An "Oh, Wow" Moment in Kentucky
Once in a while, you need an "Oh, wow," moment. Last week I wrote about the difference between an “Oh, wow," moment and an “Oh, now what?" moment. The architecture of SANAA provides the latter. This weekend, the Miller House in Lexington, Ky., provided me with that moment when your mouth and your eyes open wide and all you can say is: “Oh, wow.”
The Miller House is not new. It was designed in 1988 by Jose Oubrerie, who was then the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Kentucky, for Robert Miller, and was finished in 1992. Miller died a few later, and his heirs had no use for the house. They sold it and the surrounding land so that it could turn into a subdivision. The house fell into disrepair, was vandalized in 2006, and then rescued by a group of local architects and enthusiasts. Their Foundation for Advanced Architecture bought the building, restored it and is now trying to sell it to somebody who will keep it open to the public. This weekend, I met Oubrerie and almost two hundred architecture students—in town for an AIAS regional conference at which I spoke—at the house right as the spring light was fading behind the McMansions that now hem in this modernist masterpiece.
There are few, if any working drawings for the Miller House. Oubrerie, his students and collaborators, just started building from the idea that the house would have a concrete frame that would act as brise-soleil, behind which rooms for the couple and their by-then-already-grown children would gather around a central atrium. Each room became its own, semi-closed cocoon suspended in a steel framework or plugged into poured-in-place elements to the south and east sides and connected to the overall construction with metal catwalks and wood stairs.
Façade, rooms and connections weave together into what is one of the most intricate three-dimensional collages I have ever seen. After the house presents itself to you at the top of a slope behind a pond, you circle around to approach from behind. Wood siding alternating between horizontal and vertical bands encases volumes that peek out from behind the concrete, while windows and ledges imply geometries that continue into and beyond the domestic scene the house frames. You enter into a low space and then the atrium erupts above you, extending the full height of the house. From there, a wood-encased study steps down towards the landscape, while the dining room and kitchen move around the corner to the north side. The bedrooms, along with ancillary spaces such as dressing areas and bathrooms, pile up above you, sliding around and through the structure and air conditioning pipes.
Miller Atrium; Photo by Evan Chakroff
So far, so standard: the arrangement is not that unusual, nor is the articulation of structure or the modulation of space to create
dramatic effect. Oubrerie, who ran Le
Corbusier’s office after the master died, is good at such composition. What
makes the house extraordinary are the slips and slides away from the relation
between space, structure, and circulation you would come to expect. The Miller House is an assembly of cracks,
crooks, el-shaped elbows of space, extensions, and ledges. Rooms are not just part of an overall shape,
they are separate entities. Oubrerie composed the house of different materials, and then
broke it down into frames, planes, lines and moments where suddenly space opens up
through a window or a fissure between one wall and the corridor next to
it. It is a house not so much of
vistas, as of peeks; of intricacy rather than intimacy; of intimation rather
Miller Interior; Photo by Evan Chakroff
Your eye never stops moving through the Miller House, and every realization of one composition leads you to the edge of another one. But just as you are admiring the way a blue wall frames a wood window into a bedroom, and notice a rhythm of wood post, white-painted wall, and ledge leading towards a stair, you catch the black columns asserting their order in front of your view. I could go on and on—because the house does.
The Miller House is a celebration of the old-fashioned joys of making a beautiful building that is so complex and thought-out that it rewards exploration. You feel the architect trying to offer frameworks for all the intricacies of daily life, seeking to frame the lives of the inhabitants by giving them so many nooks and so many places to meet in flesh or in the eye that a new kind of family grows out of this family of forms. The house calls out for this sort of inhabitation, and I can only hope it finds it soon. For now, it serves to delight all those privileged enough to see this masterwork and live it in for a moment of "wow."