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.

Walls were cleared of baseboards.

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.

Half-round wood trim used as ornamentation.

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

Full-round wood trim used to ornament a doorway.

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.”

10 Responses

  1. adrienne klein says:

    To the author and others knowledgeable of Wurster homes, It’s time for me to conduct some repairs and updates to my Wurster home and I would like referrals for architects and contractors who can help me make some decisions and execute the projects.

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Thank you, for commenting!

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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…

  9. Thank you for the comment!

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

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