Saturday, April 14, 2012

Part III: Architectural Mentors: LaVerne Lantz

LaVerne Lantz was always "clear headed" (his words) about the right (Wright) way to design a home. That meant that design decisions were based on a logical set of principals that wed architecture to nature in a practical and efficient manner. As seen in the previous post, that could result in elegantly simple designs that the average person could afford.
A curvilinear home designed and built by LaVerne Lantz. 
Somewhat surprisingly, such logical goals did not deter Lantz from exploring new building materials and non-rectilinear forms whenever presented by opportunity. Many of his projects were based on hexagonal themes, such as the second home on Moraine End built for the LaVerne and Molly Lantz family. The three-winged composition of thirty degree and sixty degree angles eventually expanded to a hexagonal guest house connected by a low-slung breezeway. The 30-60 geometry is as natural upon the landscape as a honeycomb in a beehive.
Another home was built on the same hill for adventuresome clients. It consisted of curvilinear walls with plexiglas bubble windows and an open plan with no separation between "rooms". The exterior of that project is illustrated here.
Other homes explored non-vertical exterior walls, cantilevered floors, and mitered-glass skylights. Always they used an earth-based color palette and undisguised finish materials.
This willingness to explore and experiment is, perhaps, Lantz's most important architectural legacy. His work encourages a spirit of adventure. Though anchored in the Usonian idealism of Frank Lloyd Wright, his residential designs were always original, inventive, and confident. The confidence came from his belief that "a well designed house [will] fit the site and become an integral part of the landscape as well as give the occupants a feeling of peace and contentment. Homes designed in this manner do not go out of style, but... are forever." (From The Well Designed Home by LaVerne Lantz.)

Illustration: M. Knorr

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Part II: Architectural Mentors: LaVerne Lantz

Richers residence, living room elevation.
One of the most impressive designs by LaVerne Lantz is a small house that straddles a hillock in the Kettle Moraine country of southeastern Wisconsin. It is impressive for its simplicity. Like several homes by Lantz, it was featured in the Home Section of The Milwaukee Journal in an article by Oliver Witte. The photos reproduced here are from the Sunday, January 16, 1966 issue.
Though Lantz often explored the architectural possibilities of hexagonal modules and curved walls (as did Wright in his later years) he eschewed them in the Richers residence in pursuit of good architecture on a budget. The construction was supervised by Lantz and completed in four months for $21,500, including land, well, septic system, and architectural fee. Lantz accomplished this remarkable feat through four disciplined strategies:

  • The plan is a rectangle that can be roofed with one scissors truss profile.
  • The single truss profile is tilted at each end of the plan to create a quasi-hip roof that "returns" the eye to the ground and conceals the different angles between outside roof and inside vaulted ceiling.
  • The living space is stacked over the garage and family room,  putting the basement to practical use; this also allows the important rooms to take advantage of vaulted ceilings (a concept Wright used in the Heurtly and Coonley houses early in his career). 
  • Concrete block is used as a finish material inside and out, including the fireplace. Lantz devised a double block wall application to allow for insulation and a thermal break. 

Upper level floor plan.

Master bedroom mitered glass corner and six foot roof overhang.
The Richers residence is a brilliant example of good architecture responding to a limited budget. By economizing is some areas, Lantz was able to provide richness in others. Natural cedar is used for window frames and trim. A feeling of spaciousness is accomplished with extended lines of sight and high ceilings. Windows ring the entire house, including floor-to-ceiling mitered glass windows at all four corners. Radiant heat warms the house.
Wall of glass (including mitered glass corners) and vaulted ceiling in living room.
Concrete block fireplace dividing dining and living areas.
Mrs. Richers in the kitchen with her son Marshall.
In a testament to the efficacy of Lantz's design, the owner, Paul Richers, is quoted in the Journal article:
"The thing that determines whether a house succeeds of fails is whether it makes a truthful statement about the people who live in it. I think a sensitive person could look around this house and make a judgement about us that I wouldn't mind."
A "look through" connects the kitchen with the entry area.
For me, the Richers residence is a design I often come back to in my mind. I was a kid in high school when I first visited it. Its simplicity, honesty, and directness left an indelible impression.

Journal photos: John Ahlhauser

Monday, April 9, 2012

Part I: Architectural Mentors: LaVerne Lantz

Entry elevation of Moraine End residence. 
I was sorting through stacked storage boxes recently and ran across old books, newspaper clippings and other odds and ends I had saved about architecture and architects. Among them were items by and about LaVerne Lantz (1929-1998), an early architectural mentor of mine. The newspapers were brown and ragged. I thought it was time to commit some of these things to the www so they can preserved in a (hopefully) longer-lasting electronic format.
Floor plans for the first Lantz residence on Moraine End.
Every architect has mentors early in life who are important to the development of their design philosophy and professional practice. In fact, to become a registered architect in the United States, a mentoring/apprenticeship experience is required in addition to formal education and licensing exams. The biggest personal influence on my life as an architect was LaVerne Lantz. He and his wife Molly became my "second family" when I was sixteen. They shared generously their home, time, books, ideas, and encouragement.
Living room with Molly Lantz, seated, and Lake Nagawicka in the distance.
LaVerne Lantz built a respected practice of architectural design primarily in the forested hills of southeastern Wisconsin. His work followed the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright with rigorous and clear discipline -- particularly Wright's Usonian period of the nineteen forties and fifties.
In The Well Designed Home, a promotional piece he wrote for prospective clients, LaVerne Lantz expressed the philosophy behind his architecture:
  • ... the most comfortable home is the one that is close to nature.
  • All houses have depth, but most conventional dwellings have a confined sense of depth because "rooms", rather than space, dominate. If there is not a feeling of space, the design is a failure.
  • A basement is usually a dingy, confining, costly hole-in-the-ground with dampness and odor problems. To be at all justified, a basement should be opened out on a sloping lot, or partially raised out of the ground on a flat lot.
  • ...planning for pasive solar heat has been part of good design long before the current popular interest. With the correct roof overhangs and glass combinations, the sun can be a controlled source of heat throughout much of the house. 
Living room fireplace with guest balcony above.
Lantz often expressed the importance of keeping architecture close to nature and deriving form from natural materials.
  • Kept close to its natural color, wood is a very warm and comfortable material. Its grain is what makes it beautiful and therefore should be emphasized.
  • Stone... is "of" the earth. What we CAN do with stone is almost limitless, but what we SHOULD do with it is part of good design.... It should not be made into spindly posts or cantilevered more than a very short distance. 
  • The easiest colors to live with over a long period of time are the warm colors of nature: yellows, oranges, browns, tans, reds or combinations of these. 
A planter emphasizes the indoor/outdoor connection.
Lantz also had little tolerance for typical subdivisions or mass-produced housing.
  • Conventional "styles", almost endless in variety and very loosely mimicking the dwellings of the past, are nothing more than facades slapped on the typical box to make the customer think they are getting something different.
  • Homeowners and professional interior decorators attempt to make the typical house livable by periodially changing color schemes, window treatment, and furnishings. The well designed home, on the other hand, is totally designed inside and out, and the decorator...can do nothing to enhance it.
Family room/kitchen with LaVerne and Molly Lantz.
LaVerne Lantz had a deep appreciation and natural talent for organic architecture. One of my favorite examples of his work (and the first I ever experienced) is the home he and Molly built on Moraine End in Delafield, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal featured his work in several articles by Oliver Witte. The house on Moraine End was the subject of one of those articles. The faded pictures reproduced here are from the Home Section, September 5, 1965.  Witte wrote that the space in this house "seems to flow from one room to another and from the interior to the out of doors." That perception is fully consistent with the philosophy of midcentury architects and designers who followed the precepts of Frank Lloyd Wright.  LaVerne Lantz deserves recognition amongst the panolply of mid-century modernists that nurtured that philosphy and kept it alive.

Journal photos: John Ahlhauser