Proud Owners, Nosy Visitors: On Touring the Vanna Venturi and Margaret Esherick houses

Better ask for forgiveness rather than permission. As an architect who mostly travels for the sake of experiencing architecture, I have tried to adhere to that motto whenever I encounter a space that I have not planned.

For instance, a few years ago my wife Claudia and I made a trip to Philadelphia and while there, we decided to visit the Vanna Venturi House and the neighboring Esherick House, both at Chestnut Hill East, a 45-minute train ride from Philly. The first was designed by Robert Venturi for his mother in 1962, and the latter for Margaret Esherick by the great Louis I. Kahn in 1959.

Both houses are privately owned and we had not contacted the owners prior to our visit. The idea was to take pictures of the exteriors and if lucky, try to persuade the owners for an interior peek.

It was a chilly Sunday morning when we arrived. The Venturi House was first on our path. As we arrived the property, (and after jumping of excitement for how accessible the house was) I started sketching the iconic main elevation while Claudia was preparing herself to take some pictures.

Vanna-Venturi House, Robert Venturi (1925-2018)

Suddenly we devised a figure, who spotted us through the windows, that immediately rushed to the main door. We’re caught! was our first thought, knowing pretty well how many owners dislike such an invasion of privacy (especially on a Sunday morning). I mean, even if we had spent most of the train trip rehearsing how we would have explained our intentions, it was certainly to early for such shenanigans.

To our surprise, the owner greeted us by saying “you’re in luck! A few more minutes and I had already left the house!” And he kindly invited us in because he had a few minutes to spare and he recognized that we came from afar just to look at the house. Still in disbelief, we started apologizing for the intrusion.

He proceeded to let us know that he was a lawyer and that he had recently acquired the house and was well aware of its significance. While encouraging us to wander around he assured us that he enjoyed allowing to tour the house, more so if they were from out of town. He recounted the multiple times that Bob Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown brought visitors to tour the house.

After our tour, he pointed us towards the Esherick House and assured us that the owners also enjoyed visitors, but were much more careful since they had recently restored the entire wood flooring.

When we arrived at the Esherick it was still quite early and we did not feel as confident to push our luck so we sketched the house and took some pictures and left. A few weeks after posting our photos on social media, a friend from DC sent us an article about the house, and how much its current owners enjoyed having visitors touring the house. Needless to say, I felt disappointed for failing to adhere to the motto and not even trying to ring the door bell. I guess I’ll keep that in mind next time.

More about the houses

Designed by Robert Venturi for his mother, the Vanna Venturi House was built between 1962 and 1964. It was conceived during the period that Venturi was writing his seminal book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Therefore, through the house, Venturi positioned himself against the stances of Modern Architecture. In contrast to the, less is more approach of Mies van der Rohe, at the Vanna House, Venturi preferred “…elements which [were] hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clear,” distorted rather than “straightforward.”

Considered one of the first projects of Postmodernism — a movement in architecture when the ideas and ideals of Modernism were discarded and replaced with traditional (classical) elements and theories.

Notwithstanding, Venturi sought to push back against the purism of Modernism in praise for “complexity and contradiction” of hibridity in architecture which was more reflective of the times. Therefore, the classically arranged façade contrasted with the dynamism of the interior spaces.

Inside, an open living-dining area is located at the center, with a covered porch, kitchen space and the foyer on one side, and two bedrooms and a full bathroom on the other. The second floor, which account for one-third of the first level, there is a studio-bedroom, with its bathroom, walk-in closets and, a small balcony overlooking the backyard.

The fireplace has a dominant presence, not only at the main elevation, but also at the inside, where its central position. Seems to distort the main stairs. Indeed it seems that Venturi did not wanted to highlight the stairwell, which at first glance looks more like a sculpture, reducing its width as it abruptly ascends around the chimney.

Claudia at the main entrance
Me at the master bedroom

The Esherick House was built between 1959 and 1962 for bookseller Margaret Esherick. The two-story one bedroom house is organized into what Kahn often referred as served spaces (primary areas like living rooms and bedrooms) and servant spaces (secondary areas like bathrooms, storages, corridors, and the like). Therefore, the Esherick House is divided into four main zones of served and servant spaces which run the full width of the house, from front to back.

On the ground floor, the two main served zones include on one side the foyer and dining room and on the other the living room. The double-height living room is the hierarchical space of the house. At the north wall there is a built-in bookcase and on the opposite side a window that spans the two floors.

Between the living room and the dining room, there is the thinnest of the servant zones. It contains the front and backyard entrances on the first floor; two small balconies above these entrances on the second; and the main stairs as well as a corridor overlooking the living room.

Parallel to the dining room, on the first floor, is the remaining servant zone that includes the kitchen*, originally the laundry room, recently converted into a secondary kitchen for daily use, and a half bath. On the second level, the main bathroom, laundry, and a walking closet are located.

On both ends of the longitudinal axis of the house, Kahn designed two sculptural fireplaces that articulate the — somewhat — blank walls.

* The renowned wood sculpture and cabinetmaker Wharton Esherick (uncle of Ms. Esherick) designed the original kitchen, used today only on special occasions.

Esherick House viewed from the southwest.
Esherick’s main entrance façade

from sketch to space, part two

This post is part of a series where I intend to provide additional information while attempting to illustrate the process of restoring San José Church in Old San Juan. Please refer to Part One in a previous post.

Present Time

The current restoration efforts at San José began in 2005 and Jorge Rigau, FAIA – Arquitectos PSC has been fully involved since 2013 a year after the Patronato de Monumentos de San Juan was established as a not-for-profit private organization to oversee and secure funds for the works.

Past

San José was occupied for almost five centuries by three religious orders; Dominicans, Jesuits, and Vincentians. The church was originally named Santo Tomás de Aquino (Saint Aquinas) by the Dominican Order, who built it as part of their convent. The structure as we see it today was the product of a series of interventions that spanned almost three centuries, up to the mid-1800s until the Dominican Order was expelled and the Spanish government seizes control of the convent.

Later in the 1860s, the Jesuits took over the church and eventually renamed it as San José. During their stay, but most probably in preparation for their arrival, major interventions were performed. However, the character of these works was primarily aesthetic. One can only imagine that, in comparison to other Jesuit churches, the modest finishes under the Dominican period were too austere for their taste.

Therefore, the clay floor (there are only written accounts of its existence) was replaced with an Italian marble. Also, an exuberant gothic altarpiece or retablo was installed in its main page; and all interiors were plastered, while its main vaults were ornately painted blue and decorated with stars in allusion of a cielo aperto. We know about the existence by black & white photographs of the early 20th century, as well as traces of the blue paint and brass nails that presumably held the stars were still visible in the vaults. Surprisingly, after all these efforts, the Jesuits did not stay long at Sa José. Shortly by the early 1930s the Vincentian Fathers had already made changes to the church and stayed until its closure in the late 1990s.

The intervention

During the process of completion of San José, multiple building materials and methods were used. For example, stone masonry construction was employed during the original sections of the church. Therefore, apse, and transept, as well as part of the main and lateral naves were built with traditional medieval stone masonry construction. (See sketch below) For the rest of the structure rubble masonry walls were employed.

At some point — possibly during the Jesuit period — the northwest arch of the main nave opening towards the lateral nave was enlarged in what seems like an attempt to provide uniformity with the other arches at both sides of the space. However, while all other arches were made either in stone or brick masonry this one was reinforced with concrete, all hidden behind cement plaster.

We cannot say exactly when the concrete reinforcement had been applied, but by the time we encountered, the structure had been failing due to corrosion and spalling. It was our recommendation to carefully remove the concrete and instead provide a more compatible reinforcement to the unstable rubble masonry opening. Sketch illustrating the new brick masonry arch to be erected in lieu of the incompatible reinforced concrete intervention. Explanatory sketch (with on site clarification jots) to illustrate the laying of bricks and how to (and not to) cut the bricks to articulate the arch’s corners. The articulation was a way to emulate — without copying — the profile of the medieval stone voussoirs of the existing arches.

The next two photographs illustrate the process of erection of the new arch and the last image portraits the finalized brick reinforcement.

Henry Klumb: Two Buildings, One Idea

The seed for this post was originally a discussion on the architecture of Henry Klumb* sponsored by the Preservation Committee of Puerto Rico’s Architects and Landscape Architects Association (CAAPPR) and docomomo_puerto rico (the local chapter of the International Organization for the Documentation and Conservation of Modern Movement) that I proudly presided at the time.

As expected, I have slightly edited the text.

On March 29 (2015) opened the exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture (from) 1955 (to) 1980 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It celebrated the 60th anniversary of the exhibition that MoMA organized in 1955 about Latin American architecture built by 1945. At that time, the architectural production of a decade was presented and in representation of modern architecture in Puerto Rico, two works were exhibited: the Caribe Hilton Hotel by Toro y Ferrer Arquitectos and the Sanctuary of San Martín de Porres by Henry Klumb.

In the later exhibition, although it included architecture produced in a span of a quarter of a century, only one work from Puerto Rico was selected; Henry Klumb’s intervention of a traditional nineteenth-century hacienda in Río Piedras.**

In the assembly of a large-scale exhibition like this one, omissions are understandable, especially since including a whole sampling of works and figures from multiple countries is most certainly not an easy task. The problem — or rather what bothers me to this day — which is what somehow happened with the works chosen to represent Puerto Rican modern architecture 60 years ago — is that MoMA seems to perpetuate the promotion of IMAGES before IDEAS.

To reduce the architectural production of a quarter of a century in Puerto Rico to one surrounded by exuberant nature, or open to natural ventilation is to limit architectural ideas to mere tropical iconography. Whether or not intentional, it is somewhat offensive that peers do not acknowledge architectural sophistication in the Antillean Region.***

In the 1955 exhibition, its curator, Henry Russell Hitchcock, chose to describe the Sanctuary of San Martín de Porres — when comparing it to the ecclesiastical work of Oscar Niemeyer — as lacking dramatic spatial effects, just for the simple fact that its scale is not as monumental as the work of the Brazilian architect.

Referring to the diagonally arranged piers employed by Klumb at San Martín as light deflectors — dazzled perhaps by the fact that the chapel is open to natural ventilation — Hitchcock wasted the opportunity to recognize the spatial idea behind the structural elements.

With the piers, as designed and built, Klumb recognized the religious commitment of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominican Order, to amplify and promote the spread of the gospel.

If the first Dominican churches in the New World resorted to monumentality to carry over the word of God, at San Martín, Klumb used the angled walls dramatize the diffusion of the Dominican ecclesiastical message.

More importantly, it surprises that despite the fact that the 2015 exhibition had the support of the Architecture and Construction Archive of the School of Architecture of the University of Puerto Rico (AACUPR in Spanish), curators wasted the opportunity to include a more representative work. Henry Klumb’s Dominican Friars Convent built in 1958 in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, would have proved a better example.A work in which the late architect, 10 years after having conceived San Martín de Porres, had enough time to rethink and mature the spatial ideas and architectural details he would rehearse in Cataño.

The following analytical drawings further illustrate the point.

Abstract axonometric animation on the evolution of the spatial ideas at play at the Sanctuary to San Martín de Porres the Dominican Convent.

The photographs and sketches above illustrate how the diagonally arranged piers provide a dual spatial experience. On both buildings, while attending mass (looking at the altar) the angled piers become a solid plane that frames our attention towards the liturgical event. In contrast, looking away from the altar the piers become a transparent plane that allows the interior space to extend beyond its built boundaries.

In contrast to the tight suburban lot where Klumb had to erect the sanctuary, the site at the convent was larger. Therefore, the spatial quality achieved at San Martín, aided by the hanging plants and low concrete walls, was further expanded at the Dominican residence, not only at the church space, but throughout the complex.

At the time of the lecture on this subject (in 2015) many of those present at the event did not know the Dominican Seminary. And that should have made us think, that while we recognized the omissions of the exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art, we also needed to reconsider ours locally. MoMA’s omissions are justified because any exhibition constitutes an act of summarizing. And anyone that summarizes, at the same time undoes and, as result, remakes history.

Notes:

* Henry Klumb, was a German architect born in 1905. He emigrated in 1927 to the United States to become an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin North in Wisconsin. After five years, he left Taliesin and worked briefly with Louis I. Kahn and Louis Metzinger, forming the Cooperative Planners firm in Philadelphia during the period of the Great Depression. In 1944 he was invited by Rexford Tugwell (Governor of Puerto Rico at the time) to work as design consultant at the Public Works Design Committee. A few years later, he established the Office of Henry Klumb in San Juan from where he designed all types of private and public projects all over the Island.

** The exhibition catalog included a black and white photograph (right image at the second illustration above) of La Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Carmen in Cataño, Puerto Rico designed by Henry Klumb in 1959. For an earlier post on Casa Klumb, please refer to: https://wp.me/p1hCI1-a2

*** Despite the myopia with which MoMA decided to carry out the exhibition, Dr. Enrique Vivoni (former director and founder of the Architecture and Construction Archive of the School of Architecture at University of Puerto Rico; entity that preserves the historical documents of myriad architectural firms of the Island) clarified in the commented bibliography section that he was asked to produce for the exhibition catalog, the existence of an analytical/critical tradition of architecture in Puerto Rico.

Our critique of MoMA’s short sightedness has also been diagnosed by others. For example, on the introduction of Aalto and America, Stanford Anderson calls-out MoMA’s myopia when they organized the Finnish architect’s Cenntenial Exhibition and “…gave spare attention to Aalto’s relationship with America, which is all the more surprising for the fact that New York, and indeed the Museum itself, figured largely in Aalto’s experience of America.”

chapel of saint ignatius, steven holl

Designed by Steven Holl, the Chapel of Saint Ignatius was conceived as “…seven bottles of light in a stone box…” in reference to San Ignacio de Loyola’s vision of a spiritual life comprised of darkness and light, which he referred as consolations and desolations.

The chapel was built in 1997 and it is located in the campus of Seattle University in First Hill, Downtown Seattle. The main structure of the chapel was erected in twelve hours due to the use of tilt-up concrete walls. Such method of tilt-up construction is traditionally used where the repetition and mass production of panels guarantee speed, therefore cost-effectiveness. In contrast, every panel used at the chapel is unique. Each pre-cast concrete wall (“stone box”) has a distinct profile designed to interlock in order to form slits that let in natural light. In addition, the walls provide distinctive profiles from where a lightweight construction roof curves and contorts to form skylights (bottles of light) that allow in additional natural light. The light entering through the slits and skylights is filtrated by a mix of colored, translucent and transparent glass and it does not enter directly into the space. Curving walls serve as baffles where light bounce off. Each baffle has a complementary color to the color of the glass. The reflected light gets redirected towards the walls in a subtle — yet intense — way. All interior walls have been finished with a textured plaster and what seems at first as an odd design decision, once bathed in light, becomes clear to the keen observer.

The sketches below record my first two visits to the chapel. It was raining during my first visit so I could not experience the incidence of natural light entering through the skylights. On the second visit, however, the experience was completely different. When the reflected colored natural light structs the rugged texture of the interior plaster, it creates an optical illusion. Father Gerald T. Cobb S.J. refers to the light that enters the chapel as “…light that acts like liquid, an aqueous medium spilling across interior surfaces.” In truth, it is a difficult effect to describe but the chapel interiors bathed in light give a sense as if inhabiting a watercolor.

Steven Holl’s pursuit for phenomenological occurrences is well known. In his essay A Gathering of Different Lights he mentions “… to feel these physicalities is to become a subject of the senses.” Furthermore, he adds that… “an awareness of one’s unique existence in space is essential in developing a consciousness of perception.”

Entrance & Procession; view from the Narthex towards the Baptistry.

Baptistry. Inscribed at the edge of the baptismal font: “No barrier can divide where life unites: one faith, one fount, one spirt, makes one people.”

Main Sanctuary (view from baptistry)

Main Sanctuary (towards the altar)

Main Sanctuary (view from the altar)

Choir (looking towards the Main Sanctuary)

Processional corridor/Entrance

Holl assures us that “architecture holds the power to inspire and transform our day-to-day existence.” And while I do not claim that my sketches illustrate the phenomenon I experienced, they certainly give a sense of the spatial quality of the chapel. In fact, in my opinion, having examined Holl’s own watercolors for Saint Ignatius, they also fall short at representing the effect. However, whether intentional or not, the experience is there. Well done Holl.

san francisco art institute

The campus of the San Francisco Art Institute in Russian Hill was designed in the 1920s by Bakewell and Brown, architects of the City Hall and the Coit Tower.

Later in 1969 Paffard Keatinge-Clay, who had worked in Le Corbusier’s atelier in 1948, designed the school’s addition. The program consists of additional art studios, classrooms, faculty and administrative offices, an auditorium; gallery spaces, and a cafeteria, among other programs. Except for the roof terrace (where the auditorium, cafe and gallery spaces are located) the addition sits below the existing complex’s main level due to the abrupt change in topography.

The structure resembles the Swiss-French master’s Carpenter Center at Harvard were béton brut, ramps, light canons, and brise soleils are integral elements of the composition.

However, in comparison to its East Coast precedent, one could argue that there are far less poetic licenses being present at the Institute. For example, at the Carpenter, the ramp is employed for the sole purpose of producing an architectural promenade. In other words [granting that the ramp at the Carpenter is, in fact, one of the main architectural elements offering unobstructed views of the building’s interior spaces; art galleries and studios] the ramp seems quite a gratuitous way to provide a shortcut through the structure and give access to a secondary entrance and ancillary programs.

Nevertheless, the secondary nature of the entrance, almost to justify the need for the ramp, stresses its excessiveness. In contrast, the ramp at the Art Institute not only stitches the interior spaces of the addition with the existing structure but also serves as a bridge that safeguards the abrupt change in topography.

Furthermore, at the Carpenter, the roof terrace or fifth façade is enjoyed solely by a private apartment for visiting faculty/artists. At Keatinge-Clay’s addition, the toit-jardín is –in contrast — the protagonist space. In true emulation of Le Corbusier’s ideas, the roof terrace at the Art Institute becomes a public square, a gathering space where multiple activities take place.

The main space of the terrace (represented on the last sketch and axonometric above) is enclosed on three sides by the main auditorium; an indoor and outdoor gallery space; and the cafeteria. In contrast to the enclosed nature of the existing courtyard, the roof terrace of the additional frame panoramic views of the city as it becomes the hierarchical space of the project.

Also, the roofs over the external gallery, cafe, and auditorium become accessible terraces and not only provide additional vantage points of the city but also allow for a diverse array of activities to occur simultaneously.

from sketch to space, part one

Until last year (2017), while working at Jorge Rigau, FAIA -Arquitectos PSC (jorgerigau.com), I collaborated in the restoration of San José Church in Old San Juan, the second oldest church in the New World. Originally built by the Dominican Order, its construction began in 1532, and spanned until mid-19th Century, with several restoration efforts undertaken during the 20th Century.

As an overseer of the conservation effort under the Patronato de Monumentos de San Juan, I recorded minute details of existing conditions, as well as restoration techniques, and on-site solutions and recommendations.

Customarily, architecture projects rely heavily on construction plans; and while historic preservation endeavors are not exempt of including such drawings, on-site sketches and recording field notes tend to have greater weight. First, because surprises abound; second, since — more often than not — complex tasks need to be translated to workers; and finally, because preservation is mainly about restoring traditions, and on-site instructions — I strongly believe — is one of them.

In this post and a series following, I’ll illustrate how some of those graphic instructions aided at the restoration of myriad elements throughout San José.

While assessing a structural fracture at the Virgen del Rosario Chapel a wall niche or hornacina was discovered behind cement plaster. In what seemed like an attempt to address the structural crack (or change in liturgical aesthetics), the niche had been sealed off from view.

Throughout time, a series of earthquakes affecting Old San Juan had structurally compromised the church and several openings had been repaired. Even if well-intentioned, most too often this repairs where performed with incompatible or feeble means and methods.

Notwithstanding, vestiges of the original niche were still visible under the improvised enclosures. Therefore, we opted for reconstructing the niche, albeit ensuring an appropriate structural reinforcement of the fractured wall above. The sketch above illustrates our response; restoring the original half-round niche and providing a half-dome to structurally stabilize the damaged lintel, allowing the safe distribution of gravitational forces towards the reinforced brick masonry base.

The photo below shows a bricklayer erecting the masonry base that supported the half-dome. The voids between the brick masonry of the new niche and the uneven surfaces of the rubble masonry wall were carefully filled in with a compatible mortar in order to provide a solid substructure. The subsequent images show the finished hornacina within the space.*

* We decided just to include our sketches, photos of the process and images of the finished product. But in Puerto Rico, for far too long, traditional means and methods of construction like brick, stone or rubble masonry, had been lost. During the mid-20th Century, disguised as a way to withstand hurricanes, traditional construction including wood had been replaced by reinforced concrete (and eventually steel) construction.

Needless to say, throughout the restoration process of San José workers encountered multiple difficulties. Regardless of their avid skills, many initially lacked the discipline to deal with the minute details pertaining traditional construction; careful selection of materials; consistency of mortar mix production; and most importantly, the need for erecting work ensuring geometrical precision in order to withstand the effects of gravity.

Workers quickly learned the fact that masonry construction is not as forgiving (not to say malleable) as reinforced concrete; therefore there were many failed-starts. Fortunately, in all instances, workers’ pride for their craft and perseverance worked in our favor. The finished product not only ended as imagined, but it also performs as intended.

poetry foundation

These sketches were done a year after I first visited this place in 2015. (Please refer to a previous post below for that first visit.) https://anonymousarchitecture.wordpress.com/2015/06/14/the-poetry-foundation-by-john-ronan-architects/

It’s been almost four years since that first visit and three since I made these interior sketches. In retrospect, I still think this is one of the greatest buildings I have encountered in recent years.

Plaza de Armas, Viejo San Juan


Transformed several times throughout the years Plaza de Armas today is arguably one of the best public squares in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The current design -depicted above- is from the 1980’s and belongs to architect, Alberto del Toro (assisted by the dissolved firm Arce y Rigau).

The space was last rehabilitated almost two decades ago. The works dealt with minor repairs to the pavements and sitting areas, but additional trees were added. Fortunately, the new planting followed the existing structure and a second line of trees — of the same species — was paired with the existing. For that reason, the original spatial organization devised by the designers remained unchanged. Some could argue that it was reinforced with the addition.

Plaza de Armas is rectangular in shape, conformed by contiguous buildings along its four sides where two civic structures stand out, the Departamento de Estado o Real Intendencia to the West (right in the top sketch) and the Ayuntamiento or Alcaldía de San Juan to the North (center down in the sketch, also at the perspective below). It is worth noting that the space does not align with any of the afore-mentioned buildings. However, the skillful designer(s) organized the urban elements at their disposition to compensate for the ‘misalignment’.

Therefore, as illustrated, a telephone cabin, a fountain and a “glorieta”, along with the mass of trees — all composed to acknowledge and reinforce — the City Hall’s main axis, perpendicular to the plaza. The mass of trees further recognize the building’s protruding arcades and the towers that flank them. (See sketch below, illustrating this space back in 2002).

The space conformed by the surrounding buildings is rectangular. However, the space’s proportion is less important than the composition of the urban elements inside the paved area of the square. The arrangement is what really organizes the space. The paved area has a proportion of 1:3.5; one square wide by three and a half squares long. The alignment with the Ayuntamiento (as illustrated) is far more hierarchical than the alignment with the Real Intendencia. Nevertheless, two monumental light posts – no others alike are to be found in the square – recognize the Real Intendencia’s longitudinal axis. Thus, proving that neither the longitudinal or transversal axis of the rectangular geometry of the space (without relating to any structure) is as relevant as the axis created by the arrangement of elements drawn by the skillful hand of the designers.