Lessons from Living in a House Designed by William Wurster

Another aspect of reinforcing the indoor/outdoor connection is how Wurster designed the home so that most of the doorways to the outside have minimal threshold heights.  Stepping out to the garden from one of the ground floor rooms is almost seamless.  The foundation on the east side of the house is set deep enough into the ground plane that the exterior patio is almost at the same level as the interior rooms.  This small detail is another lesson in how Wurster designed his houses to integrate indoor and outdoor living and how aware he was of architecture and landscape in his designs.

Minimal threshold height links indoors and outdoors

Each of the doors on the east or garden side of the house, as shown in these photos, is approximately four feet wide.  The upper portion of each door has a fixed, single pane glass panel.  The three doors on the ground floor living space open directly to the garden.  They connect the living room, dining room and kitchen to an outdoor patio that is surrounded by lawn and other plantings.  The three doors on the second floor open the bedrooms to balconies and allow access a simple outdoor space that overlooks the garden and that is exposed to morning light.  The balcony outside two of these doors also creates an outdoor connection between two of the bedrooms.  The extra width of the doors is such a simple concept, but it has a transformative effect on each room.  Exceeding standard dimensions even slightly, whether it be a wider hallway, a higher ceiling or, in this case, a wider doorway can provide real spatial benefits.

Extra wide doors

I was told by the original owners, who commissioned Wurster to be their architect, that they first met him at a party in Berkeley hosted by the Gregory family and attended by many fellow UC faculty members.  It was the late 1930s and they were new to the faculty having moved from the east coast.  Impressed by the simple, elegance of the Wurster designed houses that they had seen, they asked him if he ever did work for “poor academics.”

9 Responses

  1. Carol Deering says:

    I would say ditto for our house next door! I’m so glad you decided to build this house for your mother-in-law in 1981, on the flat portion of your lot, where Wurster had planned a tennis court. Because you were able to “see” and “live” the positive design aspects of your Wurster, you were successful in designing them into 68 Twain. We too are enjoying those Wurster elements that you write about – without the added maintenance of those extra 40 years! ~Thanks Jay

  2. Kate says:

    We are in the midst of renovating a Wurster home for sale,and it has been tricky to find the right balance between updating and staying true to the original plan for the house. The house has been our family home for over 50 years as I was the third generation to be able to enjoy the true beauty of the home. William Wurster really did an incredible job of blending the indoor and outdoor elements to come toghter seemlessly.I love this home and the clean beautiful lines of it.

  3. Robin Chiang says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay on what good architecture can achieve. I am reminded that Wurster practiced what the College of Environmental Design was meant to teach. The relevance of its original mission has not diminished.

  4. Thank you, for commenting!

  5. Mac McGinnis says:

    Very enjoyable, Sally. Certainly, it points up the aspect of time in appreciating architecture — and the personal insights of a sensitive observer add richness to the writing.

  6. Jay- Very thoughtful. What strikes me is that both the designer and the resident are so in sync as to be able to communicate to one another, or others, over such a long and enduring relationship. What a nice goal for an architect to try to achieve. Hope all is well with the family.
    Best, Rob

  7. Dan Gregory says:

    Jay this is excellent and demonstrates Wurster’s remarkable ability to focus on ordinary but essential elements and make them memorable, like the stair and the stair window. You deftly explain some of Wurster’s key concepts, as in your felicitous phrases “functional simplicity” and how “the ground plane is made part of the view.” Bravo. I might want to steal some of this for my Eye On Design blog…

  8. Thank you for the comment!

  9. Wonderful to read your thoughts about living in Wurster’s house, Jay. Thank you!

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