Casa Klumb

Front view of Casa Klumb, with Henry Klumb standing in from of the reflecting pond (left) and his wife Else standing next to the entry stoop (center right).

Casa Klumb was one of the highlight subjects while teaching a course on History of Modern Architecture during my academic tenure in Puerto Rico. Even as a student in Architecture School, the almost inaccessible house had an aura that fired-up the imagination of many of us.

Now, the fire that consumed the property provoked the publishing of these notes. Moreover, the aerial videos shared on social media platforms of the house engulfed in flames prompted me to think of the last act of Los soles truncos (a dramatic comedy in two acts) by René Marqués, where a house — the symbol of a prosperous life in previous times — was consumed by fire (along with the main characters) as an act of immolation.

This thought transformed the rage and sadness I felt by this terrible loss and offered a certain sense of relief while I accounted for the state of disrepair and neglect that Casa Klumb had been suffering for decades.

A brief history

The Henry Klumb House in Sabana Llana, Río Piedras, a neighborhood of San Juan, was initially known as the Cody Ranch. The house was a nineteenth-century casona, and it acquired architectural significance from the considerable alterations performed by the German-born architect Henry Klumb in 1949.*

Klumb and his wife Else bought the house in 1947 and lived in it, along with their two sons until 1984, when both parents died in a car accident. The property remained unoccupied since then and was acquired shortly after in 1986 by the University of Puerto Rico. Despite this, it was abandoned, bearing significant degrees of deterioration over the years.

In 1997, already in a grave state of disrepair — but still retaining much of its architectural integrity — it was included as a Regional Monument in the United States National Register of Historic Places. In 2012, it was elevated to the status of National Monument by the same entity.**

Large-format photograph of Casa Klumb
at MoMA’s exhibition Latin America
in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980.
Photograph of the exhibition by John Hill; https://www.flickr.com/photos/archidose/; accessed 05/10/2015.

In 2014 efforts were made to include the house within the World Monuments Watch’s List or endangered structures, and in March of that year, Comité Casa Klumb (a committee to oversee the restoration of the house) was created.

These efforts alongside the inclusion of Casa Klumb among the subjects at the exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture (from) 1955 (to) 1980 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the Spring of 2015 where all signs in the right direction pointing towards its preservation.

Despite raising monies and awareness for its restoration; multiple events difficulted taking the affirmative actions required to avoid its destruction and loss.***

Klumb’s intervention

The original house was a typical Caribbean casona with pitched-roof, its floor raised from the ground (for ventilation purposes), with an open veranda or balcony throughout. Klumb’s intervention resulted in the substraction of elements rather than adding to the existing structure. In a series of strategies that appeared to adhered more with Le Corbusier’s Open Plan approach, Klumb eliminated — almost in their entirety — the enclosing walls of the house to allow continuity between the public spaces and the veranda.

Casa Klumb, Main Floor Plan, 1949
Henry Klumb, FAIA

Thus, the living room (in the front) and the dinning room (at the back) — maintaining the original turn-of-the-nineteenth-century layout — were left completely open, exposed to the natural breeze and exterior conditions; only the roof (and the fact that it was raised from the ground) provided shelter from the natural elements. The surrounding vegetation, a unique feature of the house’s siting as illustrated in the original photographs (and sketches) below, allowed an additional layer of protection.

Main living room with original furniture designed by Henry Klumb and Stephen Arneson; ARKLU (Photograph from the professional archive of Henry Klumb at AACUPR)

The bedrooms remained partially enclosed. However, large operable windows and pivoting doors (with louvers) allowed for privacy while allowing cross ventilation. When opened, the doorways provided visual and physical connection with the balcony and public areas of the house. A few additional walls throughout the house, were lifted a few inches from the floor and did not touch the ceilings, to allow for the uninterrupted flow of air. The exterior wall of the main bedroom was articulated in plan to be ”floating” (detached from the rest of the encircling walls) and thorough slim swing doors, provided direct passage to the veranda and an additional form of air circulculation.

Henry Klumb reading. The exuberant palm trees provided privacy from onlookers. The tensile structural elements along the veranda guardrails, added by Klumb, were required once the removal of perimeter walls, to help withstand the pull forces exerted on the roof by strong storm winds.
View from the veranda of the reflecting pool in the front yard. Loose gravel pavement was used throughout the periphery of the house because the crunching sound of steps notified them (and their dogs) of trespassers and visitors.
IMG_1791.JPG
View of the main living room, the low wall divided the study or home office.
IMG_1792.JPG
View of the veranda and dining room table.
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Details of the dining table structure and rotating mechanism.
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Floor plan and axonometric view.
Sketched floor plan (probably by Klumb) illustrating the spatial relationship and location of mobile and built-in furniture throughout the house. (Image from https://www.facebook.com/AACUPR/photos/a.147654355334879/422045364562442/)

Additional notes on the history of the house

The original casona belonged to José Ramón Latimer and his wife Esther C. Cody, who rented out rooms for people visiting from the mainland. Before Klumb purchased the property for himself, and for a brief period of time between 1944 and 1945, the Cody Ranch served as the residence for Richard Neutra and his wife Dione Niedermann.

Both Klumb and Neutra served as design consultants under the government of Rexford Tugwell. However, the collaboration between them was far less cordial as imagined. Family letters written by Dion Neutra, while their sojourn in the Island, portrayed the competitive relationship of her husband and Klumb, almost as nemesis.

She explains, how they managed to rent an available room at Cody Ranch and how it was like to live in Puerto Rico. In the end, the Neutra’s left Puerto Rico after not being able to secure additional work and pursued his carrier elsewhere. Klumb on the other hand, remained and made a life life for himself and his family in the island.

Notes:

*Henry Klumb, was born in Cologne, Germany in 1905. He emigrated in 1927 to the United States to become an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin North in Wisconsin. He left Wright’s apprenticeship after five years, and worked briefly with Louis I. Kahn and Louis Metzinger, forming the Cooperative Planners firm in Philadelphia during the Great Depression.

In 1944, Klumb was invited by Rexford Tugwell (Governor of Puerto Rico at the time) to work as a 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.

** For a copy of the registration form visit: https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/4183ae4d-6f2d-4918-82b0-682a3b7ed16c (Accessed 11/12/20)

For National Register list of properties in Puerto Rico, including Casa Klumb refer to: https://www.nps.gov/state/pr/list.htm?program=all (Accessed 11/12/20

For World Monuments Watch refer to: https://www.wmf.org/project/henry-klumb-house (Accessed 11/12/20)

*** The exhibition celebrated the 60th anniversary of the show 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.

For additional thoughts on the work of Henry Klumb and MoMA’s exhibition refer to: https://anonymousarchitecture.co/2019/01/10/henry-klumb-two-buildings-one-idea/

*** The house was owned by the University of Puerto Rico, a public entity enduring significant challenges due to the economic recession. Not to mention the impact of natural events like hurricane Irma and María in 2017 and the political turmoil that forced the exit of the sitting governor; all circumstances that somewhat justify the inaction to save the structure.

Acknowledgements

All photographs are from the professional archive of Henry Klumb at AACUPR, Archivo de Arquitectura y Construcción de la Universidad de Puerto Rico (University of Puerto Rico’s Architecture and Construction Archive) unless otherwise noted.

The author made all hand sketches during a guided tour organized by the restoration committee as part of a series of activities to raise awareness of the house condition and raise funds for its rehabilitation. High-quality print outs of these sketches were donated for auction, alongside other work by myriad artists, architects, and historians during a fundraising event.

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 to 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)

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.

Choir (looking towards the Main Sanctuary)

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 its 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, where 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 leading 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 ramp’s need, 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: 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.