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Creating a Northwest Style of Modernism: thoughts on a Paul Hayden Kirk house.


We had the delightful privilege last weekend to visit a unique in-city Paul Kirk-designed home.  It was organized by the non-profit DOCOMOMO, who do great work in conservation and documentation of historic modern buildings. http://www.docomomo-wewa.org/index.php

The tour was a home in North Capitol Hill: the Henderson Residence. The original home on the property was a 1916 Tudor-style carriage house that the Henderson’s lived in for 20 years, until they commissioned Kirk to build a second, new structure on the site. Kirk’s design was a “Northwest interpretation of the original Tudor Revival structure”; it has a gable roof, centrally organized massing, and a post and beam structure.  But there the resemblance ends.

The house is a modest (about 2300 sf) but lovely modernist design with a decidedly Japanese influence, making for a distinct Northwest style of modernism. This is what interested me the most, as I’m always pursuing a deeper understanding of what makes for a uniquely Northwest style in contemporary architecture!

The exterior of the house is very simply organized – almost agricultural in form – employing natural wood siding and shingles, which give it a definite northwest feel while defining the simple forms so elegantly. Windows are arranged and detailed in a pattern resembling Japanese shoji panels – hinting at the interior to be found inside.

Inside, the house is astoundingly rich in its visual complexity. The detailing is simple: expression of wood timber connections is basic. But Kirk laid out his structure in a panelized system that springs from Japanese folk architecture, and allows for a large, open  interior space to divide itself into varying sized rooms. He even hangs a long series of shoji screen from one of the dominant structural beams, enabling great flexibity in closing or opening spaces one from another. The massive central fireplace floats in the middle of the great space, but allows vistas through and around it, again reducing a large space into more comfortably-sized areas of use.

This Japanese influence is, I think, what is so unique about Northwest Modernism. (You don’t see it anywhere else; probably because of our relative proximity to Japanese culture.)  Modernist architecture can be severe and unyielding to human needs, and doesn’t include natural materials in its palette. For this reason, I think many people steer away from modernist architecture; it’s labeled “cold” or “austere” for these reasons. The Henderson Residence, on the other hand, with its palette of heavy timbers, wood trim panel systems, and exposed structure opening up to create clerestory light wells, creates a dwelling that is rich and warm and light-filled and inviting, yet spacious and clearly organized, and very modern!  Northwest Modernism at its best!

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