2022

MCHAP

Motherhouse

Independent Architecture

Denver, United States

June 2019

PRIMARY AUTHOR

Paul Andersen

CONTRIBUTING AUTHOR

Drew Stanley, KL&A, Inc., Dooling Design Build

CLIENT

Fradene M. Andersen

PHOTOGRAPHER

James Florio

OBJECTIVE

Three objectives guided the design.

1. Design something new with familiar forms and materials.

Privileging the ordinary has several benefits. In general, it makes a project more accessible aesthetically, intellectually, and economically. More people can relate to it, understand what makes it new or different, and afford to live in it. For architects, working with common building stock can establish a new architectural genealogy, a canon of everyday architecture. Plus, producing novelty from familiar materials is often more compelling than relying on exotic form or technology.

2. Give the house its qualities through abundant repetition.

Because of its stripped-down facades, the Ungers House is usually described as a minimalist project. But the interior is defined by a relentless repetition of the same doors, 172 in total. This use of repetition breaks with the modern concept of standardization and more recent approaches to combining repetition with difference. Repetition without economy or variation—copying identically and excessively—is a strategy that we thought we could advance.

3. Make idiosyncrasy methodical, rather than loose, accidental, or a one-off feature.

Although none of the neighboring houses are architectural masterpieces, a closer look reveals idiosyncratic façade compositions, material arrangements, and site strategies that break unwritten rules of design. They embody an American architectural practice that is bored with tradition and eager for improvisation, in contrast with the stability that is often assumed to be essential to architecture. We wondered if we could develop a deeper application of idiosyncrasy in our house.

CONTEXT

Three contexts shaped the project: one physical, one historical, and one personal.

The house’s immediate surroundings are ordinary. It is located on a boundary between two typical neighborhoods. One has brightly colored Victorian homes that were built in the early 20th century and the other is lined with casually quirky houses from the 1950s and 60s. We thought that we could work with this everyday architecture rather than against it.

In contrast with the project’s ordinary and anonymous physical context, its historical genealogy is particular and reasonably well known. After studying a number of canonical villas, the Ungers House in Cologne became a central reference. Its ambition—to be as devoid of qualities as possible—was totally at odds with the common assumption that every house should be unique. At the same time, its plainness could be seen as the apotheosis of unremarkable architecture.

On a professional level, the project was part of another lineage—an early career house built for an architect’s mother. Before you’ve built a lot, your mother is the only person who believes that you can do whatever crackpot architecture you’re into. My mother is a retired Denver Public Schools librarian who put her savings up to build this house. It needed to be worthy of her confidence and generosity.

PERFORMANCE

The house embraces a paradoxical combination of repetition and idiosyncrasy to arrive at new examples of both.

We used familiar forms materials, but in unusual numbers and arrangements. Although it is a single volume, it has multiple roofs and gables. Striped siding in two colors runs parallel to the roofline instead of the ground. The front and back elevations are identical, as are the sides. The house has four front doors, with the doorbell, mailbox, and address mounted on posts along the front walk. Inside, the main level is a single room surrounded by doors. The stairs are doubled on the ceiling above. Upstairs, the same tall gable profile defines the cross section of the hallway, a closet door, and the tile color in the master bathroom.

Wherever we introduced an idiosyncrasy that would typically be superficial, we carried it through. An example: the façades incorporate an extra ¼ size gable that has cascading effects on the envelope and interiors. Shifts in the façade, where siding and doors are a ¼ module off between lower and upper floors, affect the interior in turn. The doors don’t line up front to back, so strips of materials that cross the interior split the kitchen island, wood flooring, and tile. Upstairs, ceilings are made of 1½ gables, divided differently in each room. The little gable also produced unexpected alignments, like a diagonal sectional alignment of doors at the top and bottom of the stairs—the only pairs of facing doors that line up.