03 June 2012

Isadore Shank, Architect

Following is a blog post from the course "Mid-Century Modern Architecture in St. Louis" at the Sam Fox School for Design and Visual Arts taught by Andrew Raimist and John Guenther. The following entry was composed by Andrew Raimist.

Today our class visited two houses designed by Isadore Shank: the Shank House and the Zerman House. The Shank House was designed and built around 1940, while the Zerman House was from 1958. While both houses are clearly "modern" there is a great distance between them intellectually and philosophically.

Isadore Shank, Shank House, circa 1940.
The focus in the Shank House seems to be more on the planes and material textures than on the volumes. The design of different surfaces with contrasting materials or textures tends to break down our reading of the volume as a consistent piece of three-dimensional geometry and forces the viewer to pay more attention to the separate surface textures, colors and surfaces in trying to understand the architect's intentions.

The Zerman House seems much more easily legible and readable in the sense that whether you look at the house from the street, from the side, rear or interior, it's organization and structure are clearly evident. There is a similar interest in using contrasting planes and materials, but the palette used is more limited and more "logical" in the sense that brick masonry suggests mass, solidity and privacy and it performs in that way. Similarly, the glazing is used in a way that offers clarity of vision and structure, allowing us to see the actual wood framing of the house which extends from inside to outside. In this way, the house has a greater sense of transparency and honesty of expression than the Shank House.

Isadore Shank, Zerman House: view from Family Room toward Entry. Photograph by Andrew Raimist.

One of Shank's preoccupations seems to be with issues of privacy. It appears in many of his designs through the use of screen walls and layered compositions that don't reveal the entirety of the structure from an initial glance. The sense of protection seems to be of special importance with respect to the relationship between the street and the house interior. The Shank House is more closed and disarming to the visitor, while the Zerman House offers a clear sense of entry and arrival and welcome with the covered walk and extensive glazing adjacent to the main entry which allows visitors to see into the main public space of the house. If a party were going on in the house at nighttime, that would be evident to anyone driving by, while I'm not sure that would be so clear for visitors to the Shank House (unless the party spilled out onto the porch).

Isadore Shank, Shank House, facade, circa 1940.
The front/side porch is an unusual feature of the Shank House. It functions in a way like historical porches on the fronts of many American homes where occupants could sit outside to enjoy good weather and be available to passersby. There's a sense of this kind of "display" and sense of public space in the way the porch is clearly visible from the street and to visitors arriving at the house. From the viewpoint of the house itself, I imagine it functioned very much like an American "back porch" where friends and family would gather for meals and conversation. Since the street is a cul-de-sac and basically private, there was never a great deal of traffic going by. The result was that the family could count on a reliable sense of privacy even when outside on their front porch.

It is tempting to view this sense of openness in relation to Shank's political interests in communism as a form of social organization. In the prewar years in the Soviet Union (prior to Stalin), there seemed to have been a clear sense of revolutionary spirit which extended from political sensibilities to an acceptance and desire for new forms of architecture which would embrace and embody these beliefs. Clearly Shank had particular views on the relationships between individuals and how they might more properly relate and cooperate with one another. The discrimination he faced being a Jew in a relatively tight-knit, conservative St. Louis community likely caused him frustration at the way that people would hire one another based upon irrelevant factors rather than based upon skills, experience and ability.

Aleksandr Z. Grinberg. The House of Culture and Science in Novosibirsk, Russia, 1931. From "Perception and Critique of the Architecture of Novosibirsk, 1920-1940."

So the question arises whether I'm projecting my own peccadilloes onto Shank or whether there is a legitimate connection between his political beliefs and how they might have influenced or effected his conceptions of architecture. When viewed through the widest lens, it seems almost ludicrous to try to conflate politics and architectural form, however ultimately the architect has to have some preconceptions about the way people could or should behave toward one another. Architecture functions as the framework within which such relationships and interactions take place.

In making the decisions about where to place a wall and how to create openings in them, there are assumptions that an architect makes with respect to how those separated spaces will allow for interaction or provide for privacy. While people may disregard or actively seek to undermine the constraints that architecture puts in their way, there are nevertheless many assumptions that an architect makes in deciding how to configure a plan. This is particularly true in the case of a residence where the architect knows something of the personalities and peculiarities of the owners. Many such factors are likely lost to history in being contained only in the conversations and memories of the individuals involved. Drawing specific conclusions with regard to particular clients is bound to be filled with hypotheticals and assumptions.

In the unique case where an architect designs a home for himself and his family, there is a presumption that there is a greater freedom to design the structure the way he or she envisions to be correct or ideal. Of course what constitutes the ideal at a given time will be subject to change as time passes and experiences accumulate. An architect may well be his own harshest critic with the punishment being forced to live with his own decisions (or "mistakes").

Isadore Shank, Shank House proposal (unbuilt), circa 1940.

For Isadore Shank, having built and lived in one home throughout his life, we don't have the ability to speculate meaningfully about what he might have designed for himself in the 1950s or 1960s. One can only look at the examples of the work produced, compare and contrast them, and extrapolate from their differences the development of an architects ideas and beliefs as they change over time.

It seems clear that Shank faced a great deal of disappointment, particularly in the earlier years of his career, when he proposed some monumental structures and devised inventive, experimental architectural forms. The lessons of the American capitalist system can be harsh and difficult to accept, especially for a visionary with strong beliefs and demonstrated capabilities. The realities of real estate development, contractual obligations and legal structures can undermine an architect's ability to carry out his vision and see it implemented. It seems that Shank faced some of these kinds of challenges and developed his own approach to dealing with the inequities inherent in the real, flawed world in which we live.

Isadore Shank, Ambassador Theater proposal, circa 1928.

In the postwar period, Shank seems to have found an approach and a strategy for working for people with whom he found a basis for common understanding. Of course, all architects and designers must find clients with whom they have a sufficient beliefs in common to establish a meaningful, productive working relationship. In Shank's case it seems that his aesthetic conceptions and his ethical beliefs were tightly knit in a way that he had to be careful and considerate to take on the kinds of project that would provide a reliable basis for his professional practice, offer a sense of personal gratification and continue his quest for creating a better world.

02 June 2012

Paul Rudolph Designed House

Following is a reproduction of an article by architectural historian Esley Hamilton regarding the home in Warson Woods that was designed by architect Paul Rudolph. He explains the origin and history of this house which is featured in tomorrow's tour of mid-century modern homes in the Saint Louis area.

Architect Paul Rudolph in 1978 (Photograph by Philip Periman, Texas Architect, Volume 5/6, 1998).

The article appeared in the most recent NewsLetter of the Missouri Valley Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. You can access and download the entire contents of the NewsLetter as a .pdf document on this web page under Spring B 2012.

The current exhibition at the Sheldon about the early work of Paul Rudolph in Florida is a reminder that he also designed right here in Warson Woods, the suburb north of Manchester Road and west of Rock Hill. It’s a house you would be unlikely to find on your own, and finding it in the scholarly literature would be even more surprising. It does not seem to have been discussed in any of the books about Rudolph, and even Charles R. Smith, in his bibliographical chronology published in 1987, cites only the publication that commissioned it rather than the place where it was built.

House designed by Paul Rudolph for Woman's Home Companion magazine.
You would be most likely to come across the house if you were searching for images of modernism in old is- sues of the so-called “shelter” magazines. The Woman’s Home Companion commissioned the design from Rudolph and spread the resulting house across twenty of the large 10 x 13-inch magazine pages of its September 1956 issue. They called it the House for Family Living.

Essentially, the house has a nearly square plan with a front-facing gable and a two-car garage extending toward the street on the left, not too different from what is pejoratively called a snout house these days. But the garage is integrated into the overall design and the house is given great drama by extending the roof-line out to create an enormous open gable at the front, sheltering the walk to the front door and framing a usable front garden. The trellis-like rafters cast diagonal shadows reminiscent of “film noir” movies.

Inside, the angle of the roof creates soaring birch-lined ceilings rising high enough to accommodate a balcony in the center as large as a room. The west portion of the front includes the kitchen with L-shaped counters entirely open to the family room, a feature that is commonplace today but highly unusual for the time. The kitchen backs up to the two compact bathrooms, one with a shower, creating a central service core. Three bedrooms at the back are buffered by wall-size closets. Space is available at the rear of the balcony for another bedroom and bathroom. The basement is large enough to accommodate a workshop as fully fitted up as the kitchen.

Since the article was written by the home equipment editor and home decoration editor, much space was given to the house’s detailing. The house has a built-in vacuum system. The fireplace hood is stainless steel. The balcony railings are wide open, but they “may be enclosed with metal mesh for safety if you have toddlers.”

While the house still looks strikingly modern after more than half a century, the household appliances featured in the article now show their age. For readers then, however, they had many exciting new features, so new that the authors had to explain them in detail. The sliding racks of the Hobart dishwasher, for instance, take all shapes of utensils. The burners of the Roper gas stove maintain the heat setting. The Servel refrigerator has its own freezing compartment as well as storage spaces in its door. The Bendix washer has a choice of water temperatures. The Motorola TV has a swivel base.

The house was built by Everett Schneider Company, with landscaping by Carl Baney. House & Home carried a fol- low-up article in their October 1956 issue. They reported that the house drew 5,000 visitors in its first three days, and that seven out of ten visitors liked the balcony solution. Schneider noted however, that the high ceilings required double scaffolding. “It’s tough to build,” he said.

Rudolph had included four variations on the house that was built, intending them for different climates and topographies. No. 2 was identical with our No. 1 except that it could be built of wood. Plans 3, 4 and 5 had a central clerestory, No. 3 with a hipped roof, No. 4 with a flat roof and concrete block construction, and No. 5 was a tri-level adaptable to hilly areas.

Alternate design number five (Illustration from Woman's Home Companion magazine).
Woman’s Home Companion listed three places in Indianapolis and one outside Pittsburgh where Plan No. 1 was supposed to be built, and it even named the builders. None of these houses was built, however, at least not at the reported addresses.

Apparently Everett Schneider and his wife Harriet were the first residents of the Warson Woods house, since they did not sell it until 1960. The buyers were Lorran and Ruth Foster. The house has had at least six owners since then, but the present owners have been there since 1994, longer than anybody else.