Modernist Road Trip Part II

By Edward N. Film, A.I.A., LEED AP


“Details must play their part in relation to the overall concept and character of the building, and are the means by which the architect may underline his main idea, reinforce it, echo it, intensify or dramatize it.” – Eliot Noyes

Back in September I wrote about a visit to see Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Cannan, CT (The Glass House).  On that same trip I also toured two houses designed by Eliot Noyes.  Born in Boston, Eliot Noyes was a Harvard-trained architect who lived in New Cannan, CT for the last 30 years of his life.  He was one of a collection of modern architects in the area and was influenced by the proximity to New York City. 

One of Noyes’ own houses, built in 1955, was based on the simple, clear idea of two bars of rooms built around a courtyard.  The two bars are connected by a pair of 100’ long stone walls which extend into the landscape and feature two huge sliding barn doors that provide entry into the building and a view through the courtyard.  One bar contains the public areas of the house:  living room, dining room, kitchen and study.  It is entirely transparent, on both sides, with a large stone fireplace and kitchen cabinets acting

as room dividers.  The other bar has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a small sitting room.  This bar is much more private; the only windows are facing away from the courtyard into the woods.  The detailing of the spare collection of materials (glass walls and stone walls) is handled as simply as possible.  Interestingly, there were two Calder mobiles in the house (since sold) and there’s still a Calder sculpture in the courtyard.  Overall, it was a modest but beautifully detailed house for an architect at the start of his career. 

 The second house I visited was built later in Noyes’ career.  The use of huge stone and glass walls is still there but, spatially, it is much more complex.  The main entrance is situated between two parallel 100’ long stone walls that run the length of the house and form the main corridor.  The space is about 20’ high and topped by a skylight.  The other spaces of the house are like saddle bags hanging off the corridor.  To the right are the public rooms; a huge double height living room and guest bedroom.  To the left are two levels of private rooms; bedrooms upstairs and the kitchen and maid’s room downstairs.  There are small staircases in the main hall which negotiate these changes in level and make the house feel like a split level.  P1020693

When I say that these spaces hang off the central corridor I literally mean that they hang.  The central spine of the building forms a base for post-tensioned concrete beams that cantilever about 20’ for the secondary rooms.  The entire house is set high on top of a large piece of bedrock that drops away on the far side of the house so, as you look out from the multiple balconies, you’re amongst the treetops.  

The rockwork walls are much more rustic than the first house.  They are made of massive boulders with large sections of concrete between them.  This rougher rockwork was simple enough to be done by laborers instead of masons (which saved money) and was very much like the walls of Taliesin West, which were built in a similar way.  The massive stone walls were also used as architectural service spaces housing duct chases and closets, as well as the pantry and fireplace, which were carved directly into them.  

Overall, although the first house had a simple, clear idea, the architect in me had a deeper appreciation for the complexity and spatial arrangement of the second house.P1020703 P1020701