They say that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, but, sometimes, people who live in glass houses, need to remodel them.....with more glass.
This house was designed and built in 1956 by John Black Lee, an architect affiliated with the so-called Harvard Five--a group of architects that included Philip Johnson and Marcel Breuer who, in the 1940s, began transforming New Canaan, Connecticut, into a hotbed of Modernism.
John Black Lee’s original symmetrical, one-story structure featured a large open space with a central fireplace, a living room, and small kitchen. This room had clerestory windows and two all-glass exterior walls, providing views of the woods. Bedrooms, two each on the east and west sides, flanked the main space, with a veranda surrounding the house on all four sides.
The current owners bought the property from Lee in 1990 and commissioned Toshiko Mori to renovate the house. Mori made subtle alterations that included raising the central roof which enlarged the clerestory windows, and replacing wood columns with stainless steel. The changes made the elegant structure seem more delicate and graceful. Even Lee, who lives in another house he designed a few miles away, approves: “It was one of the most sensitive remodelings in New Canaan.”
In 2004, the couple transformed the unfinished basement into a family room. The space had previously been accessible only from a hatch near the front door, but Thomas Phifer and Partners designed an interior stair protected by a minimal glass balustrade for the house’s southwest corner, in what had been one of the four bedrooms.
The couple was already planning further expansion when a tree crashed through the roof during a storm, providing the impetus for another renovation. So, on the homes fiftieth birthday, it was decided that she needed an expansion. But there are few architectural firms willing to take on such a risky task as adding to a building that is so rigorously symmetrical. An expansion could compromise the integrity and symmetry of the original. But the challenge was met by Kengo Kuma for his first US commission: to create a new wing for an almost temple-like mid-century Modern house.
Kuma designed a transparent, L-shaped addition that sits just to the west of the original. The interior is almost entirely open, with very few walls. Instead, stainless steel mesh screens differentiate circulation space from other parts of the structure. The addition is composed of steel columns only 3 inches wide and 6 inches deep, with equally minimal steel beams, and a roof supported by exposed glue-laminated spruce joists.
The project also modified the existing house by replacing one section of solid exterior wall near the addition with glass, in order to provide a visual connection between new and old. As part of the renovation, the small kitchen was removed, making the entire central zone of the older structure into an airy space. The master suite addition, like its mid-century neighbor, also has an encompassing veranda surrounding it.
Even though Lee might find reason to quibble--he wishes the connection had been made without piercing the skin of the original--the expansion shows a respect not only for the natural surroundings, but also for the original home. While Kuma did not mimic Lee’s style, the addition is clearly the product of thoughtful reinterpretation, of the piece built more than a half century earlier.