own creative boundaries. __________ Photos by Man Ray, © 2001 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris; drawing, unattributed, California Arts and Architecture, March 1940. __________]]>

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