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The Eye by Barbara King

'A kinder, gentler Modernism we can all live with'

Successful houses have an emotional resonance, a romantic allure that evokes history while forging ahead.

March 11, 2004|Barbara King

What is a good home? In one way or another, that's a question I've asked myself so many times and for so many years, I've forgotten most of the answers.

But along comes architect Dennis Wedlick to take over the theme for me, and to do a much better job of defining it once and for all in his new HarperCollins book -- with a title as straightforward as his philosophy -- "Designing the Good Home." A pulse book, as Wedlick referred to it, reflective of what's on our minds and no doubt bugging us.

In a previous book, "The Good Home," Wedlick had already explored how and why certain homes work. He recognized that "nearly all of us perceive when a house is flawed in some substantial way, but most of us lack the vision and voice to identify what's wrong." It was his mission to help us out. What's typically built in new developments, he said by phone, "is just heartbreaking."

Now he's got more on his mind. He wants to open our eyes to what he calls "a kinder, gentler Modernism we can all live with," to suggest in no uncertain terms that we don't have to be complacent and compliant in the assumption that the cookie-cutter house is the best we can do. I was definitely up for that.

Wedlick is nothing if not unwaveringly confident in his belief that user-friendly Modernism is what so many of us have been longing for, and I'm reasonably convinced he's on to something.

A good home, he insists, has character, or in other words -- his words -- emotional resonance, "the capacity to inspire thoughts and feelings in its occupants." He focuses on houses that do not only that, but employ modern aesthetics and technology, houses that feel startlingly fresh and comfortingly familiar at once.

"That dual focus -- on feeling and on modern methods -- is for me a critical element in how to design a good home."

On this particular day, I can't find a single fault with his assessment or his brave new definition of the best of these houses and architects as being picturesque, romantic in nature.

Feeling, Wedlick informs us, has been a crucial ingredient in American domestic architecture since the 17th century, when colonists strove to create homes that evoked the Old World. This embrace of European antecedents, Wedlick believes, invoked in American homes their romance and allure. What's fascinating today about American house design, he says, is that it draws imagery and sentiment from one place and time and joins it with imagery and sentiment from another place and time. There are a number of contemporary architects -- Wedlick included -- who are possessed of this Old World romantic sensibility writ new, who are adept at producing contemporary houses with soul.

Three of those architects are featured in "Designing the Good Home" -- two from the East Coast, Hugh Newell Jacobsen and Peter Bohlin, and one from Northern California, Obie Bowman.

The traits they share, Wedlick says, are "a love of life and the landscape, a passion for modern construction technologies, and a penchant for the familiar." They're all fond of natural materials that are seductive and reflective of the light. They all like to experiment and depart from the norm, surprising us, mystifying us. They all adapt their houses to the site. ("These are architects who know that a single tree can be a wonderful landscape.") They all, he says, let life in, let nature in. ("The three do not build 'glass houses'; they frame nature with windows.") They all use bold shapes and simple palettes.

Bowman is especially concerned with the effects of building on the landscape, the "horrendous impact on the land, the natural order of things," because the land, he told me, is not just a place mat for a house. The house must integrate with it, and Bowman's vigilant quest is to do the best he can to make that happen, to design thoughtful houses that are directly inspired by their settings.

One of the "few major impacts" in his own life was the paving of the Los Angeles River -- "terrible to experience as a kid." And then the paving over of the Valley, as it were, where he once lived, the orange groves and alfalfa fields gone, "the suburbanization, on and on and on." The shame that such a resource was not preserved.

He went looking for a more natural environment, and he found it in Sonoma County, where he practices, like Jacobsen and Bohlin and Wedlick himself, his romantic, picturesque architecture -- seductive, sensual, injected with a bit of levity, stirring the imagination and the senses in the most unexpected and agreeable way.


Barbara King is editor of the Home section. She can be reached at

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