No one can say what will become of our civilization when it has really met different civilizations by means other than the shock of conquest and domination. But we have to admit that this encounter has not yet taken place at the level of an authentic dialogue.1
This studio will examine how buildings manifest when your attention is fixed on your immediate surroundings. Forty years ago, Kenneth Frampton’s essay, Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance (1983) argued that place, topography, climate, light, tectonics, and the tactile are concerns that should inform all buildings, regardless of site. Whether his criteria are self-evident or disputed today, this studio will practice the text, and others, through a more literal, and accidental, format: the alteration of an existing First Period building in New England. Outwardly specific, our attention will oscillate between an extant building and an actual region. Situated among the first places of Western colonization, the studio will entangle a sensitive political context to reveal how vernacular building traditions (of New England, for example) may reveal universal lessons on how to manage architecture’s anxieties of context. The ambition is for the studio to project an architecture of particularity, by which as-found conditions are identified, sorted, and abstracted toward a difficult whole that revalues the obscured, as well as banal, histories of place.
Building alterations cannot mend or improve all histories. When new buildings grow from old buildings, architecture has an opportunity to sidestep the aesthetics of restoration, reframe controversial histories, and project future forms of optimism. Beyond the documentation of the immediate lot and building, the constellation of alteration practices will prioritize the following: (a) renovation of parts or all the existing interior, (b) conversion of all or parts of the existing program, and © addition to the existing structure. If an interior is renovated, a program is converted, and a space is enlarged, each alteration follows to serve new uses and new users. More specifically, a private home is to be transformed into a public atheneum. This is our scope.
Risk averse and dominated by rules and charters, the discipline of historic preservation never catalyzed a central position in the study of architectural design (yet). As the dialectic between tradition and modernity continues to confront how history welds with contemporary practice, this studio is positioned within a complex bargaining between the two, with the goal of alchemizing a third, ulterior architectural language. When building on a building in New England, how might architecture absorb the particularity of place, person, and activity? Together, we aim to find out. Organized into three parts, the studio will privilege drawing as the primary mode of discovery and design as we navigate the murky regions of as-found culture and its attendant architecture.
The extant building is in the town of Wethersfield, Connecticut, approximately 2.5 hours by train from New Haven. The town was founded in 1633 and claims to be the most “ancient” town in Connecticut. The building, known to locals as the Joseph Webb House, is a three-and-a-half story Georgian-style house and shop with gambrel roof. In addition to its varied list of owners and uses, the building served as George Washington’s headquarters in May 1781 and is where the general met with the French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, to plan the joint military campaign that led to the victory at Yorktown and the end of the American Revolution.2 Under the Provisions of the Historic Sites Act of August 21, 1935, the house was designated a National Historic landmark. The inscription on the Webb House marker reads: “this site possesses exceptional value in commemorating and illustrating the history of the United States.” The current interior has been restored to an 18th-century appearance and stands as part of a tripartite collection of house museums, or the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum. The grounds feature a Colonial Revival garden and a 19th-century barn in the rear. An initial site visit will be coordinated by and with instructors. Students will be expected to coordinate additional site visits as required throughout the semester.
Additional building details:
Owners (original): Joseph Webb, Mehitabel Nott
Address: 211 Main Street, Wethersfield, Connecticut, 06109
Builder: Judah Wright
In addition to the extant building, the scope of site will not be limited exclusively to the Joseph Webb House, but will also be considered through an expanded historical, geographical, and cultural lens. Following an initial building survey and design exercise, the studio will embark on a five-day tour of all six New England states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) to visit a variety of sites that include Native American communities, Early settlements, religious communities, Revolutionary War sites, and early industrial buildings. The bulk of the tour will occur from the vantage point of a moving bus, allowing for the trip itself to engage with New England’s physical terrain and severe winter climate.
Location: New Lebanon, NY & Stockbridge, MA
Area: 23.7 mi²
Founded: 1818, 1739
Population: 2,172 (2018), 600 (2020)
Places of Interest: Shaker Museum, Norman Rockwell Museum, The Berkshire Athenaeum
Location: Stowe, VT
Area: 72.76 mi²
Population: 600 (2020)
Places of Interest: Mt. Mansfield
Location: Portland, ME
Area: 69.44 mi²
Population: 68, 313 (2021)
Places of Interest: Old Port, Downtown, Great Diamond Island
Location: Portsmouth, NH
Area: 16.82 mi²
Population: 22, 277 (2021)
Places of Interest: Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth Athenaeum
Location: Providence, RI
Area: 20.6 mi²
Population: 189, 692 (2021)
Places of Interest: Meeting & Interview with Dietrich Neumann (professor for the history of Modern Architecture & director of Urban Studies at Brown University), Providence Athenaeum
The studio is organized into three parts: Part 1 - Observation, Part 2 - Index, and Part 3 - Refinement. Parts 1 and 2 will conclude with a midterm and are to be worked on individually. Part 3 will conclude with a final review and students are able to work individually or in pairs.
Part 1 - Observation will not require any design, but rather, an exceptional survey of the extant building and lot. A close reading of Frampton’s text coupled with firsthand documentation of material, tectonic, historical, and topographic forms will infuse specific techniques to produce an ‘as-found’ set of drawings. A minimum of (4) four drawings and (1) one physical model is to be produced following multiple site visits. Like an archaeologist, Part 1 will underscore the individual’s ability to experiment with new ways of documentation to reveal the existing building’s physical character.
Part 2 - Index will serve as a quick, but precise, proposal for rehearsing how the ‘as-found’ documentation of Part 1 might reveal methods for future alterations (e.g., additions, subtractions, renovations) to the extant building. Part 2 will include a road trip through all six New England states to expand the area of ‘regional’ influence. Site-specificity will take on new meaning by casting wider nets of social, environmental, and tectonic values. While the scope of design remains to alter the extant building in a way that embellishes or suppresses its ‘as-found’ qualities, Part 2 will rehearse how to balance autonomy with site-specificity using an explicit form of red linework to track the proposed alterations in contrast to the extant building.
Part 3 - Refinement will yield authorship. Students will refine their Part 2 proposals according to a specific ‘alteration’ brief that will include an (a) interior renovation (< 50%), (b) program conversion (athenaeum), and © addition (+/- 5,000 sf) to the extant building. All proposals are to adhere to international occupancy and accessibility standards and may be as minimal or as maximal, exterior, or interior, as the research requires. Part 3 will require individuals to produce a set of ‘alteration’ drawings and (1) one ‘alteration’ model at an identical scale as Part 1. Alteration drawings will also be presented as static frame videos using animation software to consider how light, sound, and other forms of movement affect the alteration proposal.
1 Paul Ricoeur, “Universal Civilizaition and National Cultures” (1961), History and Truth, trans. Chas. A. Kelbley (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), p. 283.
2 “Joseph Webb House.” Webb Deane Stevens Museum. Accessed January 3, 2023. https://webb-deane-stevens.org/historic-houses-barns/webb-house/.