December 13, 2004

The house for nudists

I was at the annual Blue Genie Art Festival last week. While I felt that the 2003 edition of this had gotten a little stale, there seemed to be enough fresh blood this year to make it worth attending. It was also fun because we seemingly ran into everyone there. And Sage & Zarah put on a show, which is always a treat.

Among the many people we ran into were Wells & Lisa of Ironwood–Wells made a couple pieces of furniture for me a few years back, and does really nice work. He mentioned that some of his stuff was going to be on display at an open house over the weekend, at a house by a local modernist architect. So Gwen and I were certainly interested, and yesterday, we went to check it out.

The development in question is a pair of houses–not a duplex (they don’t share a common wall), but built right up close to one another on overlapping lots. The location is 1903 Alegria, up around Arroyo Seco. Before we even got out of the car, we saw lots of People Like Us, which kind of creeped me out.

The architects (annoying flash-based site) have some good ideas and some stinkers.

The bad idea universally commented upon by the visitors is the absence of closets. I don’t mean the houses have inadequate closet space: they have no closet space. As far as I’m concerned, the first commandment of modernist house design is thou shalt build in lots of storage. Unless you just don’t have any stuff, modernism pretty much demands that your stuff be put away…and a modernist house needs to give you some place to put it. In fact, it’s hard to see where the architects managed to hide 1400 sqft on these houses without some storage. The first floor consists of a smallish living area and a kitchen with a derisory amount of counter space and storage; a small hallway at the back leads to a powder room and utility room. One wall of the first floor is monopolized by a staircase to the second floor; this has one of the really nice touches, a translucent plastic wall that should let in a huge amount of natural light (assuming it doesn’t crack or discolor).

The staircase lands upstairs at a small common space between two bedrooms, with no doors between them. The bedrooms are separated by a pair of back-to-back bathrooms, which are pretty nice and have big walk-in showers (no bath for you!) on slatted ipe floors. The floors in the shower areas are removable modules like miniature freight palettes, but the ipe slats are screwed into the floor in the rest of the bathroom, suggesting cleaning problems.

And no closets. I assume these houses are for two unrelated adults who have no clothes, no desire for privacy, and little desire to cook at home. I guess you could fill up the place with armoires, but what’s the point?

Another aspect of these houses that I found more philosophically offensive was the entrance. You need to go through the garage (or something that looks very much like a garage–perhaps it’s supposed to be an industrial patio with a garage door?) to get to the front door. The view out the nicely glassed-in front is of the garage, with the outside world peeking in through openings at the edges. This goes beyond a snout house and makes the garage (and by inference, the car) not only the front of the house but really the centerpiece of life in the house. You look out the front, you’ve got a view of your car. Super.

There was a zigzagging path alongside each house leading to a jewelbox of a back yard (with, amusingly, an underground watering system). These paths, which have a cinderblock wall hung with big iron planters on one side, and the milky plastic wall of the house on the other, are probably the best spaces in the entire development.

I didn’t bother finding out how much the houses are going for.

Moral compromise

One of my most vehement pet peeves is the leaf blower. They’re annoying all on their own, but they symbolize so much more: by blowing leaves into the street, you make your problem everyone else’s. They seemingly exist only for people with yards too big to rake. And of course, there’s the howling din.

I’m trying to sell my house right now, and one of the house’s weak spots is Curb Appeal. I’ve never been big on yardwork, and it shows. There are two things my property has a lot of: rocks and trees. River rocks covering the driveway, pumice rocks along the walkway to the front door (worst landscaping idea ever), and big limestone rocks lining the edges of everything, laboriously hauled in from a construction site in the hills to the west of town. Three pecan trees, a live oak, a persimmon, and overhang from a neighbor’s enormous oak. The trees are profligate leaf-droppers, and the rocks are excellent leaf-catchers, leading to an untidy yard that diminishes the curb appeal. Short of picking individual leaf-fragments out of all the rocks by hand, there’s only one way to get them out. So over the weekend, we broke down and bought one. Yes, a leaf-blower.

Actually, this thing is a combo leaf-blower and leaf-vacuum/mulcher. The mulching feature is pretty cool, as it dramatically reduces the volume of leaves. (The manufacturer claims a 10:1 ratio. I’m not sure if that’s accurate–I probably got half that). While it’s not an efficient use of time to stand around hoovering up piles of leaves so that you can dump them into fewer yard-waste bags later, and even less efficient to try to use the thing as a vacuum over the whole yard, it definitely does minimize the tawny soldiers lined up at the curb on Monday morning, and the vacuum can extract leaves stuck in rock crevices. The blower is a precision instrument in exactly the same way as a water cannon, making it hard to use and unpredictable, but it did kick a good fraction of the leaves in the driveway into a pile that could then be hoovered up.

With any luck, my next house will make the thing redundant.

More on Mueller redevelopment

Because some commenters asked:

  • The Austin Chronicle just published an article on Mueller
  • The city has a not-very-friendly Master Development Agreement page, linking to a lot of information about the project. There is a citizen-oriented FAQ there, but it’s in Word’s .doc format (go figure). I have taken the liberty of posting an HTML version of the Mueller FAQ (apologies in advance–probably some formatting bugs).
  • There’s also an interesting set of design guidelines linked from the city’s page, but Chapter 1 clocks in at 38 MB for just 12 pages, and each page takes forever to render on my machine. I’ve extracted a couple of maps:
  • [Later]There’s a whole website for the Mueller redevelopment

In short, the general intent apparently is to integrate Mueller into the city fabric and make it a showpiece for New Urbanism; there are a lot of encouraging-sounding noises about being pedestrian- and bike-friendly, etc. While I have no doubt that there have been a lot of dubious decisions and questionable deals made in the process, I hope the product will be a benefit to the city as a whole.