Taft Architects

Originally published in , May 1, 2001

Architecture swallowed postmodernism whole, gagged violently, and spit it out. In contrast, disciplines as diverse as science, psychoanalysis, literature, and philosophy partook of postmodernist thought more moderately, nourishing a generation of creative growth with genuine relevance to contemporary life and values. In architecture, the same seminal ideas that nurtured other fields became too quickly codified into a reductive style, and the baby of postmodernist thought (interests in the particular, the timely, and the local; tolerance of social, cultural, and intellectual diversity) got thrown out with the bathwater of postmodern style.

Along with the bathwater went a handful of very talented designers for whom postmodernism was a broad world of right-headed ideology and not just a grab bag of visual gimmicks. In the early 1980s, the heyday of postmodern style, Taft Architects John Casbarian, Danny Samuels, and Robert Timme – was a fresh, dynamic triumvirate with top-grade pedigrees and adventuresome spirits. Their early projects were full of verve and energy, though limited by miniscule budgets and a constructional naiveté inevitable in young architects. At just about the time these young Turks began to win promising commissions and their maturity as builders began to catch up with their daring as designers, the gods of architectural style changed direction. Burdened by restrictive labels and associations, Taft’s developing direction got less notice than it deserved. And now, two decades after their initial fame, the firm has built up a very distinguished body of work rooted in legitimate postmodern notions like diversity, inclusivity, and particularity. Notably absent are the trappings of postmodern style.

The Williams House in Houston, the second house Taft has designed for clients Casey and Joanna Williams, is a good example. Reinforcing a postmodern respect for diversity, it could hardly be more different from the first, which was built in Austin in the mid-1980s. Though they loved this grander, more formal home, the couple, who are both artists, preferred their new one to be more spare and austere, to feel like a “beach house” with lots of light and openness.

Longtime friends of both Samuels and Casbarian, the clients wanted to give the architects as much freedom as possible in terms of design vocabulary. They knew they would get options: Postmodern processes revel in alternatives and choice. For the Austin house Taft had presented seven initial schemes, and for the Houston house they did three. Casbarian notes that design for Taft is about “inclusivity-being about more than one thing.” He and his partners generate options in order to be able to experiment and free their minds of dogmatic constraints.

Inclusivity, in the case of the Williams House, embraces inspirations as diverse as Tuscan, Texan, and French farmhouses; the early work of Le Corbusier; and industrial materials such as metal siding, concrete block, and chain-link fencing. But there is also a real particularity to the Williams House that makes it more than just a collection of favorite elements. “The look of a house,” notes Casbarian, “always evolves out of a program and its relation to the site.” The need for north light in a live-work home for two artists and the desirability of private courtyard views on a tight urban site strongly shaped the building’s diagram. It has a U-shaped plan clustering all of the rooms around a south-facing living space with monitors grabbing a softer, balancing light from the opposite side. The tight budget and informal lifestyle of the clients provoked the use of inexpensive materials and simple detailing.

The Wiliams House rejects the singularity, certitude, and universality of a bygone era in favor of an accepting ambiguity and synthesis of diverse elements appropriate to our time. It is a rich, broad-minded little house, full of responsiveness and invention. Speaking a language that is both fresh and familiar, the Williams House represents an appropriate cultural manifestation of the contemporary postmodern condition.

Thinking about Texas Architecture
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Originally published in , May 1, 2001