January 1, 2008
An architect best known for teaching and theory builds his first project—a Mies-inspired glass house—as a vessel for the disappearing self.
“Can you believe we did this thing?” Michael Bell asks as we stand in front of his first built project: a glass house with a courtyard and two wings that step down a 12-acre slope of forest, about two and a half hours up the Hudson River from Manhattan. “You’re not supposed to say that,” laughs Thom Long, the project architect and a former student at Columbia University, where Bell teaches housing design and directs the program’s core studios. “I always tell everyone that I am stunned,” Bell says.
I had been following the house’s progress through slide shows and JPEGs that he would send me at each stage of construction—“The steel frame is going up!” “The glass is being installed!”—ever since we were first introduced by a friend at Columbia about three years ago. As the project entered its final phase last spring, the 47-year-old architect had reason to be excited. It had been a long journey from design to construction, with more than its usual share of difficulties: the first contractor had underbid the project by at least $300,000 and went into bankruptcy trying to finish it. Now everything was on hold until the clients figured out how to finance the last bit of work by a new contractor. Yet there were already glimmers of the uncanny spatial effects Bell had imagined: the modulated alternations of reflective, transparent, and opaque surfaces—and flattened and elongated perspectives—meant to destabilize your experience just enough to make you conscious of the presence of your body in space.
“Instead of the program being a continual linear world,” Bell says, “what I’m hoping will happen is that the building is proportioned in a way that you’ll sort of pop out of a bubble of space and be nowhere, and then you’ll leave that and enter another bubble, and the bubbles don’t correspond so much to the building as to what you’re doing. I was trying to find a way in which the visual field would expand, the background would push forward, the middle ground would stay stable, and space would turn inside out. You enter the house, find yourself in a complexity of space, and in the end feel more as if you’re outside.”
Bell has a reputation as an uncommonly enthusiastic and generous professor and studio critic, but his excitement at finally seeing his drawings and theories materialized at full scale was especially understandable given the amount of time and intellectual energy he had devoted to the project: months and months hashing out ideas with the clients—Philip Gefter, former page-one picture editor of the New York Times, and screenwriter and filmmaker Richard Press—during which time Bell produced at least four distinct designs and hundreds of pages of drawings, and managed to invest the project with elements of his more than 20 years of theoretical speculation on the perception and experience of space. He had hoped to combine those investigations with experiments sketched out through a decade of research on social housing and designs for affordable homes wherein he aspired to reconcile domestic architecture with the unsettling psychological effects of the contemporary world.
“It’s a very interesting moment when someone as thoughtful and intense as Michael starts doing private commissions like this house,” says Mark Wigley, dean at Columbia’s graduate architecture school. “He simultaneously thinks through the question of housing in political, social, and economic terms—how housing operates in our society and how it’s changed over the last twenty years. On the other hand, he’s obsessed with questions of optics and the precise way in which one experiences houses. Somehow he has found a way to take lessons from social housing into the private house and take lessons from private houses into the social.”
It’s a moment that most ambitious architects arrive at eventually, after years of sketching, writing, and teaching. Many of his well-known colleagues and mentors—among them Steven Holl, a close friend who previously directed Columbia’s housing studios; Bernard Tschumi, the former dean who hired him to take over the position; and John Hejduk, perhaps his biggest intellectual influence—followed a similar career trajectory. “What is appealing about Michael is that he’s able to bridge the gap between a simple house and the larger social and psychological dimension,” Tschumi says. “Quite often people who are good teachers tend to be very good communicators and have an interest in a variety of areas, but going through the nitty-gritty of dealing with contractors who don’t deliver on time is unbelievably important because it completely changes your outlook. You’re suddenly capable of articulating not only theoretical issues, but seeing how buildings are put together allows you to make an amazing leap forward. You realize that the constraints you deal with when you build something can accelerate all of the thoughts and theories that you had before.”
Despite the rarefied context of a weekend house in the country, the clients initially contacted Bell after seeing his affordable-housing project in The Un-Private House exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1999. Glass House @ 2° was an un-likely adaptation of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House for a low-income neighborhood in Houston, where Bell taught at Rice University before coming to Columbia. “It was just very visceral for me,” Press says of the affordable-housing project as we sit in the finished living room, which glows softly in the November afternoon light and grows more animated as the colors of the sky deepen, and the iluminated house becomes the main show. “The design was poetic and simple and elegant, and it seemed new even though it was using a Modernist language.” Gefter adds, “It seemed like an evolution from that same aesthetic, but it was essential and imaginative. And his use of prefabricated materials was also very appealing.”
They were both fans of the Farnsworth House—Press has written a screenplay on Mies’s relationship with Edith Farnsworth—but they wanted something more practical and specific to their needs that still possessed a certain architectural integrity. “We hold the Farnsworth House as kind of the paradigm of domestic architecture in the twentieth century,” Gefter says, “in terms of simplicity of living, of architecture working with nature.” Press continues, “And as a structure being perfect, or as close to perfect as anything could be.”
“We used that as a point of departure when we started talking to Michael about the house,” Gefter goes on. “We didn’t want to replicate it; we wanted this house to be in some dialogue with that house,” Press says. “It was, in a way, ‘How can you live in a glass house in a practical way but keep it as art at the same time?’ The Farnsworth House isn’t really practical. Two people couldn’t live there.”
For all the critical fetishization the glass house has endured over the years, Bell’s scheme cleverly addresses the central problem that has afflicted the form: a lack of privacy. Though the house was designed for a couple, they wanted separate spaces to work, which became part of the rationale for a two-winged structure, with each wing terminating in a study facing the woods. They also anticipated guests, which meant that the two bedrooms needed walls. The solution was simple enough on paper, but the meticulous details probably accounted to a large extent for the original contractor’s misfortune: the exterior glass in the private rooms would be cantilevered sixteen inches on a reinforced-concrete base, allowing the windows to project out from the interior walls without sacrificing openness, and floor-to-ceiling sliding doors would be inserted along the raised extended corridor so that the rooms could be left open or closed. A hard separation between the two bedrooms is maintained by a set of bathrooms in between, which resolves itself on the exterior in a white steel panel and a shower with clear glass that work as a counterpoint to the black steel doorway at the entrance. Ceiling tracks make it possible to install curtains for sun-shading or in case the drama of living in such close proximity to nature is too much to bear.
As much as Bell improves on the functionality of the glass house, the Gefter-Press structure has a dimension of depth and complexity never achieved by the simple boxes of Mies and Johnson. The orientation of the two wings around a courtyard produces a dynamic interplay between architecture and nature so that the house itself becomes an essential component of what is viewed from within. The reflections of the surrounding environment on its surfaces—enhanced by fine seams that make the glass appear to be suspended and at times to disappear, and a discontinuous sequence of window configurations that intermittently project out from the steel structure—seem to grab the landscape and the sky, placing them alongside the human activity taking place within.
Less perfectly resolved is the theoretical rationale behind the project. Bell takes one of the most canonical forms of Modern architecture and revises it to great effect by honoring its rigorous use of materials while taking advantage of technological innovations like insulated glass and radiant heating to reduce energy consumption. But the effort to make the house sustainable was left unfinished: a planned geothermal system that would have more radically conserved energy was eventually abandoned due to cost, and prefabricated components that might have made it affordable were put aside early on (the final price tag was roughly $800,000).
And like a lot of Post-Modern architecture that promised that its forms would have all kinds of profound effects, his social aspirations for the house are linked to inadequately defined theories that probably aren’t all that progressive in the first place. Quite apart from the inherently antisocial nature of building a vacation house in the country, there’s a certain antihumanist strain in his argument. Bell portrays the house as a place where the “decentered subject”—shorthand for the idea that there are no central values holding the individual and society together, and that our identities are merely convenient fictions—is reconciled with reality.
“Everything I was trying to do in terms of space,” Bell says, “was somehow understanding a building as an apparatus that would—in all of its specificity and the ways in which it is imagined and operates symbolically—actually push the limits so that when the space in some sense falls off, you’re standing there left to somehow account for yourself.”
Without going too far trying to parse the jargon, the premise is that the house could have far-reaching effects by creating a space in which the individual, lost in a sea of desires and compulsions, is transformed by the experience and begins to see the world differently. This consciousness eventually transfers itself into society and possibly into political action. If that seems like an awful lot to ask of a weekend house, you have to admire Bell’s ambition to create architecture with larger implications. But even if it were possible for spatial experience to have these kinds of effects in a private home without being mass-produced —the structure wouldn’t work anyway on a large scale without consuming large tracts of land, even if it were energy-efficient—it’s unclear how the abandonment of core values implicit in the idea would be desirable in the first place.
“I always imagined there would be a point in time where people would start to feel more centered without the apparatus of the building,” Bell says. “The building kind of induces a sense of security in your own body. I was always interested in the idea that somebody would be able to relinquish the desire for an architecture or public structure to put their identity back together—that they would start to become more peaceful there and then rebuild from that sense of identity.”
In the evening, as visitors move around the delicately lit structure, they appear to be captured in digital frames that abstract and intensify their activity, giving it a slightly unreal dimension. It could be a place perfectly suited to the age of MySpace and YouTube, a world where people are fundamentally disconnected from one another and exhibit their private lives in little pixelated boxes without shame, personal responsibility, or a greater sense of engagement with society. In the most optimistic interpretation of the house, maybe what happens as a result of its spatial effects is something like what Immanuel Kant describes at the end of Critique of Practical Reason when he relates the “starry heavens above” to the moral law in every person, as if the invisible universal connection between us were as inevitable as the forms of constellations in the sky.
In the worst-case scenario, the decentered individual that Bell imagines could be left stranded in a denatured wilderness, having lost any connection to social norms and values. Meanwhile, on the front page of the New York Times, the war in Iraq grinds on, the national debt soars, and mortgages go into default. But two and a half hours from New York City, up scenic parkways free from signage and other external harassments, in a house completely exposed to the forest and the stars, one feels so protected by law and social order and economy that one is barely aware that they are upholding everything.