Saturday, April 20, 2013

Romancing Nature: inviting the outside in

"When both inside and outside work hand in hand, the result is a home that extends far beyond its actual walls." Sarah Susanka, Home By Design

Small variations in wall planes extend the building into the landscape, helping unify them

Bungalows are a vehicle for attaining 'the good life', conceived as ownership of a cozy home in a gardened setting where modern conveniences come in the form of a stylized rural cottage. This house type first acquired its home-in-a-garden character when adapted by British engineers in Bengal, India, where bungalows were built in cantonments on the outskirts of cities. The surrounding plot of land served to set the bungalow apart from traditional, inward-facing housing in Bengali cities. From the start, the native bungalow was more open to its surroundings than typical European housing, due in part to the need for relief from Bengal's suffocating heat. Relief from heat and shelter from torrential rains also lay behind the verandah, a typifying feature providing shaded exterior space that sometimes wrapped around the entire building. The British adaptation of the bungalow evolved these and other features in the separated landscape settings they occupied.

Rendered architecturally by arts-and-crafts designers, the North American version of the bungalow sought to marry building structure to surrounding landscape while offering artistic and technical devices for gaining or moderating climatic effects. The capture of light in room layouts, of breezes on porches and inside by means of sash windows, and of views and glimpses as one moved around the sequence of spaces, all served to bring the outside into the interior and link people visually and experientially to surroundings and climate. The benign quality of climate in southern California, where the modern bungalow was contrived, drove design in this direction - but the spirit of openness and exposure accompanied these buildings wherever they were built, however impractically in harsher climates. In what follows I try to illustrate how architect Hubert Savage brought the outside in and kept it present throughout his own house, without sacrificing comfort and security. As both client and architect, he enjoyed the freedom to experiment with designs blending artfulness, natural materials and controlled exposure to the elements.

Early bungalows were often built as recreational housing in suburban or country locales where nature offered both setting and views. These dwellings afforded escape from growing cities into a more artistic world in a health-giving environment. By design, they encouraged families to experience air, light, season and surroundings in meaningful yet carefully controlled ways. A familiar example is the fashion for impressive wood-burning fireplaces of fieldstone or brick, more decorative than essential for heating, that enabled a relationship with fire as an elemental force that could be safely and pleasurably consumed. Even modest bungalows come with at least one fireplace, usually the centrepiece of living room design and a focal point for family gathering. This interest in building controlled forms of exposure to nature into houses differs pointedly from contemporary housing, which prioritizes withdrawal and cocooning in interior worlds more fully insulated from nature and climate.

From the road, the building appears ensconced in its own landscape setting
Early bungalows were often placed in a landscape setting of distinctive character, in this case an upland cluster of gnarly oaks. Dramatically elevated by its placement on a rocky outcrop, the building appears to rise directly from the land. A projecting verandah flanked by gabled bay windows lends upward movement to the building's ground-hugging facade. The landscape setting envelops the house, which in turn feels fitted into its surroundings. A stone foundation that rises as tall stone piers supporting the verandah imparts solidity and bearing to what is in fact a fairly modest building, while the upthrusting gable roofs echo the tall fir trees fringing the oaks. The result is a lessening of contrast between house and surroundings that seems unusual to eyes conditioned to much blunter suburban separations.

A curving stone path rises gently up to the verandah
Built on the brow of a hill, the bungalow is approached from below along a gently rising stone path and steps leading to the verandah. Whether by design or determined by the landform it traverses, the path leads visitors along the building's entire facade in order to gain entry. This indirect route to the front door cements the impression of a house snugged into its surroundings, comprising a unity. The horizontal plane of the main building form is dramatized by the gables, which offer eye-catching details as one walks along the folds of glaciated rock they rise from.

Upthrusting gable roofs echo the forms of tall Douglas Firs edging the oak meadow

The use of stone excavated on site has the effect of making the building seem a piece of the landscape. While obviously man-made, it declares itself at one with nature because natural materials have been used in its manufacture and are invited to define its composition. This technique blurs the distinction between outside and inside from the outset, an objective of arts-and-crafts design that was also promoted by Gustav Stickley, father of the Craftsman  movement in America. Often the use of stone for foundations was continued inside with an elaborate stone fireplace and heavy wooden mantle strengthening the partnership between man and nature.

Rough stone piers cement building and landform together

Rustic steps rise to a welcoming verandah entry

A substantial verandah defines the bungalow building form, from the classic California version all the way back to its roots in distant Bengal. While porches were common in North America long before bungalows appeared, their elaborate versions of this hugely popular intermediate living space helped redefine the look of houses by giving a unique sense of entry to newly emerging suburbia. The verandah above not only shelters people from the elements as they make their way in, serving as a transitional space that's handy in Victoria's long rainy winter; it also furnishes a small outdoor room that's shaded and breezy in summer. Verandahs like these project an intimate welcome into nature's realm, which they in turn bring closer to the house.

The temptation to enjoy a seat (and a book and coffee) in the surroundings is built in

Far removed from the road, the verandah offers an inviting perch on an early spring day

The verandah is simultaneously indoor and outdoor space, sheltered yet connected, functional yet invitingly social. One is both in the setting, enjoying the daylight and a gentle breeze, yet slightly removed from it and protected if necessary. Because the house is set high up on a rock outcropping, it has the feeling of being an aerie that's safely removed from the busy world. Low railings with a timbered look define the enclosure while serving as informal seating, providing a perch from which nature and the passing world may be observed.

Light fills the vestibule, offsetting its dark wood panelling
The simplest, most direct way to bring the outside into a house is to ensure that light can penetrate its recesses. Pictured above, a large, low window on an east-facing wall admits sunlight, offsetting the blackened wood interior. The use of exposed wood inside makes the building itself an expression of natural materials, but the illumination of interior space with light brings these materials to life. Here the designer has been able to capture light despite the verandah roof sheltering the front doorway; this is because the building is placed on a rise, thereby reducing sun angles and letting daylight deeper into the rooms as the sun moves around it throughout the day. This bungalow is set lengthwise on a north-south axis, giving it ample light penetration throughout the sun's daily round even in the depths of winter.

A window used to frame views of nature and building
Buildings consciously planned to optimize interior light while simultaneously capturing exterior views possess a special magic. There's a lightness to the rooms that offsets the gravity of extensive wood panelling, especially when blackened as in the picture below. Glimpses of exterior elements of the building from the inside also have the effect of increasing perceptions of spaciousness, which is an important design ingredient in smaller dwellings. Visual links to the exterior extend the sense of immediate intimacy with surroundings, an illusory but powerful impression. A variety of opening windows makes it possible to let the day come inside in controlled ways, while venetian-style blinds (a contemporary adaptation) afford much-needed solar control when sun angles send invasive quantities of energy into a room. In this setting, the immediacy of trees, especially some larger firs downslope, provide a partial filter for direct sunlight.

Ample windows admit sunlight to a dark-panelled living room

Windows in a bay extend the building into the landscape and capture views
Light from south facing windows blasts into the living room, warming it visually in a long winter.
Indirect morning light through casement windows expands the apparent size of a modest room
Bungalows used built-in furnishings to gain more efficient use of their limited space, by not encroaching on that space as much as free-standing objects would. Built-ins are one of the many devices bungalow designers favoured to optimize the functionality of smallish spaces while retaining the quality of spaciousness. The literature of the era is replete with humour about the mildly obsessive use of every last square inch for something, almost the way a yatch is filled with miniaturized kit. But built-ins can also help make rooms feel cosy while adding visual interest and intricacy to designs. One really pleasing form of built-in is the window seat - literally a seat fitted into a small bay or nook that projects out into the world. Window seats serve as intimate, favoured spaces for sitting and reading, or conversing with another person, in what seems a gardened or landscaped setting. In this sense they function as an outdoor room in miniature.

A window seat with leaded glass casements draws nature near
As Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House and other works on home design, points out, a seat built into a window can also serve as a device to capture additional light for the room. Here a leaded-glass transom window and wood-panelled sidewalls admit and reflect more light than a standard window casing, functioning as a kind of light fixture that's been framed into the wall. The source of light is external and obeys its own commands rather than those of a switch, but the glazing and the layered surfaces reflect this found-light deep into the room and make it feel both more inviting and larger than if it were less well illuminated.

Originally open, now enclosed, a sun room with built-in seating
Rooms with excellent sun access, generous window space and built-in seating not only invite us to sit right in the view, they also bring the view closer to us, sometimes seemingly right up to the windows. This makes it easy to be in touch with the day and season while inside the house. Light and season guarantee a continually changing scene, from day to day and month to month. The room pictured above, originally a summer tea room left open to the elements, was eventually enclosed and then remuddled in the era of aluminum framed windows; the leaded-glass casements and built-in window seat added in 2005 combine with the lowered ceiling height to create an inviting space that feels as though it's a piece of the garden itself.

Windows framing views that change with the season, this in autumn
Same window, different season, this time a lush early spring garden scene
In the Hubert Savage bungalow, every window has been treated as an opportunity to capture views, admit light and air, and relieve the heaviness of walls. By connecting inside to outside visually, the house becomes a vehicle for what the Japanese call 'borrowed scenery', whereby natural surroundings are framed as views. Long east- and west-facing walls create the opportunity to bring light into the building's core as the sun moves around it throughout the day. And as this very horizontal dwelling is just over two rooms deep along its length (not including porching), ambient light penetrates its recesses easily even on overcast days in the depths of winter.

Late afternoon light in summer reaches deep into the kitchen, imparting a warm glow
Above, generous sash windows set low in the wall plane invite sunlight deep into the interior, visually warming the rooms and connecting occupants directly to the day while pulling the eye out into the surrounding greenery. Even in the weaker light of winter there's considerable solar gain and the interiors are visually warmed into a cozy, inviting space (heat is still needed!). These large, vertical windows are set a mere thirty inches from the floor, strengthening visual access to the sheltered garden beyond.

Light reaches into the tiny central hallway, even in February
Distinctions between inside and out are further softened by having the floorplate of the house sitting very close to the grade of the surrounding landscape. The original Anglo-Indian bungalow mimicked its Bengali forebears by sitting on a low plinth or platform placed directly on the ground. The trend-setting California bungalow was similarly set near to, in some cases right on, the land, which while complicating management does create a  distinctive look making them seem one with their immediate surroundings. Whether Hubert Savage's placement of his own bungalow at ground level reflected his English arts and crafts training or, perhaps more likely, the California fashion for having a single storey bungalow sitting at grade, is an open question. However, one does detect numerous California and Craftsman influences in the overall design of the house.

Bumping portions of the wall planes outwards spreads the building into the landscape

Seeing the exterior from inside reinforces their connection
Projecting bays and other devices that vary the wall planes serve to counter the boxiness of a single-storey house, link the building to the landscape by fitting it into and around contours, and create opportunities for variety in interior presentation. One device used successfully by arts and crafts architects involved capturing glimpses of the outside of the building from within the house. Because the building's footprint was made irregular by design and its roofline pushed well out over its walls, opportunities for such glimpses abound. Above, kitchen windows afford views of the doorway into the back porch, which advances out into the garden while offering a snug rear entry to the home. Below, a walk-in closet added long after the main building was erected is gained by projecting the rear wall outwards as half a cabin.

Setting the building directly on the land makes appear to grow from the ground
Hubert Savage chose to set the rear wall of his bungalow directly on the landform it crowns, thereby gluing it to the site. This cements the impression that building and land are one, making the house feel like it belongs just where it was built. At the back of the house, this placement gives access to a private garden realm less than a foot below the main floor. This in turn allows the central living spaces to feel continuous with the gardened setting. The built-in look that guides interior design is also applied outside, fitting the building around the landform and pulling it downwards so its mass feels accessible and intimate. In this way a sense of harmony between nature and dwelling is cultivated, as below. Today the rock would likely have been blasted out, the building pad levelled and extended, and the pre-existing relationships formed by retreating glaciers and advancing vegetation entirely obliterated.

Here the building actually steps up the landform, knitting architecture and outcrops together
A barge board brought so close to ground its chiselled tail had to be clipped for safety
Setting the building into the landscape shows respect for natural surroundings. Another device involves creating the impression that nature and garden run right up to the house, reinforcing a sense of synthesis and complicity between the two. This adds to the cottagey feeling of the house, which implies inhabiting the garden while inside the building. In this conception, nature isn't just a distant view beyond the pale of a built-up neighbourhood, but something running right up to the walls. Of course this is illusory, but a convincing feeling because it encompasses the viewer, whether inside gazing outwards, onjoying an intermediate space like a porch or verandah, or standing outside in the garden enjoying views of the building in its setting.

The garden contrived as an enclave that extends the habitable world outwards
While the house is designed as an architectural object in a garden and the garden developed as context for the house, both are designed to exist in harmony with the broader landscape setting. The Garry Oaks, native shrubs and flowers, and rock outcrops retain elements of an original landscape setting for both house and garden (magically, remnants even survived subdivision of the originally much larger lot). A further way of reinforcing the connection between building and surroundings is to contrive the garden as a series of informal outdoor rooms linked by paths. If these garden rooms are implied rather than bluntly stated, it's possible to achieve a subtle extension of architecture into surroundings that provides orientation for human use without reducing nature to mere activity spaces. This is a form of pictorial composition known as picturesque landscaping.

A patio 'room' of oblong pavers marks the transition from building to garden
Informal outdoor rooms arrange garden space and invite human enjoyment of day and season 
Outdoor rooms, or compartments, have long been used successfully by artist-gardeners to blend house and garden spaces into a whole. Bungalows lend themselves to this sort of treatment, both by dint of their origins as homes built in gardened compounds, and by their architectural use of bump-outs and ancillary roof forms to gain additional spaces. Also, as author Alan Gowans remarks, early suburban homes of all types, and foremost bungalows, were novely designed to be seen and accessed from all four sides - coming equipped with side doors, additional or wrap-around porches, and circulating pathways. This stands in sharp contrast to vertical, street-oriented Victorian housing, as well as to modern planned suburbia, which often presents double garage doors and a diminished front door to the street while neglecting side and rear facades in favour of interior spatial gain.

Loose arrangement of buildings and sitting spaces integrates with the remnant oak meadow
Seasonal changes and weather patterns affect the overall mood of the place, but the house is designed to enable occupants to enjoy nature to whatever extent climate and day allow. Winter sleet or spring rains can be equally enjoyable as experience if the shelter allows observation while remaining warm and dry. The management of precipitation, as rain or snow, is an important aspect of any house design, and the bungalow with its sheltering roof form affords the security that permits enjoyment of even inclement weathers. The large, frequent window openings also enable the weather to be more agreeably watched, as an event happening around one but at a safe remove. This can however lose its charm when weather is unchanging and insistent, as in the typically dreary month of November on southern Vancouver Island.

Even April sleet can serve as an interesting spectacle from a sheltered verandah

Pallid light in winter, falling on natural and built objects, creates a scene of the moment

A complex and intimate relationship between an open building and a natural or gardened setting is now decidedly old-fashioned, something the modern eye has been conditioned not to seek or even notice. Subdivision development typically maximizes interior space, leaving only shallow setback strips between houses and paving over much of what might have been front garden to pander to the automobile. Proximity of neighbouring buildings means sidewalls often have few windows and there is rarely a reason to ever look at or go to these spaces other than to mow lawn. Also, more generous landscape settings around older homes rarely survive generational change as there is simply too much money to be made by raiding the development larder, whether as subdivision or by tearing down and then building out the entire cube defined by setbacks.

Remnants of early suburbia displaying a balance between built objects and surroundings reflect an openness and curiosity that people once were encouraged to explore in the very way their homes were designed. While this is arguably a romanticizing of nature (which is hardly benign), it has the virtue of opening up access to realms of pleasurable experience that transform a house into a home in a garden. Buildings with these attributes remain suggestive of ways of dwelling that engage us directly in observing and tending our surroundings while exposing us in pleasurable ways to the variety of nature's moods. But, anyone tempted towards this situation had better be interested in gardening, or at least prepared to manage landscape actively, because nature really does want to run right up to the door and living closer to it is a hands-on experience.

You'd better enjoy gardening if you choose a country locale
This is the third in a series of posts in the centennial year of the Hubert Savage bungalow, intended to celebrate and share the house's history and character with the community. In March we were invited to receive an award of merit from the Victoria Hallmark Heritage Society, in recognition of efforts to restore and preserve this antique house. I have gratefully accepted this proposal, while remaining all-too-aware that  complete restoration of a 100-year-old wooden house is a moving target and a project that might well outrun my own efforts at stewardship. The awards ceremony is the evening of May 7th at St. Ann's Academy in Victoria, B.C.

Next post: a painted frieze by English artist Lawson Wood adds an element of original art as a built-in feature in the Savage bungalow.

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