How do you insert an aggressively modern house into a famous historic neighborhood?
A new house on a tiny street in Boston’s South End is a case study. The South End happens to be the biggest urban Victorian neighborhood in the United States. It surrounds the site with blocks of handsome red-brick townhouses. The new house standing among the old is like ET trying to conceal himself among a row of stuffed toys.
There are two architectural stories here. One is about the interior of the house, which I think is amazing, and which I’ll get to in a moment. The other is about the exterior, which can be puzzling until you learn why it looks the way it does.
Seen from the street, the house appears to be not one dwelling but two, standing side by side. The left half mimics the architecture of a century ago. The right side is a modernist interloper.
What happened is that when an earlier design was first proposed, back in 2012, it ran into some heavy criticism from neighbors. At that time, part of the site was still occupied by an 1899 wood-frame house. That old house, say neighbors, was demolished by the new owners without notice. Some regretted that loss, and others thought the proposed modernist architecture violated the South End’s character.
But as the design worked its way through the democratic process — the local Eight Streets Neighborhood Association, the South End Landmark District Commission, and others — compromises were found. Most important, the new owners offered to rebuild the street facade of the wood house and incorporate it into the new design. From the street, the wood house now looks the same as in the past, although everything behind its facade is new. You enter the combined house by walking through the Victorian door of the rebuilt facade. It’s as if you were stepping through a stage flat.
A single house with two faces, side by side: It’s like a photo of a loving couple over different generations.
The architect and the owners say the citizen review process was agonizing. But they agree that the result was a better house. The architect is Scott Slarsky of Boston. The owners are a couple, both of whom work in the medical world. The male half, Ramy Rizkalla, took a particularly strong role in the design.
Rizkalla has strong opinions about architecture. He likes industrial materials — steel, glass, unpainted wood, concrete. He likes things that look strong and utilitarian. He loves living in the heart of a genuinely historic neighborhood, but hates nostalgic new architecture that imitates the past. He’s a fan of the modern movement, but he thinks it’s lost its bearings. He thinks the new modernist development of the Boston waterfront is terrible. He collects the minimalist furniture of the mid-20th century, a style that’s now fashionable as “Fifties Modernism.”
The interior that Slarsky and Rizkalla have created is one of the most inventive and delightful I’ve ever seen in a house. That’s especially true of one remarkable place. This is a tall space that rises in parts to a double-story height. It contains a lot: an entry and stair hall, a living and dining area, a kitchen and wood-burning stove. I’ll call it the living space. It’s the part of the house that feels public, more like an intimate village square than a room or suite of rooms. It’s a place for gathering. One side overlooks a tiny city park. When you leave the living space to reach the bedrooms and other spaces, most of which are modest in size and on the second floor, you have a stronger sense than usual of withdrawing from a public to a private world.
Materials in the living space are raw and powerful. Muscular black steel columns rise to support dark steel beams that span overhead. The steel is strong but not aggressive. It measures out the space and frames it like a grove of trees. Light enters through a system of mechanized wood louvers that provide shade and privacy when desired.
One detail sums up the approach. The stair from the living space to the mezzanine floor is a deliberate demonstration in the power of raw materials. The stair treads — dark steel, of course — don’t quite span from one side of the stair to the other. Instead, each tread is cantilevered off a raw concrete wall at one end and allowed to float unsupported at the other.
The designers cite one rule that guided the process: Nothing would be covered up. The house would wear no fancy architectural clothes, no plaster or drywall to hide the construction, not even paint or varnish on wood walls, floors, and ceilings. Most of the floor of the living space, for example, is surfaced in beautiful end-grain repurposed oak, which has been left unvarnished in the hope that occupants will, eventually, wear visible pathways on it.
The no-coverup rule takes you back to the early modern movement of the 1920s, when that kind of stubborn honesty was a reaction to what was considered the stagey architecture of the Victorian era. Designers like those who taught at the Bauhaus argued that theirs was an industrial era and architecture could benefit from new materials and technologies.
The home on Taylor Street was recently chosen by a national architectural magazine as one of its American houses of the year.
Weaknesses? I’m of two minds about wood louver system as you see it from outside. It covers most of the new construction, not just windows. The louvers do shade the glass, but they also shade solid exterior walls. They’re a kind of gift wrapping on a house where nothing was supposed to be covered. But I like the fact that they resemble wood framing, as if the house were still under construction. The louvers are part of a subtle game of new versus old that permeates the whole design. Slarsky notes that they’ve been detailed in such a way as to be removable by a future owner.
This is a house that adds another marvel to the never-changing but ever-changing world that is the South End.
Some more photos of the property: