Of the multitude of structures built across the country each year, few ever become elevated to a level considered the “art of architecture” by architectural critics and/or historians. The vast majority of these houses and buildings remain mundane, held to a design level that will appease the taste of that great middle group or, as Frank Lloyd Wright referred to us: “the great mediocrity.”
Architectural critics judge the impression of a building in the immediate sense, before the building has had he chance to prove itself. Historians, on the other hand, have the benefit of hindsight, advising of the building’s architectural qualities after the second, third of fourth generation has passed. Seldom is a classic realized at the moment.
All photographs courtesy of Bill Timmerman
Architect Michael Johnson’s design for Richard Yoder’s and Jeanne Doornbos’ house on Camelback Mountain, reached beyond a mundane design concept with the very first sketches, and brought a truly modern classic to life.
Architects are far from being on equal footing, and the levels of design quality —the intrinsic eloquence — can vary from project to project in an architect’s portfolio. Not all of Wright’s buildings reached the pinnacle of “Fallingwater,” the weekend residence of the Edgar J. Kaufmann’s family near Bear Run, Pa.
The truly exemplary models of modern American residential architecture are easily noted: Wright’s Fallingwater, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Rudolph Schindler’s beach house for Philip Lovell and Bruce Goff’s studio home for Joe Price, Jr. Each broke with tradition and added new materials, forms and proportions to the architectural design palette.
Johnson has been a student of the work of Wright, Goff, Schindler, Mies and other modernist architects for years. In the past, his work directly reflected the design ideology of these masters. However, the residence he designed for Yoder and Doornbos has no immediate references to any of those ghosts, there is no direct imitation. Rather, the spirit of years of ideas has been translated into a building that is purely from the soul of the designer.
Although the 5,000 square foot residence could readily have been broken into a series of interior boxes, Johnson has masterly created a building that is simply the flow of spaces versus the perennial expectation of walls and roof.
Anchored to the mountain on the east, the elegantly simple form soars from the site, on the opposite side, it is supported only by an elevator tower and sheer wall, cantilevering the master bedroom above the Valley floor as the mountain drops away.
The house is the very essence of why one climbs the mountain, exemplified by framing panoramic views of the Valley through floor-to-ceiling windows and the no-edge illusion of the pool extending the site infinitely.
The living area of the house is accessed via elevator from the lower-level entry court or directly from the upper-level guest parking. The interiors, harmonized in neutral grays and metallic finishes, are free-flowing. The interior walls lead the eye to adjacent spaces, but stop the line of sight short, always allowing for the element of expectation as you pass from one area of the house to the next.
The only hint of color comes from the fresh yellow of the kitchen area that peeks from behind the aptly detailed wall planes, and the primary color area carpets. The neutral selection of materials and colors ensures the key elements of Johnson’s design; the views and the simplicity of form.
Yoder/Doornbos’ residence is an articulate design which exemplifies the rare circumstance when client, designer and builder come together in thought, and grasp the opportunity to go beyond just building another stucco-plastered house on the mountain.
Design is both a process and a product, and the earnest desire of Yoder and Doornbos for a truly imaginative and contemporary home, set the stage for both Johnson as designer and Rich Fairbourn and Andy Byrnes of the Construction Zone as the builders. All had to be of like minds to bring the owners’ goals and Johnson’s design thoughts to fruition.
Within this collaboration, Johnson explored all the ramifications of the freedom of living spaces. He differentiated from our basic logic of containment in a box structure, to integrate further the ideas of architecture, structure and space in an order that will contribute to the daily lives of the residents. There is a newness to the use of materials, an exhilaration as the spaces flow one unto the other, and respite in the calm of order of detail the unified whole.
The true difference in architecture as art versus “just” building, is an individuals ability to design with vocabulary, the technical understanding and integration of building systems, and then “designing” beyond the client’s expectations.
Johnson draws from a palette of common and uncommon materials in residential architecture. He grasps the nature of the materials he chooses.
Graduation from architectural school or obtaining the legal title of “architect” doesn’t guarantee those elements of architecture. As a reminder, the icons of modern American architecture; Louis Henri Sullivan, Wright and Goff, never graduated from any “accredited school of architecture,” yet each took the ideas and ideals of architecture to unprecedented thought, and changed the direction of American design.
Clarity of design expression comes from creative individuality, not from academic exercise.
In 1939, Wright wrote, “What is architecture anyway? Is it the vast collection of the various buildings which have been built to pleas the varying taste of the various lords of mankind? I think not. No, I know that architecture is life; or at least it is life itself taking form and therefore it is the truest record of life as it was lived in the world yesterday, as it is lived today or ever will be lived. Architecture is that great living creative spirit which from generation to generation, from age to age, proceeds, persists, creates, according to the nature of man, and his circumstances as they change. That is really architecture.”
It is Johnson’s understanding of history, the root values, which demands that history not be repeated with pale imitations in his design work today, but rather, his design work is a gathering of ideals which contribute to noteworthy advances in thought and provide a new interpretation.
From another architect’s point of view, the late Al Beadle, seeing the Yoder/Doornbos house under construction, said it was “the most significant piece of architecture built in Arizona since Taliesin West.” Beadle was always an insightful and challenging critic, and it seems he sized up Johnson’s design for the Yoder/Doornbos house in the simplest and most direct terms.
Architectural Design: Michael P. Johnson Design Studios, Ltd.
Structural Engineering: J.T. Engineering, Inc. - Jack Trummer, P.E.
Landscape Design: Floor & Associates - Susan Raymond
Interior Design: Richard Yoder and Michael P. Johnson Design Studios, Ltd.
Construction: The Construction Zone, Ltd.