Elevated Study

In a time when architects have become stars and their recognizable styles have become personal brands, it is refreshing to see a well-known and respected designer like Carlos Jimenez create a building that is informed more by its clients’ needs and the context of its site than by a signature formal gesture. The private library and guest accommodation Jimenez has designed for Melba and Ted Whatley in Austin, Texas, is a material manifestation of its owners’ values: Its architectural sophistication, elegance, and erudition express, in a poignant and poetic manner, the couple’s longstanding commitment to the pursuit of learning. A simple, gracious home addition, the project embodies a striking symbiosis of architecture and life that is unusual in residential design today-especially in the rarefied world of high-design houses.

The Jimenez addition houses a 9,OOO-volume library that reflects the Whatleys’ diverse areas of interest. Ted is a former headmaster of a private boys school and an outspoken voice for educational reform; Melba is a successful businesswoman, community activist, and an architectural patron and client for a museum and a landmark home in Dallas, both designed by Edward Larabee Barnes. The book collection they have amassed together spans fields ranging from literature and politics to education and architecture.

The programmatic challenge was not only to build a serene, contemplative place for books, conversation, and thought, but in so doing, to be considerate of an already impressive architectural context. The Whatleys’ existing house, designed in 1983 by Hal Box (then dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin) is organized by a biaxial, Kahnian plan. Originally, a car court separated the building from a less formal pool and guest quarters. The compound, with buildings rendered in stone, was burrowed into a Texas hilI-country thicket, invisible from the street and neighbors’ houses. The site was compositionally complete just as it was.

Respectfully distancing himself from Box’s original house, Jimenez floated the 2,400-square-foot library/guesthouse above the old car court, creating a direct link between the main house and its outbuildings. The open space beneath the library became an almost incidental carport, flanked by small stone-clad rooms (one a guest room and exercise space, the other gardener’s shed) that serve as piers to support the library’s span. Very little new ground space was claimed by the addition, as the car court continued to play its original role. The sense of privacy and seclusion within the thicket was also retained, despite the presence of a strong and sizable new element.

In his treatment of materials, Jimenez took cues from the existing house, but also melded these with fresh, new directions. The stone piers roughly match the split-face local limestone used in the original house, but their surfaces are slightly crisper in execution, with deeply raked joints and meticulous coursing that reflect the tight precision in detail of the bridge above them. Standing-seam metal, a prominent feature in the pyramidal caps of the original house, is employed not only for the shallow monopitch roof of the library but also for its entire east facade. The angled top plane seems to fold down over the back face, creating a subtle interlocking of roof and wall. The other three exterior facades are tautly skinned in flat, lightly stained cypress siding. A composite wood and galvanized steel frame is exposed on the west-facing porch, executed with clean, careful detail. Stainless-steel acorn bolts, decking and handrails made of ipe (a rich South and Central American wood), and elegant proportions project a sense of care and refinement on the otherwise simple front.

But the project’s real tour de force is the great open space of the library itself. Quiet and gracious, the room embodies timeless architectural values that transcend style or affectation. Proportions are studied and harmonious. Materials (knotty maple floor, clear maple shelves, white painted wallboard) are clean and simple. The light is generous and ethereal, drawn from clerestory windows incised into the taller eastern side of the roof pitch and projected from the lower western side. Inside, the staggered openings of the eastern and western windows arch toward one another across the gently curved ceiling, dropping a softened, diffused light into the room. There is a dignity and presence here that contrasts strikingly with many overwrought contemporary designer homes and the faux period mansions of the current conspicuous-consumption boom.

Jimenez and his clients have created an exemplary residential lesson in how to achieve quality without pretension. In the world of high-end residential building, this project is quietly rebellious in its modesty.