What do you call a classical ranch house with an angular, 2,000-square-foot addition in gray and red with corrugated tin hanging vertically on one side?
You call it postmodern.
Tucked into the treetops in Foxcroft, the boxy structure peeking over a wide A-frame roof on Arborway street constitutes the Charlotte portion of a modernist home tour this Saturday. Modern Atlanta (MA), a 6-year-old organization promoting modern design and living, added a the house to the MA13 Home Tour to broaden interest in Southeast modernism. Homes in Chapel Hill and Raleigh are also part of the tour.
The Charlotte home, built two years ago, is empty because of an unexpected job relocation. The 5,032-square-foot home is listed for $995,000.
From the outside, two protruding red boxes jut out of the sides, suspended in the trees. These are the top and bottom of the “climbing library”– a set of oversized steps made of and surrounded by bookshelves, palettes and pillows. The top tier is almost entirely glass, and feels like a childhood treehouse or a crow’s nest on a ship.
On the home tour, designer/architects Toby Witte and Jahan Nourbakhsh (Noor-bash) will act as docents. Their company, Dialect Design, designed and built the addition.
How does modernism – an idea – manifest itself in this structure? For one thing, the crown molding present in the ranch-style portion of the house is absent in the addition.
Instead of the traditional wood baseboards, Witte and Nourbakhsh simply added a 3-inch border in high-gloss paint so the floors can be mopped without damaging the walls.
These are modernist ideals in practice. Modernism sought to remove purely decorative design, finding aesthetic fulfillment in the way functional design looks.
It’s postmodernism – formal ideas put aside to allow stylistic diversity – that permits the fusion of ranch and modern; they don’t have to match in this postmodern age.
The combination is not entirely abrupt, though. The ranch façade underwent a few modernist changes: a new asymmetrical door, removal of shutters and a color transformation (from mustard yellow to slate gray) on the bricks.
For the most part, the addition is hidden by the ranch house facade, but it’s certainly noticeable. The architects remember a group of kids stopping by during construction, asking questions presumably fed to them by their parents. Witte and Nourbakhsh gave them a tour.
“The house has also served as a speed bump,” Witte said, “slowing down traffic caused by curious drive-by glances.”
Economy also plays a big part in Dialect’s design. What is economy if not good function? The 2,000-square-foot addition was priced at $150,000; they came in $400 under budget.
The common areas of the addition feature custom bookshelves built into the walls in a variety of shapes and sizes; the gaps between the shelves and the drywall create an understated border; the shelves are a focal point, and they look expensive. But they’re made from the cheapest material you can buy – plywood.
“If you design it well,” Nourbakhsh said, “you can bring inexpensive materials to their full potential.”
Here’s another example: the pre-existing garage acts as the base for the addition, but it needed some renovations. The owners asked Dialect to replace the old concrete floor with a new one. But they had another idea.
“We thought, let’s take the blemish and make it something really extraordinary,” Witte said.
Rather than jackhammering the existing floor, they scraped layers off with diamond blades, removing years of wear and debris. At a certain level, the floor began to reveal vein-like cracks. Witte and Nourbakhsh filled the cracks with red paint, creating “streams of lava.” Their solution cost a fraction of what a new concrete floor would have run, and allowed an artful creation.
“It’s so beautiful,” Witte said, “it could be a dance floor.”
MA exists because the South isn’t perceived as a place where modernism is a going concern.
Witte and Nourbakhsh believe deeply rooted Southern traditions often act as obstacles to change.
“In Charlotte,” Witte said, “one impediment is that the culture is so heavily centered on the banking industry. There is such a conformity in the jobs that people hold, it spreads into what houses they’re supposed to live in, what cars they drive.”
The Dialect Design architects want to challenge that.
“Materials are not ugly,” Nourbakhsh said. “We may have used them in an ugly way traditionally, but it’s where you use it and how you use it.”
Elayne DeLeo, co-founder of MA, sees changes in society as an opportunity to embrace modern living.
“The recent upswing in urban living, new technologies and materials, as well as changes in the economy have pushed the South in new directions,” DeLeo said. “The interesting question is: Where do we go from here?”
This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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