A few years ago I went to a lecture of which the most compelling theme was the link between 20th century architectural practice and toy design. I can’t remember the specific architects who were mentioned back then, but I can think of two practitioners from the Northeast who, I believe, at least partially fit into that thesis—Ann McCallum and Andrus Burr of Burr & McCallum in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
The toy is sometimes the object and the by-product of obsession, invention, tinkering, and learning. In the right person’s hands, the toy can express elevated aesthetic thought and highly selective insight, instances where rigorous work and play are so closely linked that they can become indistinguishable from each other. Another way to say it is that
Virtuosos make what they do look easy.
I’ll be lucky to explain the appeal of the work of Burr & McCallum with anything like the virtuosity that Ann McCallum summed it up in the Whitney Stoddard Memorial Lecture, her retirement speech at Williams College.
The best that can be done is to observe that the flavor of efficiency in her words have been consistently maintained in their projects. Burr & McCallum’s obvious affection for the signature rhythms of the residential, industrial, and agricultural structures of the Northeast and its landscape is reflected in the minutest detail of their ingenious buildings.
Both Ann and Andy are Yale educated and have been professors at Williams College for many years. They maintain their practice in a venerable red iconic Victorian house (which is also their home) right on Route 2 just as you enter the center of Williamstown.
Ann’s retirement last spring was followed by an exhibition in the rotunda at the Williams College Museum of Art: Museum Models: Students Take On Celebrated Architects
The exhibition displays models built by her students over a span of twenty years. It was interesting to see the shorthand studies of known architectural styles exhibited in the museum’s rotunda, because some of the works themselves echo its neo-Palladian style―the WCMA rotunda is one of the most notable architectural features on the Williams campus. That’s what triggered my own recollection of the thesis that:
architecture as toy/play/work = virtuosity.
The models are scaled-down studies of the renowned architecture of Antonio Gaudí, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Henry Hobson Richardson, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Louis Kahn, Frank Gehry, and I.M. Pei, to mention a few. Here McCallum showed how structural proportion is a hallmark of great architecture. Learning the rigors of why and how it works may seem like play to the casual observer, but it surely is not.
A few years ago, as part of an art department faculty exhibition, Burr and McCallum, who are also enthusiastic bird watchers, showed an ironic design, a simple, ingenious Rust Belt style bird house, which, using miniaturization, turned a toy-like idiom back on itself both in scale and in time, and hinted that an avian fantasy home might be a plausible solution for the right client―with or without feathers. That might be the core of the humor in some of their work—reversal of time, or reversal of scale, or both.
About a dozen years ago they revived a site called Porches, a barn-red two story clapboard style row house from the 1930s or 1940s in North Adams, Massachusetts, directly across the street from Mass MoCA. This building recalls some of the most worthwhile features of the city. Situated on River Street, it’s near a junction in the westward-flowing Hoosac River, which flows parallel to it and highlights still another ubiquitous architectural feature of North Adams’ past, the porch. A visitor to the city can take an old-fashioned look at the new/old Mass MoCA and Massachusetts Avenue, the old road that echoes the river’s flow, which existed long before the current Route 2 overpass, which cuts through the heart of the city was ever dreamed of.
Although I’ve never actually seen it, Andy Burr has a collection of about a dozen tractors that he personally repairs and resuscitates, to be kinetic sculptures―big, loud toys. He grew up on a farm and has an encyclopedic memory for tractors and farm equipment worthy of a true Deere-ologist.
Lurking throughout the landscape here in the Northeast are rusted relics of grain threshers, wagons and the like, each crying out to anyone with an eye for the skeletal sculptural engineered beauty of machinery and as rustic time pieces, once functional and pragmatic, but now iconic toys from of a region that was once notoriously rocky farmland, with pockets of the past still relatively easy to find.
The landscape here is also populated with buildings that were built to endure, but which are not being re-appropriated or recycled as nearly as frequently as in Northern Europe, for example. Many of them have suffered the dreary fate of successive invasions of tarpaper, aluminum and plastic siding in an appalling array of textures and colors that, although engineered for the sake of “economy,” disguise the skill and ingenuity of their builders.
Ann and Andy’s attitude is entirely the opposite. Their collaborative architectural style is adaptable and flexible in ways that are capable of evoking Shaker efficiency and modesty with modern green materials and approaches that reflect the best of both worlds. Time and again, for example, it’s been interesting to see how their use of red corrugated steel has evoked an easy-on-the eye functional similarity to both the clapboard, balloon-frame or timber-framed house and barn. Part of the appeal of the corrugated exterior of these buildings is that they reflect the undisguised integrity of the proportions of the buildings that they emulate: cottages, workers’ houses, barns, schoolhouses, factories and other intrinsically efficient structures. Corrugation, the convex and concave line repeating itself in an identifiable scale, engages in straight talk with an even optical rhythm. Along with the sizes of doors, and the careful rhythmic spacing of windows, they all add up to a reverence for the past while being very fresh and new. And this is one of the consistent features of their buildings.
While Burr & McCallum’s practice has been involved with public spaces like schools and museums, offices and mixed-usage buildings throughout New England and upstate New York, they’ve done many, many houses that evoke this parting thought:
“When we live in a manor house we dream of a cottage, and when we live in a cottage we dream of a palace. Better still, we all have our cottage moments and our palace moments.” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space)