|Commissioning Entity||Robert Frank|
Note: Woodland Road is a private road with private residences.
Woodland Road winds through a network of wooded ravines and local watersheds on the north face of Squirrel Hill, adjacent to Chatham University. The road was developed as an elite residential neighborhood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with expensive homes for Mellons and Laughlins and landscaping by the Olmsted Brothers and Berthold Frosch. Amid fine homes and plantings are four extraordinary houses that were designed by prominent architects in the middle and later years of the twentieth century. The houses are arranged in two pairs, more or less: a modern pair and a postmodern pair.
Pittsburgh industrialist Robert Frank commissioned emigre architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer to design a four-story house at a high point on Woodland Road. (At about this same time, the architects designed Aluminum City Terrace in nearby New Kensington, PA, a modest housing project for aluminum-industry workers.) The Frank house has extensive grounds that feature a terraced landscape to the southeast, and a sloping lawn to the west. The house is composed of complex geometries—rectilinear blocks softened and modulated by curving walls, stairs, and windows—and is constructed of various stones, woods, and other natural materials. It may be the largest, most complex, and most luxurious Modernist house of its time.
Young architect A. James Speyer became acquainted with Walter Gropius through his friend, fellow Pittsburgher Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr., and was reportedly instrumental in obtaining the Frank House commission for Gropius and Breuer. Some years later, Speyer, now associated with his mentor Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was well positioned to design a house for Jerome and Joan Apt downhill from the Frank house (Joan Apt was Robert Frank’s daughter). A short flight of steps descends from the hillside to the house, a minimalist steel-framed red brick and glass box (Mies famously said “Less is More”). Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the landscape on the opposite side of the house, and garages, with round-arched brick openings, sit within a plinth under the house.
Further south on Woodland Road, Frank A. Giovannitti sold the back half of a lot to Betty and Irving Abrams who built a house over a former stream bed. The Abrams house, designed by Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown, features an entry façade with an oversized radial multipartite window. The façade is detailed in an exuberant palette of colors conjoined with a checkboard motif (Venturi famously said “Less is a Bore”). Despite their mutual assent to such bravado, the clients and architects parted company when the Abrams made changes to the architects’ scheme in the interior of the house. The architects disowned the project, and it remained largely unknown for many years; but Venturi and Scott Brown finally visited the house in 2002, and welcomed the Abrams house back into their canon.
The money realized from the Abrams lot was used to finance the Giovannitti house designed by Richard Meier. The two-story house is pushed to the rear of its site to stand close to the Abrams House astride a slope. The cube-shaped house has a very small footprint; but the cube is carved and manipulated so that each face is uniquely composed of planes and voids, and so that interior rooms open into one another both horizontally and vertically. These architectural moves combine closure for privacy and openness for light and views. Meier’s signature geometries and white palette stand out among the homes and plantings of Woodland Road.
By Martin Aurand, architecture librarian and archivist, Carnegie Mellon University
Alan I. W. Frank House. http://thefrankhouse.org/
Driller, Joachim. Breuer Houses. London: Phaidon, 2000.
A. James Speyer: Architect, Curator, Exhibition Designer. Chicago: Distributed by The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Pain, Richard. “House Detective: Tracking Down Ace Venturi’s Secret Masterpiece.” Blueprint 220 (June 204), cover, 50-55.
VSBA Architects and Planners. http://www.vsba.com/
Meier, Richard. Richard Meier, Architect, 1964/1984. New York: Rizzoli, 1984.
Richard Meier & Partners Architects. http://www.richardmeier.com/
Walter Gropius (1883-1969) worked for Peter Behrens and Adolf Meyer in Berlin and designed projects such as the Fagus factory and the Administration Building for the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, establishing his name as an innovative modern designer. He famously organized the Bauhaus and designed the Bauhaus buildingin Dessau. Gropius left Germany for London prior to World War II, and then went to the United States and taught at Harvard University. Here he partnered with Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) in the design of a number of houses and other projects prior to practicing with the Architects Collaborative. Breuer attended and taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau, where he focused on furniture design but branched out into architecture. Breuer joined Gropius in London in and then at Harvard. Breuer started his own office in New York in 1941, and developed a practice of international scope. He is perhaps best known for the UNESCO building in Paris, his Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Wassily chair.
A. James Speyer (1913-1986) was born and raised in Pittsburgh. Speyer studied and practiced architecture with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and ultimately became best known as a curator at The Art Institute of Chicago. Other buildings by Speyer borrow heavily from Mies. Speyer's only other Pittsburgh project is the Speyer house (1963), which he built for his mother on Wightman Street in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Robert Venturi (1925- ) authored or coauthored two extremely influential books: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas (the latter with Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour). These books liberated late-twentieth-century designers to embrace lessons drawn from European architectural history and from American suburban sprawl. Venturi is often credited with launching postmodern architecture, but he favored a decorated architecture that was modern at its core. Venturi founded his Philadelphia firm in 1964, where he was later joined by his wife Denise Scott Brown (1931- ). Brown, an African-born urban planner, architect, and teacher, is known for her theoretical investigations of cities. While she and Venturi were teaching as Yale she instigated the Learning from Las Vegas and Learning from Levittown studios. Their firm, now known as VSBA, has designed numerous houses, museums, university buildings, and urban design studies.
Richard Meier (1934- ) worked for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill and Marcel Breuer prior to establishing his own practice in 1963. Meier was a key figure of the so-called New York Five (along with Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Michael Graves, and Charles Gwathmey) in the 1960s. Meier went on to become a prominent designer of projects ranging from houses to courthouses to museums, and is perhaps best known for the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Ignoring fashionable trends over time, his many works are variations on a single theme. His nearly all-white buildings, commonly composed with enameled panels and glass, emphasize geometry, line, light, and shade.