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An expressive individualist definitely needs an open-plan home: Charles Moore's residence in New Haven is the fourth in a series of seven domiciles he designed. Photo © John Hill
An expressive individualist definitely needs an open-plan home: Charles Moore's residence in New Haven is the fourth in a series of seven domiciles he designed. Photo © John Hill
Experimentation with the tradition of suburban aesthetic: inspired by American colonial architecture the front of the house in white clapboard has a Classicist colonnaded portico. Photo © John Hill
Experimentation with the tradition of suburban aesthetic: inspired by American colonial architecture the front of the house in white clapboard has a Classicist colonnaded portico. Photo © John Hill
The interior is completely tailored to Moore's personality, while the exterior of the small two-storey house with a saddle roof was left largely unchanged. Isometrics © Charles Moore
The interior is completely tailored to Moore's personality, while the exterior of the small two-storey house with a saddle roof was left largely unchanged. Isometrics © Charles Moore
Each of the three towers "Howard, Berengaria and Ethe" was construed as an independent space. Circular cutouts in the sliding walls permit unimpeded views across the various levels. Photo © John Hill
Colorful, experimental, post-modern: extravagant design work at the rear of the house. Photo © Charles Moore Foundation
A perfect bachelor
by Uwe Bresan
7/3/2016

People like to paint the history of architecture as the tale of a series of brilliant architects and engineers, who have altered the appearance of our world solely through the power of their visionary ideas and the courage to work outside the box. We love this kind of narration with all its heroes. Yet if we are to take a step back and look at the bigger picture then we find another character appearing behind the figure of the visionary designer. Architectural history tends to be all too happy to overlook a highly important influence: that of the developer and contractor, without whom no architect could ever realize his ideas. In olden days it was emperors and kings, popes and patriarchs who motivated the architects and artists to produce outstanding achievements and reach ever new superlatives. But what kind of developers and clients could be found exerting their influence in the 20th century? Who was it that shaped our ideas of modern living? In short: more often than not they were individuals on the periphery of society, regarded as outsiders, who operated and behaved in ways outside of the accepted social norms of their time.

Unconventional clients

They were women like Truus Schröder, widow and mother of three young children, who in 1924 commissioned architect Gerrit Rietveld to construct a new house at No. 50 Prins Hendriklaan in Utrecht, Holland. At that time, her husband had only been dead for a year. Today, we can only guess what the greater scandal was: The structure at the end of the picturesque row of traditional brick houses, seemingly made up of nothing but a collection of suspended cubes and concrete slabs, or the fact that the architect moved in with his client upon completion of the building. At any rate the Rietveld-Schröder House has survived and features on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

By contrast, Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Stein in Garches near Paris, created between 1926 and 1928, which doubtless belongs to the most frequently written-about buildings of classical Modernism, was executed for three home-builders whose unconventional lifestyle was the cause of much hushed gossip in Parisian society. The villa with its austere white volumes, into which the architect cut the partially staggered loggia, terraces and balconies in order to create a highly complex interplay of spaces, was to became the home of the wealthy American art collector Sarah Stein, her husband Michael and the couple’s friend Gabrielle de Monzie, the equally wealthy ex-wife of famous French politician Anatole de Monzie.

Similarly, Chicago physician Edith Farnsworth had to repeatedly fight for social recognition. She commissioned Mies van der Rohe, an architect who had emigrated from Germany in 1945, to design her weekend house in Plano, a town just under an hour’s drive from Chicago. In America’s prude post-war society the single woman was seen as an outsider and regarded with suspicion. Today, Farnsworth House, her glazed weekend retreat with its slender steel supports located on the banks of Fox River, is considered one of the most famous houses of the 20th century.
Looking at the fairly unconventional lifestyles of these primarily female contractors it seems almost absurd that their houses should become icons of architectural history and lifestyle in later times. What started as an experiment carried out by those birds of paradise frowned upon by society is now desirable to even the most conventional of families as they move into their so-called “Bauhaus villas” on the outskirts of town, with the buildings’ “unconventional architecture” having become a distinctive selling point.

A celebrated innovator

Is this trend absurd? Maybe! But I prefer to call it the subtle irony of architectural history. And the latter is doubtless involved when in 1969 the October issue of “Playboy” featured, of all things, the private home of American architect Charles Moore. In Europe Moore is known mainly as the man who designed the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans. The colorful plaza featuring a plethora of different shapes in the middle of the city’s business district is considered an icon of Postmodernism and is still capable of sparking controversy even today. Yet from the 1960s onwards, the American public celebrated Moore as an innovator of US architecture. He was the man whose small, inexpensive houses, built mainly on the East Coast of the United States, represented a new and lively contrast to the International Style that had dominated the urban American landscape since the 1940s, the strictly observed formal and material canon of which had increasingly resulted in bland monotony.

In tune with the landscape

Unlike the houses built in the International Style, which hardly responded to the existing environments at all in their rigid adherence to set rules, Moore’s houses were adapted to the setting in question. They incorporated regional materials and experimented with various traditions and symbolism from older American residential architecture, yet did so without attempting to replicate rigid patterns and conventions. Moore’s approach suited the zeitgeist of the 1960s. American society was undergoing an all-encompassing process of transformation that involved questioning the prevailing system and its strict forms of representation. Given this background, Moore’s architectural designs – some of which were highly subversive – were popular amongst students and young architects in particular, who felt they represented alternative lifestyle choices. This led in 1965 to Moore’s appointment as dean of the Yale School of Architecture, one of the country’s leading schools of architecture. Shortly after his arrival in California, Moore moved into a small house built in the colonial style close to the school. When not teaching in New Haven (90 minutes’ drive away from New York) he worked on comprehensive conversion and extension measures. This was already the fourth house Moore had realized for himself, and three others would follow. And just like all his earlier and later houses this one was tailored to his very special personality.

A house with three towers

From the outside the extensive alterations Moore made to the interior of his home were barely noticeable. Indeed, his two-storey white clapboard house with its flat saddle roof and the small colonnaded porch over the front door exuded a quiet classicist charm. Yet Moore did not leave a single part of the interior architecture untouched. He ripped out all of the interior walls, removed the paneling from the outer walls and finally opened up the ceilings and floors in order to install three towers, which in part extended from the cellar to under the roof. Moore nicknamed these towers Howard, Berengaria and Ethel. They provided empty spaces and visually linked the house’s individual levels, hereby creating an amusing interplay of sight lines. This effect was further heightened by Moore’s special treatment of the tower walls. These were made of thin plywood with geometric cut-outs arranged in several layers to form diverse overlaps and provide a range of views. The architect appropriated patterns, shapes and colors from the emerging Pop Art movement, to which he also owed his love of neon signage and quotes from American everyday culture. The result was an interior shaped by the unconventional spirit of the 1960s that created quite a buzz.

Six page spread in Playboy

But it was coverage in the October issue of Playboy that really made the house famous. In an article titled “A Playboy Pad: New Haven Haven” the lad mag notorious for its provocative centerfolds devoted six pages of color photographs to the building. The photo series was produced to look as though it documented a late night party at Moore’s home, with the images showing smaller and larger groups of guests amusing themselves in the house’s various nooks and crannies. Looking at the series, you can almost hear the babble of voices, the chinking of cocktail glasses and the low dance music of the late 1960s. The accompanying text spoke of the “few friends the bachelor had invited to his home”.

A typical bachelor pad

The emphasis was on bachelor. As someone freed from the constraints of an average family life, who could constantly be on the lookout for new female acquaintances, the bachelor was not only the Playboy ideal, but in 1960s America represented the ideal image of man per se. The sweeping success enjoyed by Ian Fleming’s James Bond figure at the time makes this abundantly clear. And naturally a playboy’s apartment played a special role as the place of his many conquests. Any women entering the playboy’s pad should have felt at ease – and never as though she had been left by herself. After all, as soon as the playboy did leave her, say to go next door and mix her a cocktail, she might have changed her mind and made a quick exit.

The men behind Playboy therefor saw Moore’s open interior, with its many views and perspectives, as the perfect bachelor pad. They orchestrated the party photos to have a special focus on those spatial situations where the individual levels of the house were visually connected, as with the three open towers. The striking irony of the story is that although the architect, builder and occupant of the featured Playboy pad was a bachelor, he could never have been considered a typical playboy in the sense of the eponymous magazine. Moore was quite simply homosexual. Perhaps his not needing to accommodate children’s rooms and the like led to his forgoing closed rooms and instead generating an interplay of spaces that connects all areas of the house playfully with one another. We do not know if the people at Playboy knew Moore was homosexual when they featured his house as the prototype of a “Playboy Pad”. Certainly Moore himself was discreet in this regard at work, arguably above all, because in the early 1960s rumors about sexual orientation had already cost someone considered a sure candidate for a professorship in Berkeley his academic career.
All of this certainly places Moore amongst those home-builders who in the 20th century decisively shaped our ideas on modern habitation through their unconventional living concepts. Unlike the other structures mentioned in this text, Moore’s house in New Haven did not survive. The architect sold the property in the early 1970s. And the new owner had Moore’s alterations removed and returned the house to its original state, whether despite or because of the publication in Playboy.

Literature:

Alice T. Friedman, Women and the Making of the Modern House, (2006).
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, (1961).
Beatriz Preciado, Pornotopia. Architektur, Sexualität und Multimedia in ‘Playboy’, (2012).
David Littlejohn, The Life & Work of Charles W. Moore, (1984).