The architecture of Fernau and Hartman tells us that place will always matter
“We’ve hung onto a number of ideas over the years, chief of which is that place will always matter,” says architect Richard Fernau, one of two partners in the Berkeley-based firm of Fernau and Hartman Architects. “It’s been one of our touchstones.” Indeed, the work of Fernau and Laura Hartman draws on the deep-set traditions of the land and landscape, and, more, of the vernacular architecture that so often defines the terrain, to create work that has deep roots. The firm’s projects cross the country—from its home base in Northern California to the rugged ranchlands of Montana to the mountains of Colorado, the hills of Appalachia, the river banks of the Hudson, and the grassy dunes of Cape Cod. One might call it “rooted modernism,” and the phrase is totally apt.
That place will always matter is a powerful guiding principle, really a philosophy and even a morality. And in a field where the either/or choice has too often come down to one between the contextual or the contemporary, the work of Fernau and Hartman manages to do both—and to do so deftly and almost seamlessly. It is unjaded and uncompromised, absent that all-too-frequent been-there-done-that cynicism that can undermine architecture and ultimately make it drab and boring, or repetitive and clichéd. With each project there is a renewed vigor, a new sense of discovery. “We bring both intellect and pragmatics to each design,” Hartman says. “Wherever we are, it is about ‘here,’ about that place.”
Thus the Berggruen house in Napa County from 1988 does not just speak to the rural winemaking traditions of Northern California but draws on the materials and hues, as well as the striking geometries of the vineyard landscape—all of which derive from a very specific locale. (Fernau and Hartman later designed the Napa Valley Museum, which likewise draws on the region’s culture, incorporating both the architecture and the landscape into the museum-going experience.) “We more or less lived on the site,” Hartman says. “And we looked at water towers, at agricultural buildings—our work is not of the ‘let’s look like France’ or ‘let’s look like Italy’ vein.”
To delve into the files and minds of the two architects is a journey that involves geology, hor–ticulture, geography, history, art, photography, literature, and much more; it is a considerable trip that can cover in one breath topological studies, the writings of Eudora Welty, the combines of Robert Rauschenberg, and the quilts of Gee’s Bend. Suffice it to say that an amazing fount of knowledge and depth of thought go into each project.
Key to this is the respect both architects have for the found condition, for architecture “made by people working with minimal means,” as Fernau puts it. Too often, he says, what survives are just the “figurative aspects, the cute parts,” which in turn find their way into shopping centers and entertainment complexes. By contrast, the work of Fernau and Hartman reaches far into those traditions, and what emerges may manifest itself in specific, often recognizable, forms, but there’s something much deeper present too, a feeling that the architects have grasped a piece of the place’s soul.
Sometimes, it’s really quite basic. The Caperton house in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, was built with local masons laying native limestone and local timber framers hammering West Virginia oak. The house has metal and wood siding, again a nod to local building practices. The firm’s redesign of a historic house and reconstruction of a guest cottage in Nonquitt, Massachusetts, produced a complex that, at the owners’ request, does not rely on air-conditioning but lets the breezes from Buzzards Bay flow through freely.
In Montana, a decades-long project of renovating a homestead and slowly adding buildings to the site culminated in a modern ranch house, called the Cookhouse, that is steeped in the local architectural heritage but is very much of its own time. “The buildings are modest and down low, clustered together,” says the client, venture capitalist Greg Avis. “They pay respect to the landscape and not the other way around, which is how it should be.” This long project has given the two architects a chance not only to build on a powerful tradition but also, as Hartman says, “to focus on the land. We keep trying to explore where the building ends and the land begins and vice versa. What’s inside and what’s outside? What is the membrane?”
Avis cites the willingness of Fernau and Hartman to work with existing historic (often vernacular) buildings and “rehabilitate or reinvision them while injecting modern elements” as a strength, adding that “they respect what is there already.”
For what would ultimately be called the Laybourne House and Art Barn, clients and architects made as many as five pre-construction trips to Telluride, Colorado. They prowled the region, seeking ideas and elements that would provide inspiration and even camped on the site one night. By day they marked the footprint of the house, not as a tribal ritual but as part of the intense learning curve. That day, Fernau and Hartman took out a video camera and taped their clients envisioning the house that would go there.
Completed in 1993, it draws on the evocative architecture of Colorado’s long-abandoned mining camps and quite faithfully pays homage to that very particular vernacular tradition. But it also has a strong, lively, almost mischievous character that reflects the clients. “They study the place, but they also study the clients,” Geraldine Laybourne says. “They studied us until they got who we were. They immersed themselves. They managed to get the spirit of Telluride and the spirit of us.”
The Colorado complex is a sequence of buildings with separate sleeping quarters for kids (who have what might best be described as railroad berths) and adults, including a master bed that rolls out onto a deck overlooking a canyon. There is a fifty-foot-high lightning rod, an outdoor stair that derives from the old mining town’s former opera house, and a Quonset hut that is the “art barn,” which, says Kit Laybourne, refers to a Quonset hut they saw and admired in the course of their exploration of the countryside. The Laybournes have since worked with Fernau and Hartman on several personal and corporate projects, including offices for both the Nickelodeon and Oxygen networks.
In 2010 Fernau and Hartman completed a new project for the Laybournes, a renovation and addition to an 1861 house overlooking the train station and the Hudson River in Rhinecliff, New York. It’s an entirely different proposition, an addition that though modern, is intended to keep the character of the old house while expanding the interior to let it be entirely modern. “We wanted to be respectful,” says Kit Laybourne. “It doesn’t feel schizophrenic in any way. It’s an honest house on the outside and on the inside.”
Avis elaborates on that, saying that the core mission for Fernau and Hartman is to ask “what does the space feel like? Does it feel like it belongs there? Do the colors and materials work? ”
Which is to say that it starts with place, and it ends with place. Fernau points out that most often, when he and Hartman start a job, they say, “let’s just take a walk around.” It’s low-keyed and unscientific, but it’s all about learning in every possible way. “It’s our point of view,” says Fernau emphatically. “If you have a principle, that’s what you have.”
Photos (from top): Christopher Iron Photos, Richard Barnes Photos