Architectural Digest

Palladian Abstractions: Hugh Newell Jacobsen’s Light Washed Design in Michigan

Architectural Digest December, 1990

By: Robert Cambell | Photographs: Balthazar Korab

“We didn’t want anything old-fashioned, anything with a lot of wood,” comments one of the owners of a house outside Detroit. By so saying, he defines two opposite kinds of architecture. There is the woodsy house, which wraps you up in a warm, fuzzy, rich blanket of texture and color. And then there’s the clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth house, as trim as a ski and as taut as a sail in the wind. It’s the latter that has always appealed to Washington, D.C., architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, who has spent years refining the concept.

The Michigan residence he designed, for a real estate developer and his wife, is typical of Jacobsen, filled with the architect’s trademark: spare, sophisticated detailing, There are, for example, no baseboards where the walls meet the floors. The bookshelves in the library are elegant egg crates with edges that seem as thin as knives. Televisions are hidden in the walls; the one in the master bedroom rises out of an innocent-looking table at the touch of a remote switch. Air-handling grilles are crisply ornamental slots in the wall or floor.

In a Jacobsen house, much of the pleasure is of a monastic kind. It is the pleasure of a world without clutter. The result, among lakes and rolling woods in Michigan, is crisp and clean, ” a house with architectural character, ” says the husband. For those who enjoy a somewhat stately, formal way of life, and especially for those who love to entertain – as do the house’s owners – it’s a dream of an airy paradise.

Jacobsen often remarks that every house ought to contain one good shock, a place where one stops short in amazement. In this house, that place comes at the climax of a carefully orchestrated sequence that begins with the approach to the house, a narrow, twisting, semi-rural road. From the road peels an inconspicuous gravel driveway, which suddenly becomes an avenue, aiming straight through an allee of pear trees towards the front door. By directing the visitor’s view, the enclosing pear trees disguise the fact that the site is less than vast. “I grabbed every vista I could to give a sense of a thousand acres instead of two and a half,” admits Jacobsen. Seen from the allee of pear trees, the house is formal and symmetrical, but not (so it seems) very big. “I always manipulate scale in my work,” the architect says. “The ambiguity is rather fun.” After passing through a number of smallish spaces-an entrance pavilion, a vestibule and a narrow, pitched-ceiling hallway visitors are confronted with a breath-stopping explosion of light and space that is the Great Room, with a wall of windows framing a spectacular view of lake and island.

The Great Room is the heart of the house. It is twenty-one by forty-two feet- a double square, half for living and half for dining, with two identical fireplaces. The neatness of the arrangement is a clue to a hidden order; “Everything in the house is based on a square – the gridded windows, the flooring, the egg – crate bookshelves, the glass blocks in the bath, even the shapes of the walls and floors themselves,” says Jacobsen.

The owners, whose three children are grown, have a superb art collection, mostly of modern work, that has been carefully placed throughout the house. Jacobsen’s quite, white-walled, light-floored rooms provide a perfect setting for it. In the Great Room, Tangerine Moon and Wine Dark Sea by the American artist Milton Avery hangs prominently in the living area. A Hans Hofmann is mounted over the fireplace in the living area, and an Alexander Calder sculpture rests on a table. The furnishings are relaxed and eclectic, some reminiscent of the early-modern designs of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, which is situated only a few miles away. Interiors consultants were Ingles & Associates, headed by David Ingles Goldburg, who worked with the clients on several previous projects.

The knockout feature of the Great Room is the window wall looking southeast toward the lake. Alternate windows are framed by cylindrical brass counterweights, rather like those of a tall case clock. At a touch, the huge windows slide noiselessly down while the wights slide up – or vice versa. An electric switch raises and lowers the shades.

The Great Room is the central pavilion of the three that make up the whole structure. Seen from the driveway or the lake, the house appears to be a simplified abstraction of a great eighteenth-century plantation house, like those along the James River in Virginia. Jacobsen says it also owes something to the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, whose British Embassy in Washington, D.C., displays similar eighteenth-century themes. Like those precursors, the Michigan house consists of high brick center pavilion featuring a prominent roof and tall chimneys, with symmetrical lower wings at either side joined by what Jacobsen calls hyphens – connecting links or passages made of glass. “It’s like going outside before you get to the next space,” he says. Both the James River house and this one in Michigan derive from the work of the Italian Renaissance architect Palladio, who was the first to organize ordinary farming villas in to small symmetrical palaces.

Jacobsen does to his eighteenth-century models what he does to everything he touches: He abstracts them, strips them of clutter and ornament, makes them flatter, thinner, more diagrammatic-creating, in this case, a sort of refines Platonic ideal of a Colonial plantation house.

Jacobsen has taken other ideas from the plantation model. Windows and doors are placed so they can be opened to let the breeze flow through, which is especially effective since there are lakes on both sides. And just as with the plantations, you can walk out form the house across a terrace and a garden to a limestone stepped battered wall, designed by landscape architect John Grissim, and board a boat for a ride on the water.

The house’s basic materials are salmony red bricks, pale green slate for the roof, limestone trim and copper downspouts. “The spouts will eventually turn the same color as the roof,” Jacobsen says. The entrance courtyard is paved in granite blocks in a fishtail pattern banded with slate, and the front terrace is slate. Indoors, walls are simple drywall or wood cabinetry, always painted white, and floors are carpet or marble or oak in a herringbone patter.

Jacobsen often likes to pull a house apart into separate pavilions that can be sharply defined. Doing so gives him an opportunity to emphasize crisp shapes and flawless joints he loves. Thus the three-pavilion plantation form works well for him. In the Michigan residence, the two side pavilions appear to be identical to each other, but in fact they are similar boxes with very different contents. One side holds the master bedroom, a library and an upstairs exercise room and study. The other contains the kitchen, a solarium and a three-car garage.

Of all those spaces, the library is perhaps the most successful. The grid of bookshelves seems to climb to the clouds, and it plays gently against two other white grids: an even taller door-plus-window looking out to another pear tree allee and a ladder leading to the upper shelves. There’s delight in the way the architect plays with these elements in a small room. Good architecture – like any other form of civilized endeavor – should treasure and remember the past but at the same time be infused with the joy of experimentation and innovation. In translating a traditional American type of house for owners with contemporary needs, Hugh Newell Jacobsen has struck the difficult balance that is civilization.

Photo Caption 1: Preceding pages: A lakeside residence near Detroit designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen for modern-art collectors is a contemporary version of James River plantation houses. “I used the eighteenth-century trick of breaking the house up into five parts,” says Jacobsen. Outdoor furniture from knoll. Above: The structure’s three pavilions front a granite-paved forecourt.


Photo Caption 2: Above: The connecting link, or “hyphen,” leading to the Great Room features reflective floor-to-ceiling glass and verde giada marble floors. “During the day, nature is a strong presence there,” says the architect.

Photo Caption 3: “The house seems designed for our collection,” says the husband. Above: The pitched-ceiling hall acts as a gallery and provides a longitudinal connecting axis. At left, works by Robert Motherwell and Milton Avery.

Photo Caption 4: “We chose David Ingles Goldburg of Ingles & Associates to help with the interiors because we knew he’d be sympathetic to the design,” says the husband. The Great Room is distinguished by a double-height gridded window wall overlooking a lake. The brass-counter-weighted window can be raised to provide access to the outdoors. Art Deco armchairs are grouped with tuxedo sofas in the living area. African figural harps are displayed on the low table, and a 1970 Lichtenstein bronze stands between the living and dining areas. Ushak carpet.

Photo Caption 5: “I wanted to take maximum advantage of the views and capture the Michigan light,” says the architect. Above: In the library, egg-crate bookshelves complement the gridded windows. Beyond, a pear tree allee frames the lake view. A Ruhlmann game table is paired with a T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings chair. Small Mother and Child, 1962-63, by Sorel Etrog is on the shelf.

Photo Caption 6: “The eye is happy with squares,” says Jacobsen. Above Right: Jose de Ribera’s Construction No. 154, 1973, highlights the master bedroom. Chair and ottoman from Kreiss; cotton on bed, Lee Jofa. Right: Round Jacobsen-designed mirrors are a counterpoint to the grid of the glass-block walls in the master bath. Brass fitting accent the onyx counter tops and floor.

In-photo Caption: “As collectors the clients are visually attuned,” Jacobsen says. “They see things other people miss.” The Georgian proportions of the Great Room are visible from the dining area. The rhythmic fenestration of the window wall is echoed by balanced door and window elements. Milton Avery’s Tangerine Moon and Wine Dark Sea, 1959, is above an African mask and a turn-of-the-century weather vane. At right is an Edgar Brandt lamp.