Vermont architecture: The get-lost effect gets recognized

South Royalton home, photo by Donald Kreis

Vermont is not famous for interesting and innovative architecture, unless your idea of a remarkable new building is one that is trying to look like it was built 200 years ago. So the eyebrows naturally go up when discovering that a new home in Vermont is among the seven coolest houses of the year, at least according to a leading arbiter of such things.

Every spring, Architectural Record magazine announces a list seven of “Record Houses” — “our annual look at the best residential design from around the world,” the magazine proclaims. The 2010 edition includes houses in Japan, California, the Netherlands, Switzerland, China and, somewhat incongruously, Woodstock, Vt.

Still, lovers of Vermont architecture should not get too excited. The architect is from Arizona. The owner lives in Massachusetts. Only the builder, Colby & Tobiason, is local.

Neither should we get too offended. Buildings designed for public or commercial use are fair game precisely because they comprise the spaces we jointly occupy, particularly in a cold climate. But critiquing someone’s private house is almost literally a home invasion.

Still, here we have the work of a prominent American architect, Rick Joy, who stepped forward, along with his client, to seek recognition and, through it, public scrutiny. Here we have an architectural magazine that proclaims the 2010 Record House competition as one whose criteria included “simplicity, modesty, and sustainability, in keeping with today’s culture of restraint.” But here we have a project that seems, in significant part, to be at variance with whatever sense of restraint that suffuses Vermont.

As the magazine points out and lavishly illustrates with photographs that cannot be reproduced here for copyright reasons but can be visited at, there is a surfeit of simplicity here if you equate the term with a certain stark, unadorned aesthetic usually described in architectural circles as “modernist.” The current fashion among modernist architects is for houses with linear plans rather than interconnecting rooms – essentially railroad flats with a single hallway running the length of the house to facilitate privacy. Joy’s Woodstock project embraces this trope fully.

Architectural Record oohs and ahs over the fact that Joy, known for flat-roofed “rammed earth” houses in the desert southwest, has here placed a pointy, gabled roof atop his unadorned rectangle, eliminated the eaves (and thus, it is hoped, ice dams in winter) and covered most of the house with shingles. Four of the windows are actually part window and part skylight – in effect, glass with a corner in it. This is another familiar trope, though employed here in novel fashion.

On display in the living room are the steel beams that hold the whole thing up. Using and showing off metal to do the job that timber framing used to do is yet another modernist move that is hardly unprecedented but which, admittedly, hollers the word “simplicity” to those who would visit the owner at his country home or, barring that, read architectural magazines.

Once upon a time, cutting-edge architecture in Vermont paid deliberate tribute to the civilization that is credited with birthing democracy. Designers of Greek Revival buildings of the 19th Century often placed the front door, and thus the main façade, at the gable end of the structure. In other words, the peak of the pointed roof was perpendicular to the front entrance, just as with the Parthenon.

The Alamo

The Alamo

So, too, with Rick Joy’s Vermont project, though no one would mistake it for Greek Revival. Here, both gable-ends are windowless and, part from the entrance door, are covered entirely in rock the magazine identifies has having been dredged from the bottom of Lake Champlain. The effect is roughly as friendly and homey as the Alamo.

Reading up on the building’s owner, one quickly grasps why he might appreciate a home with a get-lost feel to the threshold. Architectural Record describes him as “a young Boston real estate investor with a strong interest in art.” In 2006, the Boston Globe identified him as the heir, along with his brother, to a real estate empire that, in 2006, oversaw $3 billion in real estate and $1 billion in investments. The two brothers came to blows, as publicly chronicled in the media. The older one got the company and, eventually, the younger one got the house (or at least eventually had it built, to Joy’s design). (See The Globe story also mentions a $29 million Cezanne and its checkered provenance, a propos of the referenced ‘strong interest in art.’

The point here is not to imply that Joy’s client is an art thief – he is not – or even a bad guy for inheriting a business empire, feuding with a sibling, or landing as the managing director of a private bank based in the United Kingdom, which his blog identifies as his current gig. The point is that, whatever this work of architecture is about, it does not embody simplicity, modesty or restraint.

What’s modest about a house that, with its adjoining and newly built barn, has almost 10,000 square feet of space and occupies a 210-acre parcel of land – placed, by the way, in Vermont’s current use program so as to limit the associated property tax obligation? What’s honest, much less modest, about identifying a structure as a barn when it is built not to house animals but an indoor basketball court, a studio and a guest suite? How is dredging up rock from the bottom of Lake Champlain self-indulgent rather than sustainable?

Vermonters who care about good architecture should embrace rather than eat the rich. Like it or not, it is wealthy people who drive architectural innovation by commissioning custom-designed homes that are relatively unfettered by budget constraints and veto-wielding committees.

As you wait for those innovations to trickle down to the rest of us, don’t assume (as Architectural Record seems too willing to assume) that only big-name out-of-state architects like Rick Joy are capable of adding noteworthy buildings to Vermont hillsides. Owners of such properties in Woodstock need look no further than Main Street to find a distinguished architect, Michael Ertel, spouse of the local probate judge. His Deerbrook residence — see — is similar in plan to Joy’s house but more inviting and beautiful.

The Sharon Trading Post, photo by Donald Kreis

Likewise don’t assume that only giant homes are capable of achieving distinction. Of the seven 2010 Record Houses, the most interesting is literally a hole in the ground, designed by Dutch architects Bjarne Mastenbroek and Christian Muller, dug into a hillside in Vals, Switzerland. At 1,700 square feet, it’s less than one-fifth the size of its Woodstock counterpart. This is what restraint really looks like.

Illustrations: Some better examples of Vermont buildings with gable-end front entrances, from Manchester, Sharon and South Royalton – and one from Texas.

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  • Raven Mueller

    Not only is the design intellectually dishonest, but wraparound skylights? No eaves? This house is going to leak.

  • Every new building has an ecological footprint no matter how green it claims to be. This one certainly has a large ecological footprint. We should challenge unsustainable activities of others. Thanks for having the courage to do that!

  • Matthew Dodds

    I hear & accept the “it’s not simple” thesis, though it’s steeped in more than a little class resentment. Joy’s has created an innovative and compelling re-take on some traditional New England forms.

    Am I alone in digging the whole “holier than thou” vibe? It screams “I’ve spent four million on the house so that I can sell back $630 of electricity back to Green Mountain Power.”

    It’s the cigarette boat of moralistic architectural avant-gaurdism, and I, for one, am not ashamed to articulate my jealousy.

    • Don Kreis

      I plead “not guilty” to the “class resentment” charge. I admire wealthy people who use their resources to finance architectural experimentation and innovation — given the way of things, that’s the only way we ever get any such innovation (which can then be adapted to buildings that are less private). Without Pittsburgh retailing magnate Edgar Kaufmann Sr., there would be no Fallingwater.

      • DON…the Rick Joy house is weak and missing the essense of Vermont. Check with RIchard Gordon, architecture editor of AD, who was here last weekend for his thoughts on Vermont Architecture which you seem to miss. . AND, you are wrong when you imply that it take rich people to hire architects to do their best, Falling water is good but not his best, The first Usonians are better. CHECK out Camp Ogontz, the in process Ogontz Hall for one of the most awesome halls since the Yellowstone Lodge and paid for by scraps from a music camp….Dave

        • Don Kreis

          Please be assured that I am not being sarchastic when I say that I am pleased and flattered to have elicited a reaction from Dave Sellers, who is among the very best architects in Vermont. He gets no small part of the credit for making sure that Vermont architecture has not descended into the state of torpid mediocrity that New Hampshire’s has.

          On top of that, I must concede that Dave makes a good point. It’s way too simplistic to contend that architectural progress is entirely a function of rich people spending lots of money on high-end buildings. That’s one way to do it — but it is arguably even more innovation-inducing for architects to get public or quasi-public commissions that force them to work within limits. The chief problem with those commissions isn’t their budget — it’s the clients that rely on committees to oversee and interact with their architects. Horses metastacize into camels quite readily under that rubric. See, e.g., many of the buildings that have been completed in the last 30 years on the campus of my alma mater, Middlebury College, particularly the gargantuan Bicentennial Hall.

          Dave would know better than me, but my sense is that behind every great non-residential building (or multi-unit residence) is a powerful figure within the client organization who can drive the process. For example, there would be no Louis Kahn-designed library at Philips Exeter Academy if the school had not appointed a new principal in 1964, Richard Day, who upon taking office promptly fired an earlier architect and eventually turned the project over to Kahn, who promptly designed the best building in New Hampshire.

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