In Daniel Pinkwater’s 1977 children’s book “The Big Orange Splot,” Mr. Plumbeam changes his cookie-cutter home into a colorful spectacle uniquely his own.
“My house is me and I am it,” he tells his neighbors. “My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”
“The Big Orange Splot” explores neighborhood context, identity and the balance between conformity and non-conformity in a wonder- fully silly way.
Mr. Plumbeam infuriates his neighbors by suddenly changing their familiar streetscape, but as they listen to Plumbeam’s reasoning for his renovation, they open their minds to their own revelations, in turn modifying their homes to fit their dreams — from castles to onion domes to hot air balloon-inspired abodes. The resulting assemblage dramatically alters the character of the entire neighborhood and redefines the context for the next home on the block. Imagine how disrespectful it would be to design a cookie-cutter home next to several with big orange splots on the roof! Or, then again, would it?
The topic of “appropriate” context has often emerged in conversations with clients over Locus Architecture’s 25-year history. Some clients passionately feel their home should “blend in” while others are emphatically committed to living in a home of “their dreams.” We believe that good architecture can be found across this spectrum.
An architectural awards program called, literally, “the BLEND Awards” is an example of one end of the spectrum. That program, launched by the Fulton Neighborhood Association in 2007, encourages “newly remodeled or constructed homes to blend into the fabric of Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods.” Part of the entry submittal requires applicants to include photos of the front facade of a handful of adjacent homes to convey the immediate context.
In 2013, our firm won a BLEND Award for a renovation in Linden Hills that “blended” into the neighborhood in an abstract way, while still expressing the distinct personalities of its two owners. The front of the home retained its original bungalow quality, scale, shape, dormer, porch and window sizes. Where the home deviates from the original, it does so with expression of its green design features, access to sunlight, and even the personalities of the owners’ cats. The side gables grew and eschewed symmetry; we located new windows based solely on the functions taking place behind them — show- ering, reading, sleeping, eating. We clad the asymmetrical roof in metal (a more sustainable alternative to typical asphalt shingles) and pitched it at an appropriate angle to accept future photovoltaic panels. The bold colors on the narrow lap and shake siding were chosen by the homeowners to provide a striking contrast to the black, brown and white landscape (“context”) we Minnesotans share six months of the year.
Somewhere in the middle of the seamless-surprising spectrum is a renovation we designed on Minnehaha Creek. After the home’s owners worked with Quigley Architects on a more traditional front porch facing Minnehaha Creek, they asked us to reimagine the home’s backside — ridding it of a warren of past additions, niches and corridors — and opening the house to a back patio and garden. Their desire to live in a modern, open plan was matched with a sleek aesthetic of glass, aluminum and natural wood — a palette that was integrated into the existing brick, yet clearly distinct from the original architecture. “Our joke is that we have the mullet house,” quipped the owner, “but we are so pleased with it. We use the porch all summer and the modern back room and kitchen all the time.”
On the far end of the blend-bold spectrum we see overt contrast. Another Linden Hills project began with a Dutch Colonial meticulously restored by our clients in every detail. When it came time to expand their living space, they asked for something stripped of ornament — a contrast to the complexity of the existing home. We conceptualized our remodel by thinking about the Midwestern agrarian vernacular, which so often has buildings assembled over time with striking contrast in shape and texture — like a century old wood farmhouse or barn alongside a metal grain bin. “We were drawn to materials and forms contemporary to this era as a compatible contrast to our century-old home constructed of materials and forms of its era,” reflected the owner. “The diversity of this approach in combination with others making different choices is what keeps the neighbor- hood character dynamic.” As with many of our more modern additions, the initial shock of the project softened with the addition of thoughtful landscaping and the passage of time.
“Our street is us and we are it,” the neighbors in “The Big Orange Splot” tell newcomers. “Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams.”
As we look at the variety of homes in South- west, we see stories more than style. Looking past architectural labels — bungalow, Dutch Colonial, prairie, Georgian — a home provides a glimpse of its occupants’ personalities, from strict traditionalists to progressive eclectics. Before deciding what you like or don’t like about Mr. Plumbeam’s home down your block, ask for a tour and get to know the people behind it. You never know, they might inspire you to dream.
Adam Jonas and Wynne Yelland are architects at Locus Architecture at 45th & Nicollet in Kingfield. Visit locusarchitecture.com to learn more.