Lessons from Living in a House Designed by William Wurster
What he designed for them is essentially a rectilinear, two-story box that could be constructed on a small budget. Design details such as the ones I have highlighted would make it their new home in their new town by the Bay. One aspect of the plan that I noticed almost immediately when we first saw the house was how the simple detail of a slanted exterior wall on the west facing elevation broke the box and animated the exterior and interior spaces as well as the form of the house. Thus a subtle variation in a strong pattern can have a great effect.
One of Wurster’s modernist touches was the elimination of baseboards throughout the house, except, for some unknown reason, in the bathrooms. The result is that there is no distraction from the door and window trim, which serve as visual frames for the openings. The walls, floors and ceilings are experienced as intersecting planes. When the house was built, the standard wall treatment was plaster over lath. The walls are detailed so that there is a baseboard which is set so that the lath and plaster finish align to allow a smooth surface down to the floor. The result is elegant.
Using half-round and larger, whole-round wood trim, Wurster added simple, easily produced ornamentation that enlivens certain rooms and spaces. For example, in the small bathrooms, half-round trim is used to suggest wainscoting. Even painted to match the walls, this small detail adds shadow and a line that visually expands the horizontal sense of space. Larger, round wood elements are notched and used to frame a tall corner where the slanted roof increases the floor to ceiling height, further enhancing the dynamic of the space. He also specified this type of trim to frame the entry to a small hallway off the upstairs landing, adding dignity and definition to what might otherwise be a an undefined opening adjacent to the trim around a closet door and a large window. Economy does not have to diminish style and quality
In architecture school I learned that William Wurster was recognized as a seminal figure in the evolution or “Second Phase” of what is recognized as The Bay Area Tradition. Yet it has been the experience of living for many years in a house he designed for construction in 1938, that has given me insight into what inspires great moments in architecture and makes them more than just a “style.” Wurster’s aesthetic of simplicity and responsiveness to the specifics of the site fuel the design of his residential work, giving it both timelessness and livability. The houses he designed are rooted in the land. I now understand and know the truth of Wurster’s statement that: “Architecture is not a goal. Architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people.”