by Anmol AhujaApr 13, 2022
Having recently completed my Architectural Guide Chicago presented a perfect excuse to meet local authors of some of the buildings included in the book. That, in turn, enabled me to see their creations through their eyes and compare these new encounters to my original notes. I must add that the Chicago guide came a few years after my guide to recent architecture in New York and if I were to define the key difference between the two cities, besides the fact that Chicago is a much more fundamental place with its own, not just one but two influential schools of architecture, whereas New York produced none and is more about giving a stage to individualist expressions, I would point to the design of freestanding single-family dwellings.
If, as Rem Koolhaas suggested, architecture could be categorised by size—S, M, L, and XL—then New York architecture only exists in sizes L and XL. To come across a compelling single-family house here is as probable as winning a lottery. There are some townhouses, galleries, penthouse additions, and community libraries that are meaningful, but most structures of note are apartment and office buildings, universities, schools, museums, theaters, transportation hubs, and, of course, skyscrapers. Conversely, out of 100 works built in Chicago since 1978, featured in the guide, 12 are single-family homes. Constituting a true testing ground for experimental architecture, I find exploring houses particularly rewarding. Chicago has proven to be a fertile ground for the development of the smallest of all building types, and if there were no concerns with privacy, dozens of more exemplary residential designs could have been added to the book. In fact, just about any residential block in Chicago will delight visitors with explicitly contemporary and innovative houses.
In this piece, I would like to focus on two Chicago homes that I was privileged to spend time in with the architects who designed and built them for their own families: Ardmore House in the Edgewater neighbourhood on Chicago’s North Side was finished right before the pandemic and Pfanner House in West Town, just south of the East Village and Ukrainian Village neighbourhoods, was completed 20 years ago. Both buildings occupy unusual corner sites and have characteristic relations to the adjacent service alleys. They are taller than their predominantly single-family neighbours and they use unusually large dynamically placed windows as ways to reorient and challenge the design of traditional houses. Both projects relied on shifting and greatly enlarging the main living room spaces in relation to the rest of the volumes. In the case of the Ardmore House, it is moved upstairs, while at the Pfanner House, the main open space is pushed several feet below the sidewalk level. Both homes had a double function by also serving as a practicing studio. But let’s visit these attractive houses one at a time.
The Ardmore House is named after the avenue it sits on. It owes a lot to the quality of its appearance to the L-shaped service alley that hugs it along two of its edges—short on the northern end and long on the western side. It is this gap to the west of the site, which resulted in a 50-foot space between the house and any other building along the alley that attracted the husband-and-wife architectural duo Lap Chi Kwong and Alison Von Glinow (he is originally from Hong Kong and she grew up in the northern suburb Lake Forest) to the teardown that once occupied this site. Where others saw mainly disadvantages, namely, the lack of privacy and additional noise from passing cars, the Harvard-trained and former Herzog & de Meuron apprentices saw a unique challenge. To realise this project the couple acted not only as designers but also as their own contractors and homeowners. They told me that their original intention was to sell it. I am glad they didn't. The house was finished already after the pandemic stroke and it was harder to attract a buyer at the time when so many city dwellers were ready to sell. They decided to give it a try and moved in with their two toddlers and brought their practice here, Kwong Von Glinow Design Office. Founded in 2017, it now takes over the entire half-sunk basement with large square windows on every side.
The house, which at first glance may pass as ordinary, is in fact, full of surprises and inventions. Its simplified, largely traditional bulk, clad in dark colour palette finishes, sits on a rectangular footprint under a standard pitched roof. The off-the-street entry door is accessed by a narrow, single flight of open concrete stairs. Ribbons of windows wrap around the second floor. What is very unusual here is how the house is organised within. There is a twist here; two, to be precise. First, the entire interior design is rotated 90 degrees—instead of being a typical succession of rooms, visitors come into a double-height curved atrium (the curve is a segment of an imaginary circle) that runs lengthwise from the front to back doors. The architects call this sliced space an interior courtyard, an informal multi-purpose relax-play area with reading nooks and bookshelves. Immediately upon entering one notices that the house is reoriented in the east-west direction, with the line of symmetry falling right in the center of its long west wall, where a 7-by-10-foot (2-by-3-meter) mullion-free, clear-glass picture window is situated. What seems to be the sidewall from the outside, suddenly turns into the front façade from within, with the central window acting as a visual entry. Interestingly, at 56 feet (17 meters) this facade is among the widest single-family front elevations in Chicago.
The second twist is a sectional flip of the two main floors—three bedrooms with two in-between bathrooms are housed on the first floor, right off the atrium. The family living space is located on the second floor, accessed by a semi-enclosed stair. The upstairs is a succession of unpartitioned spaces—a living room, dining room, kitchen, kitchen island, and the only enclosure, a small island powder room topped by the glass ceiling under a skylight. These zones are demarcated by the unevenly spaced solid triangles of the structural trusses above. These divisions in the cathedral ceiling allow for slightly different atmospheres and lighting qualities within each zone. Here, in a beautiful light-filled room, one is surrounded by wide panoramic windows on all four sides. Especially noteworthy is a long "smile" of picket railing and two ribbon windows—one that runs the full length of the alley façade opens on informal backyards of the neighbouring houses—balconies, fire escapes, street lamps, and meandering cabling.
Throughout the house, there is a restrained palette of colours and materials—white walls and white oak wood floors, built-in cabinetry, window frames, shelving, and furniture. The basement is built of poured-in-place concrete, while the rest is wood-frame construction. Externally, the cladding reflects the making of the house. The unfinished concrete base is followed by a treated-wood exterior facade system—the bottom half of the first floor is clad in gray wood, while black wood lines the rest, including two identical canopies at both ends. The house, the architects’ manifesto of sorts, is an exemplary case study that poses some of the most fundamental questions about its relationship to the surrounding context and internal layout.
Curiously, the project has an intriguing resemblance to the famed Robert Venturi’s 1964 Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia, particularly in its wide axis primary orientation, play with symmetry, as well as reliance on employing curves, niches, and irony, of course. It is not surprising that after finishing this house the couple enjoys inviting their potential clients here. "Why can’t everyone flip their houses?!" exclaimed one of them upon walking in. He hired the architects on the spot for their biggest commission yet, a renovation of a large house and an addition to house an extensive art collection.
The second project, Pfanner House, sits at the northern end of its block and is stretched in the east-west direction. This confidently placed boxy dwelling is both contextual and entirely unique. The brick-clad timber-framed house occupies a compact corner lot. Despite its appropriate scale, restrained form, and agreeable materiality—its entire surface is finished in orange brick with matching mortar, the same colour as most other buildings around it—there is something quirky about this house. First, it is reversed—while other neighbouring structures, predominantly single-family houses, face North Hartland Court with their formal entries and front yards, the Pfanner House shows its back here, namely a garage door. It is entered from the opposite end of the lot, where other houses have their garages lined up along the service alley in the back. While the house is built right against the sidewalk on its northern edge, its garage side on the west is set back a few feet to allow for an extra-wide sidewalk. Despite this generous move, since there is no front yard, the house comes forward, closer to the street than all other houses, and all its floors are aligned at this end. This straight-up elevation is largely solid except for a large opening in the middle; it turns around the building’s northwest corner with a deep terrace behind it. The opposite side has an open garden; there is a door there, but the main entrance is on the long side, from West Ohio Street.
The house is a sturdy orthogonal block characterised by subtle shifts and recesses in the brick skin, punched by a few apertures and openings that seem to have been placed randomly—some very large, others more moderately sized. The overall composition is somewhat reminiscent of the 1930 Villa Müller by Adolf Loos in Prague—nothing seems to be out of the ordinary, but the result is quite special—abstracted and strangely familiar at the same time. While the most intriguing element from the outside is the missing corner above the garage, the most striking part of the interior, a double-height space, reveals itself right from the sidewalk on West Ohio Street through a very large window with a low sill. It measures 14 feet by 9.5 feet (4.3 meters x 2.7 meters); when pedestrians pass by, they are visible from the inside from their waist height up but appear floating since the inside floor is sunk another four feet.
Zoka Zola, the architect of this creation, as in the case of the first house, is both its designer and owner. Born in Croatia and educated in Zagreb and London she started her practice in London and came to Chicago with her family in 1997. Zola followed her Australian-born husband, Peter Pfanner, an industrial designer, educator, and the founder and director of the Innovation Center at the University of Illinois Chicago. The house named after him is the architect’s first building in Chicago. The space behind the big window and solid entry door next to it was conceived as the architect’s studio. It occupies a double-height volume with an impressive 20’-high (6-meters) ceiling that is split between two levels—a narrow strip at the level of the sidewalk along the front that leads to the back door and the rest is recessed 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) into the ground. This attractive space is dramatised by an open stair, a striking sculptural element that shifts and changes direction as it rises from the pit to the entry, then to the low-ceilinged mezzanine-level library with a reading niche. It then rises again to another intermediate landing overlooking the studio, a climactic platform for greeting guests, and, finally, shoots straight up to the third floor, which is split into the living room and kitchen, each at its own slightly different level.
The large west-end opening over the garage houses a terrace with a wooden floor and an outdoor fireplace accessed from the living room, while the kitchen, on the opposite end, leads to a smaller setback terrace overlooking the garden below. The kitchen is a handsome room, easily one of the most delightful domestic spaces anywhere, with a mullion-free window wrapping around the southeast corner directly above the stainless-steel L-shaped countertop sitting over white oak cabinets that integrate into one more stair leading to the sleeping quarters on the top fourth floor. That floor comprises a master bedroom with a bathroom, while two other bedrooms share the second bathroom. This private level has the advantage of being a full floor above the neighbouring houses to the south. This fact is celebrated by large panoramic windows along the southern wall, both in the master bedroom and its bathroom where the bathtub's top is aligned with the window’s sill.
The house is a continuous loop of circulation, a masterful spatial fluidity, all achieved by relying strictly on orthogonal geometry. Openness is the key spatial principle here—all composed of white walls, white oak floors and built-in cabinetry and stairs, spare and clean-lined modern classic furniture, a striking lack of ornamentation, and just enough unavoidable clutter to hint that you are inside a family home. The architect questioned the very fundamental character of a house in her home manifesto: "Why do we so easily create prisons for ourselves? Is it because a balance between security and freedom is hard to maintain? How can our houses not trap us in? As an architect of my own house, how is it possible not to be housed inside my own limits?" Reportedly, the house is often being complimented by passersby who may say: "This is the best house in Chicago!" The architect has said that complete strangers roll down their car windows to tell her how much they love this house. The critics love the house as well. It received Architecture magazine’s Home of the Year award in North America in 2003 and architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, who visited it in person, included it in his 2008 revised edition of American Masterworks: Houses of the 20th and 21st Century.
Both Pfanner House in West Town and Ardmore House on the North Side, continue Chicago’s enviable practice to endlessly challenge the traditional single-family dwelling, which brings a healthy discourse into the profession. And for as long as we don’t settle on what model may work for everyone, architects will not stop experimenting. What I hope most is that one day, my fellow New Yorkers, both homeowners and architects, would step inside these two truly brilliant houses and exclaim: “Why can’t we do this in New York?!”