A Mies for the heartland, architect Rand Elliott spins poetry from glass and steel at a house near the state capital
Cindy Coleman -- Interior Design, 8/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
When he's not designing an office, an educational building, or even the occasional gas station—and winning more major awards than any other architect in the state of Oklahoma—Rand Elliott is probably composing free verse. "Make a shelter with a roof of stars/and walls of vapor./Let the floor be a slab of soil/earth bound," he wrote in "Moments," a poem that metaphorically describes his latest project, a house for two longtime friends.
"Imagine cutting a rectangle into the red-clay ground and pushing it up from the bottom," Elliott says of the rust-stained concrete floor slab. He built the "walls of vapor" in full-height glass, topping them with a modified-bitumen roof, and the result certainly derives from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion or, given the clients' art collection, his Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. But Elliott's philosophy of "listening to the land" and his interest in Native American culture make this Oklahoma version more than a simple platform.
Just try explaining that to the board that governs the residential development chosen by Elliott's friends, a retired couple. The board clearly preferred a French-country manse—and offered plenty of opinions about what could and could not be done on this 5-acre property 25 miles from Oklahoma City. So the husband brought his eloquence to bear, persuading the board to consider the beauty and appropriateness of modernist forms and finishes, provided they weren't visible from the street. It was a deal worth making. "Without him," Elliott says, "the house would have had brick walls and a pitched roofline."
Instead, the virtually flat roof designed by Elliott + Associates Architects extends 8 feet to provide shade from the relentless sun in summertime and produce a waterfall effect during heavy rain. (If he has one signature, it is certainly deep overhangs. The ESEO Federal Credit Union building in Oklahoma City comes to mind.) Below the overhang, a path of red gravel encircles the house, retaining heat during the desolate winters. A mild-steel platform crosses the gravel at the front entry, leading visitors to a massive door of the same metal.
As a volume, the 4,300-square-foot pavilion comprises three blocks connected at two narrower points, producing an easy flow suited to a retired couple's more laid-back lifestyle. The largest of the spaces, the center one, encompasses living and dining areas, a music corner, and a kitchen as well as guest quarters and an office separated from the public space by a drywall partition, painted white. The open-plan private zone holds the master suite, complete with a small gym and a sauna that doubles as a safe room during storms. The service zone maintains the high standards of the rest of the pavilion, housing a fully finished three-car garage, a utility room, and a sizable storeroom, not to mention a custom doggy door hidden between a pair of exterior steel fins.
The neutral, black, or white finishes and furnishings enhance the interior's quiet and thoughtful feel, which allows surprise moments to come from the tropical fish in a 500-gallon salt-water tank and, more important, a collection of contemporary and primitive painting and sculpture that runs the gamut of media. Unlike the blue-chip work that Elliott's friends used to collect—before they got to feeling that the artwork owned them, rather than the reverse—these pieces are highly personal. They're also numerous enough to cycle in and out of storage, so that it might be either an Oceanic totem or a Piet Mondrian pastiche that's reflected multidimensionally in Elliott's glass walls. Where those walls pull inward to create the narrow connectors between his three blocks, the recesses frame intimate sculpture gardens.
An art-free counterpoint, the kitchen sits at one end of the public zone. Even here, however, design elements could be mistaken for installation pieces: A composition of mahogany-veneered cabinets and a complementary linoleum counter- top are bathed in the constant blue glow of the rear wall's backlit glass panel, visible all the way from the living area at the far end of the public zone.
Other sculptural design moments include the focal point of the patio that extends outside the dining area; this subdued concrete slab terminates at a huge yellow-painted tubular-steel frame that draws attention to a group of indigenous red cedars beyond. Facing the front door—and shielding hellos and good-byes from the prevailing winds—is a freestanding concrete wall cast with small round holes for removable rods of colored acrylic; calling out to be arranged and rearranged, they create a rainbow of effects.
For Elliott, this project as a whole is about building an interactive experience: "A home is a place to appreciate life. It's where space and people connect." The connections embrace landscape and wildlife, too. In the master suite, a glass-walled stall allows for showering while watching deer graze. And the bedroom's corner windows become canvases for the changing daylight and weather, sometimes violent but always beautiful.