The individual house is the mainstay of U.S. construction culture, a potent conflation of Americans’ desire for singularity, or independence, and the ruthlessness of that country’s mass production techniques. In recent decades, inventive architects – most notably Frank Gehry with his own home in Santa Monica – have used the remodelling of generic single houses as research sites for radical notions of form, language and domesticity. Like Gehry before him, Chicago-based Douglas Garofalo splices and mutates both existing and new elements so that their mutual roles as parasite and host become fused.
The house reconfigured by Garofalo at Spring Prairie, Wisconsin grows out of the original, red building as a set of orange pavilions that partially encircle a swimming pool and terrace. The self-contained, pre-existing house has not so much been engulfed as liberated by the new construction, empowered now as the origin of a strategy that uses a tool shed, a screened gazebo, and a barn for llamas and goats to differentiate an outdoor inner sanctum (the pool and terrace) from an ostensibly natural outer world of prairie meadow, orchard, deep forest, and a small lake where one further pavilion may yet be sited.
The immediate extension to the house is a two-storey guest wing (parents below, children above) draped in a titanium membrane. A vivid complement to the orange and orthogonal structure underneath, the diamond-pattern titanium blushes pale blue and green against the extensive sky and grass. It billows to envelop the interior and is trimmed to a serpentine edge so that this hard industrial material is here surprisingly delicate. Suggestively biomorphic, the titanium reappears as metallic silver balustrade to an access deck in the exposed prow of the old building (the master bedroom).
The Spring Prairie house is a retreat from metropolitan Chicago, a bucolic getaway for an extended family of the client couple, their six children and spouses, and very many grandchildren. Further north, in Green Bay, the Nothstine Residence is the permanent home for a couple with three almost-teenage children. Here Garofalo has exploited the natural fall of the site from an existing orthogonal house close to the public road, letting flow a new structural datum that curves and folds to enclose interconnected, sinuous spaces with panoramic views to the exterior.
If the forms are futuristic, reminiscent of fluid gestures by Brazil’s Oscar Niemeyer, the effect is like being inside a splendidly complex treehouse. The husband collects and races miniature cars: the uppermost space in the original building is now a salon or gallery in which walls are dedicated to collection display, floor to an archipelago of serpentine racetracks. His wife breeds orchids: visitors must enter a glazed hothouse – with its particular, humid atmosphere – before exiting the house on its exposed, western side onto a catwalk that thrusts out as a bird-watching pier.
Formally, the remodelled Nothstine Residence is defined by its extruded surface. Like the monocoque of a racing yacht, this is a contiguous membrane made from a hybrid structure of steel and timber all wrapped in yellow fiberglass. Viscous yellow. Almost iridescent. Views to the exterior are framed by these planes - floor, wall, ceiling - as they project out to tapered rims. As with the trapeze-like observation pier, the monolithic shell is in places propped by tubular steel struts. Such struts allow the undercroft of the living room to hover above the garden and ornamental pond below.
At both sites the core house remains visible, a punctum about which new construction weaves and flirts. Green Bay develops vertically, Spring Prairie horizontally - its curving metal canopy floats across the ground whose flatness is underscored by a carpet of small concrete pavers containing tufts of grass. Garofalo’s rectilinear boxes venture out from under the titanium to transfer into linear, normative rustic elements such as the animals’ corral…and the boundary fence to a vegetable garden with its distant echo of Thoreau’s self-sufficiency at Walden Pond.
The horizon and horizontality are indeed recurrent themes for American settlement and design, common to Thomas Jefferson and Frank Lloyd Wright, that native son of Wisconsin who opened up pre-Modern dwelling units to nature. Yet, unlike the fixed singularity of buildings by previous generations, Garofalo’s construct at Spring Prairie is also a collage of fragments, partial forms in conversation with each other and adapting to nuances of construction, use, and context. Beneath the concave, ribbed belly of the titanium-clad roof, the kitchen has gill-like windows along the façade of the main house. Life at Spring Prairie is led to great extent out-of-doors, circling about the pool and a terrace shaded now by a sheet of yellow parachute fabric held taut and horizontal by its skeletal metal cage.
A major inlet of Lake Michigan, Green Bay enjoys a more robust if not severe climate. The Nothstine Residence is comparatively compact, open to the afternoon sun and glimpses of the lake. Garofalo’s yellow strip links master bedroom (the penthouse lookout above), living room (see-through views from the street), a hybrid study and greenhouse, and (in the lowermost, opaque portion) a high-tech media room.
The reconstruction of both houses operates on the fringes of America’s orthodox building industry. The principal contractor at Green Bay, for instance, makes 'trailers' or mobile homes during the summer months. The architect exposed the corrugated steel segments used for land retention to line the zigzag path downhill. He has an artist’s eye for supplementary elements: the bifurcated garden struts; elephant grating for entranceway and viewing pier; the timber-slatted alcove, or cocoon, in the living area; and his ovoid, suspended and rotational fireplace worthy of some glamorous 1960s spy movie.
Garofalo is tuned to current theoretical debate, the evolution of architectural language, and technical capabilities offered by computerization (he is perhaps best known internationally for the Korean Presbyterian Church in Queens, New York City, realized in collaboration with Greg Lynn and Michael McInturf). These houses, and earlier residential projects mostly in the Chicago suburbs, reveal however a commitment to actual construction together with a personal aesthetic that is, in part, gently surreal. One waits now for the larger, civic projects such domestic designs lead to.