This article was written by Seattle-based designer and critic Evan Chakroff.
Lexington Kentucky’s Miller House is a built manifesto: an ambitious proposal for the future of suburbia in an age of unprecedented urbanization. Despite its pedigree – designed and built by Le Corbusier protégé José Oubrerie – and despite its (appropriate) selection as a “masterwork” by Kenneth Frampton, the project remains somewhat unknown and the architect underappreciated.
The house should absolutely occupy a place in the canon of great residential architecture. The complex composition alone should inspire myriad formal readings, but more importantly the house represents a model for communal life amid continuously-shifting family structures. It’s a radical rejection of a suburban lifestyle that has become socially, economically, and culturally unsustainable.
From the project’s inception in 1987, an integral aspect of the design was the integration of “three dwellings in one house.” The client was an older couple, and the project was designed to accommodate them and, occasionally, their two college-age children. Oubrerie (who, full disclosure, was my professor and employer, briefly, at The Ohio State University) sought to express the independence and interdependence of the four family members through the collection of three autonomous dwellings into one house – the fractured floor plates and occasionally tenuous connections can be read as commentary on the occasionally fraught relationships within any family.
The plan parti is the nine-square grid, which should be familiar to all students of architecture, appearing as an organizational diagram in everything from courtyard homes in ancient Rome, to Renaissance pallazzi, Palladian villas, and the canonical houses of the Modern movement. The Miller House belongs to a long tradition of residential architecture, but aspires to be more than a mere residence. It is a suburban villa, most obviously evincing the influence of Oubrerie’s mentor Le Corbusier. But within the design, we can find echoes of older precedents.
As in historical precedents, the center is left open as a common space, and the perimeter is relatively closed. The central public space is flanked by three private zones, which are allowed to grow and shift in plan, subverting the ideality of the regulating grid. These volumes are lifted up on piloti, and the generative grid is only evinced by column placement. As a result, the public commons extends vertically and horizontally, with the ground floor given over almost entirely to communal (if not public) space. Terminating in skylights, this space is the central axis mundi of the house, a vertical void that provides focus and orientation.
While the ground floor is relatively open and characterized by homogenous space, on upper floors the space becomes differentiated, and gains programmatic specificity. In plan, three corners of the grid grow and shift to enclose private dwelling areas and the interstitial space is diminished, given over to catwalks and voids. These circulation spaces seem compressed by the expansion of the programmed zones, to the point where walkways and staircases seem squeezed out from the enclosing envelope, and extend into the surrounding landscape.
These extending staircases are reminiscent of the extended ramps in the late work of Le Corbusier (the Mill Owners Association and Carpenter Center, in particular), and seem to serve the same visual purpose: to suggest a public path through the building. Through these formal manipulations, Oubrerie has designed a structure with a complex privacy gradient. As one would expect, upper levels are generally more private than lower, and a public “green” or commons flows through the relative open ground floor plan. Above, restricted access catwalks connect the various programmatic volumes. However, this hierarchy is short-circuited by the extended staircases, accessible directly from outside, which make the house highly adaptable. Each dwelling space could be treated, and rented, as a separate unit.
It’s interesting to compare the sectional arrangement - and the general programmatic distribution - of the Miller House to what is perhaps its direct genetic antecedent: Le Corbusier’s Villa Shodhan (Ahmedabad, 1956). Both buildings are basically cubic in form, with a parasol roof raised on columns and apparently disconnected from the exterior walls. The site orientation is identical, with a rotation 45 degrees from north, with facades each relatively open or closed to take advantage of solar orientation. Both feature prominent sun-filtering porticoes facing southwest. The porosity of the cubic volume blurs somewhat the distinction between interior and exterior space (admittedly, this happens less in Lexington’s temperate climate). Prominent circulation pathways extend into the landscape as sculptural objects in both cases.
Perhaps the most striking similarity is the programmatic zoning in section. In both cases, the ground is devoted to public activities, with common space, kitchen, and service zones all located on the ground floor. In both houses, the first floor above grade contains private baths and study areas, while private bathrooms are all located above.
While in Shodhan, the floor plates remain mostly intact, accentuating the programmatic separation, in the Miller House, the floor plates are nearly absent, replaced by narrow catwalks and terraces, and the private dwelling zones are connected internally in section and distinguished from the public areas by material treatment as well as physical disconnection.
The Miller House thus builds on a large number of historical precedents, but has tweaked and updated the formula: while the history of the single-family home is encoded in the design, the architect has innovated within that framework, and created a work of architecture that seems more appropriate for today’s evolving family arrangements.
The complexity of the public-to-private gradient is reflected in the complexity of the façade and enclosing envelope. While the design of the house was clearly driven by programmatic requirements (with an eye on precedent), the facade composition demonstrates an architect equally concerned with aesthetics, and with the manipulation of a generative diagram.
In early sketches, Oubrerie proposed an “exploded cube” with each façade (including the roof) an autonomous composition, and a free-standing structure. This diagram persisted, and construction photos show poured concrete framing the interior void of the house before any steel was erected, and before finish work and glazing could clarify the extents of enclosure. (These photos will hopefully be published in the forthcoming monograph)The “exploded cube” diagram freed each surface from dependence on any other, obfuscated the exact extents of the interior space, and gave each façade a high degree of autonomy, which was maintained conceptually and physically throughout the design and construction process.
Each façade thus developed as a separate entity, affected somewhat by adjoining facades, but retaining independence. As the design process progressed, Oubrerie was able to evolve each façade from a simple formal composition to a highly-specific set of interrelated architectonic elements, each referencing different precedents and representing artistic license tempered by the necessities of program and environmental considerations.
As each facade was both conceived and constructed as a free-standing structure, it will be useful to consider the creative development of each one separately, although each is a participant in an overarching continuum.
The northwest facade is the logical place to begin, as this facade is both the most apparently-intact, and it is the first facade displayed on approaching the house. Oubrerie points to Palazzo Farnese as an inspiration for the northwest facade, and the two do indeed share some affinity. The proportional system of this facade seems to stem from renaissance ideals, but no more so than early facades from the oeuvre of Oubrerie's mentor Le Corbusier. While the facade has been punctured multiple times (by the entering catwalk, by the wood-clad volume of the kitchen emerging from the ground floor, by the daughter's bath punching through, and by ribbon windows sliced through to frame views to the landscape) it remains the most complete – and flattest - of the four facades. The surface of the “exploded cube” is mostly intact: its borders are clearly marked by the extents of the concrete wall.
The solidity of this facade is appropriate: the northwest orientation is not conducive for effective solar modulation, and this facade faces the encroaching suburbs, not a particularly attractive vista. The facade is used to good effect from the driveway approach, as its apparent frontality is revealed to be a conceit as the main entry facade appears around the corner.
The entry facade (northeast) retains a notion of the surface, but it has been pulled apart somewhat, punctured by the entry canopy, and torn away to reveal one of the interior living volumes. The stairwell emerges as a discrete object, and presages the breakdown of the surface in the southeast facade.
In the southeast facade, the notion of the planar surface has completely broken down. The concrete here folds in on itself to enclose common areas of the house (jacuzzi, media room, library), and the private dwelling volume is left exposed. This facade is a collection of discrete objects, deriving its form from the interior program.
Inspired in equal parts by the Corbusian “brise-soleil ” and by the porticoes of an American southern vernacular, the southwest facade proves to be most ambitious, and the most ambiguous. Construction documents show it to be completely independent of the interior volumes, connected only by catwalks added almost as an afterthought, yet it is also the most occupiable of the facades, accessible from all levels of the house.
These connections to the exterior from the clapboard-clad dwelling volumes and the catwalks allow this facade to act as a space for inhabitation, rather than an enclosing surface. However, this is arguably the most planar of the facades: the plane established by the gridded portico is unbroken, and reestablishes the classical proportioning system evident in the northwest facade, even reaching up at the corner to match its roof line.
The southwest facade, therefore, occupies a transitional zone between the planar northwest facade and the three-dimensional southeast, as evidenced by the corner conditions. At the western corner, the side aligns with and completes the surface of the northwest facade, yet at the southern corner, the portico is missing a bay: a waterspout implies the continuation of the grid, but it remains incomplete. There is no direct connection to the southeast, the portico is a discrete object in its collection.
Each façade, though independent conceptually and structurally, is a part of a continuum. From Northwest to Northeast, to Southeast, to Southwest, the design progresses along multiple gradients: from closed to open, from private to public, from planar to plastic, from uninhabited to habited. The progression from northwest to northeast to southeast is fairly clear, and the southwest façade could be seen as a link back to the beginning of the progression: while it is the most open, inhabitable, and plastic of the facades, it also establishes a plane through the grid of the bries-soleil.
That Oubrerie cites classicism, de Stijl, deconstruction, and American vernacular as influences for the four facades (NW, NE, SE, and SW, respectively) indicates that there is an interest here in an overarching history as well as in formal manipulation. This, however, should not be taken as a purely academic exercise: the unique formal strategies of the individual facades create a variety of spaces around the exterior, and the progression clockwise from northwest is one of increasing openness, increasing accessibility, and increasing ambiguity between interior and exterior. As such, this is not a literalization of architectural history, but rather an internalization and redeployment of its lessons with a keen eye towards site orientation and programmatic necessities.
While the Miller House may be a challenging building to read, it’s clear that every bold formal move was carefully considered, and executed with a craftsman’s expertise. In addition to the deep understanding of historical precedent, the innovative planning for evolving usage, and the compositional joyfulness evident in every surface, the building is a treasure box of architectural details.
Ultimately, the power of the architecture lies in its challenge to prevailing norms, and here norms of composition, urbanism, and family structure are all called into question. As the suburbs lose their appeal in an age of rejuvenated city centers and rising fuel prices, Oubrerie’s experiment in suburban density seems more relevant than ever. The Miller House is an urban fragment, seemingly excised from the densest quarters of Paris or Hong Kong, and transplanted to the rural hinterland of Kentucky. In providing this moment of urban intensity, surrounded by green fields, one can read a sustainable attitude towards the land, and an appeal towards the preservation of natural environments. (This reading is denied, unfortunately, by the encroaching suburbs). While the building itself can appear needlessly complicated, fragmented, this only serves to heighten the sense of urban chaos within, and draw a contrast with the surrounding arcadia.
The Miller House could also be seen as a fragment of a larger, repeating system: how would a city composed of Miller Houses function? What kind of society would it produce? (I expect a “mat” of repeating Miller Houses would resemble Corbusier’s Venice Hospital, or Candilis-Josic-Woods’ proposal for Frankfurt)
Once again, the Miller House is up for sale, and so threatened by demolition. The house has been sitting vacant for years, and its destruction seems as inevitable as the transformation of the formerly-rural region to a landscape of cul-de-sacs and McMansions. This is unfortunate, for students and architects who would study the house, but more importantly for society, where design is so often subservient to the market, and where the status quo seems at times so inadequate. The Miller House is a pedagogical tool, a build interpretation of architectural history, a commentary on the evolving state of the modern family unit, and a visionary proposal for communal living in an age of mass-urbanization.