Modern Order: Houses by Robert Gurney
Robert Gurney was designing modern houses long before modern was cool-or at least, cool in Washington, DC That fact isn’t attributable to Gurney’s status as an early pioneer of modernism with decades of seasoning-he’s far too young for that label. Rather, the distinction has more to do with the fact that establishment Washington tends to follow, not lead, when it comes to matters of fashion, art, and architecture.
So, at the time Gurney was breaking into architecture in the mid-1980s, the prevailing demand was for houses that looked familiar: roofs with gables, windows with shutters, siding made of brick or clapboard-certainly not fa<;:ades composed of vast sheets of glass neatly trimmed with metal. As the ’80s progressed, the rising tide of postmodernism did litt le to give an aspiring modernist architect a sense of buoyancy. But Gurney is an optimist at heart, and so he did what he could to satisfy his clients with houses that were informed by a modernist spirit.
After launching a small office in 1990 in Alexandria, Virginia, Gurney survived on primarily small additions. One such project was a revamped kitchen and spacious new family room that fit well in its northwest Washington neighborhood, with exterior flourishes such as a hipped roof, cupola, and moon-shaped weather vane. Inside, however, the addition boasts abundant natural light, free-flowing space, and clever built-in cabinets concealing a large entertainment center.
Breakthroughs began in the late ’90s. Gurney’s addition to a Lovettsville, Virginia, farmhouse set itself apart: The deep-red board-and-batten siding and enclosed staircase projecting outside the volume of the addition clearly signaled that something was up-something beyond the ordinary. Finally, by the turn of the century, an influx of new money and the impact of national media (from shelter magazines to home-conscious reality TV shows) had enhanced the appetite for modern design among Washingtonians. Breaking the cultural inertia of the old-money set was an influx of young people who eschewed traditional houses.
Gurney’s patience had paid off. At last he was able to build what he envisioned: contemporary houses that are ordered, rigorous, functional, and ligh t-fi lled. And unlike many mid-century modern houses-whose interiors can be stark in their simplicity-there’s a palpable sensuality to Gurney’s handling of materials inside the shell of the building.
His infatuation with elegant materials and overlapping spaces conceals the fact that Gurney first came to understand buildings in a gritty sort of way. His father, a New York City firefighter, had a second job as bricklayer. From the time he was 10 years old, Gurney labored at his father’s side, mixing cement and carrying bricks. By the time he was a young architect, tackling two successive Capitol Hill rowhouses early in his career, Gurney had developed a deep knowledge of how buildings go together. “I’d do the demolition, I’d do the framing, I’d do the drywall,” he explains. “When you do everything yourself, you learn so much.” But the benefits of getting his hands dirty went deeper than construction know-how. The experience helped Gurney develop a sensitivity for the way materials feel, in addition to how they look-a tactili ty that is expressed in his buildings as compositions of textures.
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|May 30, 2020|