About 50 years ago, the renowned architect, educator, and author Charles Moore was hired by Frederick and Dorothy Rudolph to design a vacation house on Captiva Island, Florida, and about a decade later, in the late 1970s, they hired him again to design their permanent residence in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Moore was often called the father of Postmodernism and was a prolific proponent through such books as The Place of Houses. With the exception of his small houses, however, I was never a big fan of his work. But I still have a tattered copy of that book, because when I read it, it was the first time that someone had articulated the process of designing a house, including a programmatic checklist to follow.
The houses that Moore designed for the Rudolphs were classic examples of Postmodernism, with historical references, whimsical details, bright colors, high skylit spaces, and connecting pods.
About the time Moore was designing their second house, I established my first office in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, apartment across the street from where Marta Rudolph, one of the Rudolphs’ daughters, lived. We became friends over the years, and I advised her now and then on small architectural projects. At the time I had no idea her parents had once hired Moore, but I did sense that Marta had an educated and discerning eye, which made her fun to work with.
A few years ago, Lisa Cushman, Marta’s sister, asked me to design a new house for her and her husband, Michael, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Shortly after that, Marta also asked me to design the renovation of an older home she had just purchased in Northampton, Massachusetts. I still had no idea that Marta and Lisa were the daughters of Frederick and Dorothy, but I knew that they both had a good feeling for the design process.
Throughout the design development for both projects, I gradually became aware of the Moore connection. It was never explicitly discussed, but it was clearly in the background. I consciously never brought it up, but something was special about my collaboration with both sisters. When we first talked about designing their houses, neither Lisa nor Marta ever questioned the process. They seemed to understand that design was a process that began with the site, general ideas about their program and aesthetics, and then later moved to specifics as we approached construction. They also had confidence in my ability to help guide them during the design process, contractor selection, and during the inevitable complexities of actual construction. Most of all, they appreciated the back and forth of ideas that would eventually become incorporated into their houses. I came to wonder if that intuitive understanding of the creative process was a result of their upbringing or being around their parents as they were designing their two houses?
Keep in mind that both projects for the sisters spanned the gamut of residential design. Martha’s house in Northampton was a complete renovation—or, as the saying goes, a gut job. It takes a great deal of faith in the process—indeed, in the architect—to watch your house ripped apart and even stripped of its exterior siding in the hope that something new and better will emerge from the process. Marta even preselected a contractor who, in my opinion after a few discussions, was not the right man for the job. She went along with my recommendation to find someone else. And, of course, as renovations often do, the project took much longer than expected. Through it all, Marta’s natural understanding of the design process served as an anchor.
Lisa’s new house in Williamstown was different. The clean slate didn’t make it any easier, since the siting was quite difficult requiring a somewhat steep drive. Interestingly, there were two existing barns on the site that served as reference. The decision to break down the house into three pavilions of living, sleeping and garage was, in part, a gesture to the scale of the barns at the bottom of the hill. I insisted, and Lisa agreed, that we should drive between the barns on the way to the house. Like her sister Marta, Lisa understood the design process, and our back and forth throughout design and construction was always constructive.
I was aware from my many years of residential practice that the best clients were often those who had previously done a design project, but it had not occurred to me that children brought up around the design process might benefit similarly. I decided to ask them about it when both houses were completed, and their comments are enlightening for all residential architects.
Surprisingly, just like me, both sisters had mixed feelings about the Moore houses. The Captiva house, where they spent most of their time, was their favorite: It was whimsical and playful, and blended in with the natural environment. The architect was good at “bringing the outside in,” the sisters concurred, and had designed a variety of separate spaces “that were small and invitingly comfortable environments,” said Marta. Lisa recalled how Charles even designed her a yacht on a napkin when he visited Captiva, and that personal involvement and inclusiveness deeply impressed both siblings.
On the other hand, Marta pointed out that the Williamstown house “looked so out of place in the neighborhood.” The architectural nod to Monticello “over-directed the design process to the point that some of the interior spaces were cramped and less than optimal in terms of functionality.” (The reference to Monticello may have derived from Frederick Rudolph, who was a professor of American history at Williams College.)
Why the same recipe with different results? As a lesson for architects, Moore had spent four or five days residing with Frederick and Dorothy to see how they lived before designing the Captiva house, but he turned the Williamstown house over to an associate after sketching the original design.
Lisa and Marta also came away from both experiences with lessons. To paraphrase: Moore made them feel comfortable and taught them that building a house was fun. He asked them how they lived and what they wanted, and watching the process was inspirational and instilled a real interest in architecture. He was, as Marta summed it up, “a cool guy.”
While working with me, both sisters definitely wanted houses more like Captiva—ones that blended with their neighborhoods and natural environment, with plenty of windows to take advantage of natural light and views. Individual spaces were important, but only within a relatively open floor plan. But they wanted some of the textures, colors, and provision for family collections that had been in their parents’ houses. Most important, as Lisa put it, both Marta and her considered it a “real privilege to design their own homes,” to decide where and how they wanted to live.
It was critical that I listened closely to those desires. There’s no question in my mind that their sense of privilege and, yes, fun came from their experience with their parents and Moore. It was clear, in perfect hindsight, that much like Moore’s personal involvement, my personal involvement throughout the process on all levels of detail with both Marta and Lisa was very important to the ultimate success of both houses. In these times of overwhelming digital transactions, it’s important that architects understand that there is actually a market for personal interaction. Homeowners, who are investing themselves in the never perfect process of designing a home, expect it. Of course, it’s beyond our control as architects to influence the previous lives of our clients, but it’s well within our control to provide inspiration and fun to all of our clients, old and young alike. They will be better clients for the journey, and we will be better architects for it, too.
A version of this article first appeared in Residential Design magazine, Volume 6, 2022. Featured image: Lisa Cushman’s house is broken down into three barn-like pavilions for sleeping, living/dining, and entry/garage. Photo: Anton Grassl.