Songs for Memory

Songs of Memory: Mapping the Home and its corporeal significance.

Each of us has a unique interpretation of that place we call home. Home provides spaces for secrets to be told and arguments to be won. It offers places to connect to neighbors or to reflect upon ourselves. Like a song, the emotions and movements within a house might be comparable to tempo, while nature and light serve as treble and bass. No matter the climate, location, or form, every house sings a unique song.

Recently I had opportunity to talk with three architects who designed houses on this year’s AIA Dallas Homes Tour and hear their interpretation of home. I pressed them to reveal the qualities that morph spatial organizations into the mysterious domain we call our home. Without intent, I found a common river of belief in each of them. What began as a study of relationships between architect, contractor, and client in residential construction, became a test to diffuse the pressures associated when two or more of those roles were played by the same person. Of the three designers inquired, two conceived houses for themselves. The other, the Mockingbird House, was a collaboration between a Scottsdale architect and a local contractor. The three homes share similar urban arrangements, yet each tells an exclusive story of personal domestication and private enterprise.

Designing Your Own Home

(1) Eddie Maestri, AIA, architect and owner of the AIA Dallas Home Tour house on Coronado Street said there is great pressure in designing your own home. “It’s a really hard balance because there are expectations of what an architect’s house should look like…” he continues “ We like collecting and we’re very family oriented. Our extended family is in pieces that belonged to them and we wanted it all to come together.”

(2) As a native of New Orleans, Maestri has a peculiar love for the scale and tactility extant in the Garden District and especially the house his great grandparents lived in. For Maestri, the home draws memory from a tasteful collection of objects acquired over the years that in many ways take him back to his childhood understanding of place. The Coronado House simply reflects traditional details, mouldings, and trims, refining and representing the French tradition posited in southern Louisiana. From antique credenzas to contemporary lighting fixtures, the house is but a shell for memorable objects, each with a unique history unto itself. Maestri states “People get wrapped up in what it [the home] should be, but I think it should be a reflection of your personality.”

(3) This personality has allowed the Maestri family to surround themselves with the things they love most, memories, and it looks forward to the events that will soon be memories too. With twins on the way, the Coronado house provides room for family growth and development, fortifying its significance through an appreciation for the tangible. While one may question the ghastly consequences of storied antiques, there is nothing more meaningful for Eddie Maestri than the genetic nature of acquired pieces as he thumbs through generations of photographs.

(4) Like the Coronado House, the Mockingbird house sits among post-war residences in a typically American setting. However, for owner Larry Hartman of Hartman Construction Inc. here in Dallas, the home requires a live-work setting where the threshold between his personal life and operational world is much closer in proximity than most peoples’. As most contractors will tell you, a large part of the job is getting from place to place, quickly and efficiently. Many people spend that time in a car or plane. Victor Sidy, dean at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture in Scottsdale, Arizona, gave Hartman a garden instead. He explains:

“The house is a live-work setting. It’s a way of living and working that is compatible with the ways our ancestors probably lived and worked, so there was naturalness about that. We celebrated the fact that he had a commute, a commute between the northern half and the southern half, but that commute was through a wonderful courtyard; a tree and light filled courtyard.”

The garden that lies behind the brutal entry is an intimate division between the existing, now renovated, home and the newly constructed work-place. The former, a haphazardly coursed masonry structure, remains a signpost for his previous experiences, but the latter suggests a more refined order and structure to Hartman’s commercial reality.

(5) “Hartman purchased the original house when he was early in his career when he couldn’t necessarily afford anything grander. It had few remarkable features about it,” said Sidy, “but as he lived there over the years he fell in love with the quirky exterior skin of the house.” Thus, it made sense to both of them to celebrate the memory of the existing house. Retrofit with modern furnishings and proportion, not much is left of the existing house but the brick façade which stands permanent across the later composition of programmatic boxes, literally interpreted as architectural building blocks.

Hartman’s knowledge and passion for plants and gardening provides a seamless encounter into memories had and those to come. By way of material honesty, the Mockingbird House stands as a model for contemporary trends, primarily living and working in the same place, but also the reclamation of existing structures as a new creation of memory. On this standard sized lot, building better overshadows building bigger, consciously moving against common traditions, especially in a city such as Dallas.

The Coronado and Mockingbird houses share the most in common of the three as they stand as permanent domains, at least for the time being. They reflect internally upon an existing consciousness and move forward as timeless objects unto themselves. It is often said that time and place create memory, and this I firmly believe. As designers we like to think that our home is as grand as the ruins of Rome. We find comfort in our “every-day” and often assault any inconsistent forces. Surprisingly though, Tom Reisenbichler’s design for his own home on Caruth Boulevard introduces a nomadic dimension that focuses as much on the public realm as it does self awareness to provide a sense of home.

(6) For Tom Reisenbichler, managing director at Perkins +Will, Dallas, this was no maiden voyage. In fact, this is the third house he has designed for himself, and it appears that it will not be his last. He relishes in the light of the market and its demand for good design. “I don’t get to design much at work” he says, “I do a lot of healthcare planning and sales management, so for me it’s a lot of fun.” Fun it must be for an experienced architect who is also his own general contractor, and in this case his own client.

Like Maestri, he understands the anxieties associated with designing one’s own house. For Tom it seems a way to explore ideas and dichotomies affiliated with the house. In the case of the Caruth House, his interests lie in the relationship between contemporary sanitation and warm sensory spaces, luxury and the stigma of a bohemian lifestyle, and conditions as simple as inside and outside. At first glance the intuitions appear vague. After visiting, it is clear they are not.

“To me [the house] is about experience. My wife and I are both very social. We want a house that people want to come to and feel comfortable in. It’s all about your family and your friends, forget the building, so the more you can provide space and opportunity to interact with family and friends the more the house becomes a home, and that’s why this one is so entertainment focused.”

(7) The ground floor of the house hosts the public functions, while the floors above contain the more intimate programs required by the American home. The living room and side yard are divided by large sliding glass doors, and when opened allow the entire ground floor to creep out into the unconditioned world under two large trees that existed on the site. Above, a balcony off the master bedroom sits abreast the canopy. (8) To the other side of the bedroom, facing the pool, the bathroom is screened by wooden louvers at calculated angles for light and winter heat gain while ensuring a visual privacy for the user.

The Caruth home, just like the others, creates memory through ritual. Whether by a grand party, intimate evening cleansing, or a rare occasion of their simultaneity, the house provides opportunities that would make Robert Venturi eat his heart out. And even though it may very well be on the market within this decade, any new owner would be invited into the rituals and contradictions set out by Tom Reisenbichler.

Obviously, we take our personal lives seriously. We protect them by locating ourselves around the things we love. The home is the sanctuary for our own sacred objects, living or not. Is it then possible that the American home is actually built upon love? Have we found a way to define self-worth and self-gratification through something more than just a house? I don’t believe any two answers should be the same, yet I believe these three architects would agree that by crafting unique opportunities to surround ourselves with objects, people, and ritual, a home is derived from the house and a lifestyle is defined.

As designers we should take precedent in these houses to help organize our ideas of constructing homes. These three houses, along with many others, will be open to the public on November 3-4, inviting the viewer into their most sacred places. And while an open-house visit is merely a glimpse of the song that is written, the dance is still there, and the song remains forever.