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Spring 2004

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Originality and restraint
by Barbara A. Melville

Not magnitude, not lavishness,
But Form—the Site;
Not innovating wilfulness,
But reverence for the Archetype.

—Herman Melville,
“Greek Architecture”

You don’t have to know a lot about architecture to appreciate a certain small house on the shore of Lake Michigan, its clamshell-shaped roofline echoing the swell of dunes rising behind it. Or a New England cottage with native boulders massed around its stone porch columns as if the house were still gathering itself up out of the earth. Houses like these have made Charles Warren ’76 (“Chip” to his Skidmore classmates) one of the nation’s top residential architects, admired for a classical yet contemporary style that simultaneously reveres and transforms timeless historical design.

The houses he builds all over the country are conceived in modest offices on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, where Warren works with one associate, an assistant, and a changing cast of contractors, builders, and engineers hired by the job. Soft-spoken and courtly, he shows photographs of houses built relatively recently but set so naturally onto the land and into the light that they look to have been there a very long time. Surprises pop up: a tower here, a barn-style tin roof there, a poetic, secluded balcony. And finely crafted details abound: perfection-grade red cedar shingles; hammered, weathered copper; barrel-vaulted, oak-paneled ceilings; resawn barn beams.

“There is an erroneous assumption that craftsmanship is no longer possible,” says architect Dennis Wedlick, author of the new book, Good House Parts, in which four of Warren’s houses serve as exemplars of harmony, comfort, and quality. “The genius of someone like Charles is that he allows his clients—and his craftsmen—to reach higher.”

An art major at Skidmore, Warren studied architecture at Columbia University, where he also lucked into the 1920s-era apartment he has occupied ever since. He was thirty-six and just four years into his own practice when his first freestanding house, a shingled postmodern Craftsman, was featured in a 1990 issue of Metropolitan Home magazine. Since then, his résumé has filled out considerably, spanning large buildings and small—from a winery to a charming woodshed favorably mentioned in the New York Times. “I try to have three projects going at any time, all in different phases,” he says. “Right now, there’s a proposed house in Florida, a Vermont house in the model stage, and a major addition to a Connecticut house in construction.”

It takes a visit to the Connecticut site to feel the full impact of the craftsmanship, the fall of light, and the graceful proportions that balance spaciousness and comfort. (Warren uses a classically inspired ratio of 1:1.412 “to generate similar shapes of different sizes—walls, windows, panes—that nest within each other” and register almost subliminally in a sense of rightness and well-being.) The addition includes a magnificent high-ceilinged family room, a witty little tower, and a four-car garage that rambles out into a stone-and-timber porch. There are elegantly curving interior walls, slate roofs, and a glorious use of thick, custom-milled hardwood molding. (Molding “introduces several planes” to an ordinary Sheetrock wall, says Warren, and “makes it seem that the wall has weight, physical weight.”)

Above the garage, the children’s playroom is both cozy and breathtaking, with dormers down one side and a huge, arched window at one end. There Warren confers with the owner and two builders about the unusual structure he designed—a set of low, broad stairs that step up to the big window. It’s part windowseat and part stage, or whatever a child might pretend it to be—and take a tumble from, frets the owner. Could they remove a step, she asks. Warren thoughtfully counters, “Would the inspector grant a certificate of occupancy if we do?” Could they take out the whole thing? “We’d have to patch that oak floor beneath it,” murmurs Warren. The builders’ jaws quietly tighten.

It could be done, of course; “architecture is an iterative process between myself and the owners,” Warren explains later. Still, “we don’t blithely rip out a piece of construction. Had we changed those stairs, it would have been very disruptive.” In the end, the architect’s vision won—the children loved the quirky play area.

“Chip’s designs are a challenge to execute. They have interesting floor plans and rooflines,” notes contractor Robert Levine, who built the postmodern Craftsman for his own family as well as two otherWarren designs. “As a builder, you really have to stretch,” he says, recalling the painstaking work of cutting, soaking, and bending cedar shingles to curve gently over his house’s “eyebrow” window. Typical of Warren’s houses, the Levine house reflects a classical American style on the outside but goes its own way inside. For instance, the kitchen flows almost unimpeded through the first floor and opens into an outdoor “room” with stone walls and a fireplace. The house warmly evokes but most definitely is not, as Metropolitan Home put it, “your grandmother’s bungalow.”

Balancing the needs of site and client with “reverence for the Archetype” works for Warren, who has thought, taught, and written extensively on the subject. “A building is part of a larger thing, a town, a region, a history; and moving through a house is part of the process of life,” he says. “We tend to think originality is important, but you restrain yourself a little bit and allow originality to come out of the details. The process of building is hard and expensive,” he adds simply. “So we build out of natural materials and we build to last."

Barbara Melville gladly tromped through icy mud to visit Warren’s work in progress.


 


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