New Orleans residential architect Ken Tate talks about the ideal collaboration between client and architect in Dreaming a House by Ken Tate and Susan Sully.
When clients come to an architect, they are usually following a dream often a vague dream of living a life of health, abundance, and happiness that has not yet coalesced into any specific imagery. The architect’s job is to dream their house into existence, pulling it into three-dimensional reality through a process of experiential imagining. This process involves long periods of walking through rooms that don’t exist, gradually envisioning how they are viewed one from the other, how light shapes their spaces, and what it feels like to be in them. This visualizing is a layered process that begins with the massing of the building, proceeding to an understanding of its functional circulation, and gradually arrives at the level of specific architectural devices. In the best projects, the key people involved contribute their own vision to this dreaming, but also understand that they must surrender something to it, trusting the dream to have a life of its own. When this happens, the design unfolds gradually and intuitively, culminating in a final result that is both surprising and instantly recognizable as just the way it should be.
The renderings featured here are among the more than 350 pages of drawings created during design of the new Italian Mediterranean residence on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. An invitation to design a new residence on St. Charles Avenue is a dream commission for any architect inspired by classical architecture, but also a daunting one. In this case, one of the biggest challenges was the complex permission procedure required to remove the existing house despite a strict moratorium on demolition. This was led by New Orleans native and architect Dennis Brady, who not only has a deep understanding of the city’s architectural history, but also resides on the side street defining the corner lot where the new house was to be built. While we waited for permission to be granted, my clients and I immersed ourselves in the architectural context of the area, a neighborhood known as Uptown settled in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries during the period now known as the Colonial Revival.
We began our research by riding along St. Charles Avenue and its many beautiful cross streets, as well as the gated boulevard of Audubon Place, established in the 1920s, where some of the neighborhood’s most impressive houses stand. Although the clients had initially proposed the French Classical aesthetic, our observations soon directed us to Italian, Mediterranean, and Spanish Colonial styles. The new house needed to be a timeless, classical house to complement its St. Charles Avenue setting, but also a comfortable one for a young couple planning to raise a family. The French Classical house can easily become high style, particularly in an urban setting, and this more romantic language seemed better suited the way the clients wanted to live.
Considering the parameters and architectural context of the corner site, I determined that the house needed to have a formal, two-story facade on St. Charles Avenue and a less formal, asymmetrical presence on the side street. Beginning to flesh out this idea, I envisioned a broad, symmetrical main mass facing the avenue with two single-story wings stretching behind to embrace a large, private courtyard. But something was still missing. The house needed an architectural element to facilitate the shift from the classical two-story facade to the more casual side elevations. What came to mind was something unexpected and even whimsical three-story tower like the very romantic ones found in the Mediterranean Revival houses of Palm Beach, Coral Gables, Bel Air, and Santa Barbara. Although this tower would have no functional purpose, it solved the problem by synthesizing the parts of the house into a harmonious whole.
As my focus shifted to the selection of specific architectural devices, I considered Palladio’s work in the Veneto, Francis Burrall Hoffman’s Vizcaya in Miami, Addison Mizner’s and Maurice Fatio’s mansions in Palm Beach, and Wallace Neff’s and George Washington Smith’s Mediterranean Revival villas in California. I was channeling Palladio as I envisioned the face of the house, but I felt that his characteristic pediment-over-portico would be out of character with the neighboring dwellings, many of which have second-story terraces for watching the parades. Inspired instead by his facade for the Basilica in Vicenza, I designed a single-story portico with a row of arches supported by cut stone columns that forms a deep, colonnaded gallery on the ground floor and a stone balustrade terrace above. Although many of the portico’s details, including the carved rondels over the flanking shoulders of the arches, quote the Basilica, the proportions are reduced to a domestic scale. Combined with the overall simplicity of the facade’s remaining architecture, the effect is distinctive and enticing, strong enough to carry an important house on a corner lot, but without shouting.
On the rear of the main mass, an iconic Palladian pediment-over-portico carries the formality of the primary facade around to the back and provides the opportunity for a spacious loggia. For the wings paralleling the courtyard, however, I tapped the American interpretation of Italian and Spanish architecture popularized during the early decades of the Mediterranean Revival. The picturesque quality of the iron gates and second-story pergola above the side entrance, the pergola terminating one of the wings, and the tower, which is visible from the courtyard, capture the romance of that era. When I first introduced the idea of the tower to the clients, I could tell they weren’t completely convinced about it, but ultimately, it became one of their favorite aspects of the design. They bought into my dream even when they couldn’t fully comprehend it, acting with the kind of courage that allows an architect to follow wherever the vision leads. This is what makes for a great collaboration.
The next stage involved intensive conversations with a larger team of participants, including the client’s art adviser, New Orleans-based art dealer Arthur Rogers. The clients, whose family trust is a major contributor to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, wanted the villa to house their growing collection of paintings and sculpture. Meeting with Rogers and interior designer Gerrie Bremmerman, we reviewed every piece in their art inventory, some of them quite large, in order to devise the perfect spot for each. This allowed the designer to select her furnishings accordingly, whether to harmonize or juxtapose with the art in each room, and informed lighting design customized with the art in mind.
Because many works in the client’s collection are contemporary and colorful, the client and I simultaneously realized that the house itself needed to be neutral, especially where art was to occur. Envisioning the rooms, I saw walls expressed in unadorned, smooth plaster except in the main stair hall, where rusticated blocks of the Texas limestone used on the exterior would be employed. With simple casings at the openings and in some places no casings at all, the plain plaster walls called for more adorned ceilings, groin vaults, paneling, antique wood beams, barrel vaults, and large coved ceilings. I began dreaming a ceiling treatment for the living room with limed double oak beams supported by classically carved oak brackets repeated at large intervals with oak purlins between. The oak would be reclaimed antique material and the brackets crafted by renowned master woodcarver Frederick Wilbur. Once my head designer and perspective renderer John Gaudet drew the ceiling along with chevron-patterned oak flooring and an Italian carved stone mantle copied after an Istrian stone mantle by Palladio, I knew this was what I was looking for. When the clients and their interior designer saw the rendering, we were on the same page, literally and figuratively.
The one missing piece of the completed vision was the landscape design. In order to integrate the house with its site, the plantings needed to be Mediterranean in character formal in the front and more romantic behind. Gavin Duke of Page/Duke Landscape Architects, who has a classical voice, joined the team, articulating colorful plantings, the placement of Royal Palms in the courtyard, and designing terracotta pots and stone planters.
During the lengthy design process (as of this writing, with the house already three and a half years under construction, we are still drawing details), the client called frequently to ask what I was doing. Once I replied, I’am dreaming your house, which most accurately describes the architect’s way of getting to the truth of any design. In the field of architecture, there has to be someone who carries the entire house within himself or herself as it moves along, saying yea or nay when something seems out of place. In this case, the clients always sought my opinion about whatever was being added to the mix lighting, indoor- and outdoor furniture, curtains, plantings. This is an unusual trait for a young couple that has never built a house before the understanding that there is a holistic quality to the design and construction. In order for a house to transcend the egos of all parties involved and to be important, timeless, and perfect (perhaps an imperfect way), it needs to be channeled through the spirit of the architect, while touching the souls of all who use and love it.