Lessons from Living in a House Designed by William Wurster
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Architect Jay Claiborne reflects on thirty-five years of living in a house designed by William Wurster.
By Jay Claiborne
I was educated as an architect, but most of my best design lessons have been derived from daily life in the built environment. Perhaps the strongest influence on my aesthetic sense is having lived in a house designed by William Wurster for the last thirty-five years. My admiration for the design of the house grows almost on a daily basis as details of it continue to attract my attention. Here are a few examples:
Siting is one of the most important factors in residential design. Our house is located on a property in the Berkeley Hills that is blessed with a panoramic view of the Bay. But the view did not drive Wurster’s design. He sited the house so that the long elevation of what is essentially a two story, rectilinear box faces east, not west to the Bay view. This orientation gives all of the interior rooms exposure to a side garden and the morning sun. Selected spaces, the living room/dining room and master bedroom, have direct views to the Bay. After only a season of living in the house with two sons and dogs, we realized the brilliance of the siting.
We continue to be drawn outdoors for leisure time in the yard, the dramatic vistas and the eastern exposure. The kitchen, living room/dining room and three upstairs bedrooms all have extra wide doors that open to the garden or to second floor balconies facing the garden. The long elevation has minimal exposure to the harsh winds and rains that blow from the Bay. On a sunny morning when we are sitting outside the kitchen at a table on the garden patio, we are reminded how shortsighted it would have been to let the house divide such a beautiful green place into a front yard facing the bay and a back yard facing, well, the back yard. The house is a primary lesson in what could be called, Architecture is About Buildings and their Context.
A roof is not just a cover to keep out the weather. It is a major component of the form of a building and one whose effect can be experienced even from the inside. Our house is documented as being Wurster’s first use of the shed roof for a residential building. In addition to simplifying the exterior form of the house while adding a bit of reference to a California farm building, the shed roof allows the interior rooms it covers to be more than little or mid-sized boxes. The floor to ceiling height of the ground level rooms is approximately nine feet, adding an even more generous sense of space to the open plan layout. The second floor rooms have a floor to ceiling height at the low side of the roof of approximately six-feet eight inches. The shed roof allows this height to increase to nine feet or more on the opposite side of the room.
The shed roof is another example of the functional simplicity of Wurster’s design aesthetic. It provides a very cost effective and simple roofing system. The framing does not require special bracing given the width of the house; the pitch allows easy drainage; and the finish material can be tar and gravel as on a flat roof. A shed roof can easily be built to overhang and shelter exterior doorways. Finally, it has proved much more enduring and alluring to live with over time than the double-pitched version, which requires higher maintenance. Thus the roof form is critical, both aesthetically and functionally.
From taking tours of other Wurster designed houses, I have observed that he typically made creative use of circulation elements such as stairs to create a dramatic effect in otherwise fairly ordinary plans. For the thirty-five years we have lived in our Wurster-designed house, I have never ceased to marvel at the beauty created by its simple curved staircase.
Midway between the first and second floor, a large, projecting window that offers a view of distant trees and lights the space. Wurster approximately doubled the wall depth to accommodate this window. The design permitted simple construction and was relatively inexpensive for such a dramatic custom treatment. Furthermore, it enhanced the experience of going from one level to another. The upper landing leads to each of the three bedrooms and features a solid bannister overlooking the stairs. The center point is a rounded element that also is finished to match the plastered walls. A light hangs over the top of the rounded center and a fixture was chosen that is a simple glazed cylinder. This stairway is the one dramatic element in an otherwise simple and plain house. The lesson is that stairways are an opportunity to add spice to the relationship between form and function.