ARCHITECTURE FOR THE SENSES 'New Materiality' Builds a Following


When architect Steve Ziger was hired to design the interior of a penthouse at Scarlett Place, he used honed slate, corrugated aluminum, cherry wood, sail cloth and a black steel lookout tower to create an allegory of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Husband-and-wife architects J. Lee Glenn and Roxanne Williams

incorporated custom "art glass," indoor landscaping, a stainless steel dining table and cement-like wall surfaces to transform their house into "a series of layers of density and texture."

Architect Keith Mehner took a black lacquered drum set, complete with gleaming brass cymbals, and made it the centerpiece of a beautifully detailed drum studio and entertainment center that he designed for a musician friend.

Each of these local architects is on the cutting edge of the latest trend in residential design: the search for a more honest and expressive use of building materials and construction techniques define and enliven living spaces. In the cash-strapped '90s, they are characteristic of many designers who are experimenting with new and frequently inexpensive ways to enrich buildings without succumbing to design cliches or stepping on stylistic land mines.

Tired of the gypsum board classicism of postmodern architecture and turned off by the turmoil and meaningless forms of deconstructivism, they've gone back to the basics of modernism. But they're searching for a more characterful modernism, architecture for all the senses.

"Modern construction technology has been able to iron all the character and emotion out of architecture," says Mr. Glenn. "We're trying to explore how to regain the essence of character in a building, without resorting to tacking it on as an afterthought."

"I think people are tired of white boxes and all the bad postmodernism that was built in the 1980s," adds Mr. Mehner. "This is another direction to explore."

This "new materiality" can take many forms, from the use of industrial materials not generally associated with residential settings, such as corrugated metal or raw steel, to increased reliance on old-fashioned arts and crafts. Some architects take a highly sculptural approach. Others come at it from a theoretical perspective or a strong interest in the construction process.

In the Scarlett Place penthouse he designed, Mr. Ziger took the owners' desire to personalize key public spaces and made that the starting point from which he created an allegory of the Inner Harbor.

The foyer is dark and low and cavelike, intended to symbolize the "hard-edged" city one leaves behind when walking into this residence. From the foyer, one enters a bright living-dining area that was designed as a metaphor for the Inner Harbor basin, with a bleached oak floor that represents the water itself and objects "floating" in the space. Beyond the living area is a terrace with a raised planter whose tall grasses and flowering plants symbolize the cultivated parkland on the other side of the harbor, Federal Hill.

While Mr. Ziger concentrated on expressing the sculptural qualities and allegorical meanings of the materials he used, Mr. Mehner juxtaposed materials in intriguing ways to heighten their impact in the drum studio he designed.

Created inside the two-story shell of a north Baltimore carriage house, the studio has room for musical instruments and equipment at ground level, and a loft above. The stair to the loft is actually a movable ladder designed for a fire escape. Part of the loft floor is a theatrical catwalk, with open steel mesh. Stainless steel cables take the place of some portions of the wood joists that were removed to open up the space, while beams closer to the roof were sandblasted and left in place.

A project architect with the Kerns Group of Washington, Mr. Mehner personally crafted special windows and shutters, with panes of glass that get progressively smaller so they let in varying degrees of light. On the lower level, a steel plate with a diamond pattern serves as a window seat. On the upper level, steel floor treads were used as window sills. "The cold steel seems colder and the warm wood seems warmer when they're juxtaposed next to each other," Mr. Mehner says.

Another approach is represented by John Srygley of Duke Srygley Associates. Working with Julie Gabrielli and Timothy Duke, he let the design for a house in Sparks come out of the construction process itself -- and the use of rich materials such as copper, pine and western red cedar. The result is a house that is not only in the woods, but of the woods.

One distinctive feature is a two-story-high, peaked spine that runs through the center of the house. Along this spine, different rooms have different volumetric shapes. The master bedroom, for example, has a vaulted roof whose overhang shelters part of the rear deck.

Given a tight budget, the architects fabricated handrails out of handpicked knotty cedar and copper pipe. Working with the owner, they laid the deck themselves. Because they were so involved in the construction, they were able to continue the design process well past the point where it usually ends.

"As architects, we are normally not responsible for the means, methods or materials," Mr. Srygley said. "But to achieve our aim, we had to engage the subcontractors in a dialogue of simultaneous design and construction." In the end, he said, "we simply let the internal structural logic of the house speak for itself."

What these designers have in common is that each is searching for ways to create sensuous environments that won't easily be lost amid the rituals and routines of everyday life. Their projects exhibit a particularly '90s sensibility -- an attraction to detail and quality without the budgetary and material excesses of the previous decade.

"I think it's an evolution of modernism, an extension of it," Mr. Ziger says. "This is modernism infused with a sensitivity toward the materiality and the technology and the craft of building. . . . It seems to be more romanticist in that we're looking to the sensual and sensuous and poetic qualities of the materials."

Two words used in a Japanese tea ceremony sum up the spirit of this new approach, he adds. " 'Wabi,' which means refined austerity, and 'sabi,' which means the beauty of hand-worn and rustic things. That kind of distillation of design to its basic characteristics is the essence of Japanese architecture, but it can also be applied to American architecture today."

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