The McInturff Practice
Talk to Mark McInturff about his work and you will immediately recognize a man still in love with architecture. Over the past 15 years, since founding his own firm on the Maryland outskirts of Washington, D.C., McInturff has purposely kept his firm small — about a half-dozen people.
This allows him, as a principal, to stay intimately involved with designing and building. It also means that he spends less time beating the bushes for work to "feed the monster," and running a business. The majority of the firm's work is still residential — new houses, renovations, additions — and some modest commercial and institutional projects.
At this scale McInturff can maintain a comfortable level of control on all the projects in his office and be intimately involved at every level, from the large conceptual vision of the design to the diminutive details of how a beam and a post come together, or the profile of a window casing, or the nosing on a stair.
Looking at his work, one can see how much pleasure McInturff and his collaborators still take in the practice of architecture. "Pleasure" in this case includes generous measures of both agony and ecstasy to bring one's designs to reality.
Having long worked in the realm of renovations and additions, McInturff approaches architecture with a complexity and complicity that architects used to working on clean slates might envy.
McInturff does not believe in the "seamless" addition, where the new architect's work should disappear within the language of the older building. In any project, McInturff explores its underlying order. He attempts to draw what is interesting out of what is there, taking that as a starting point upon which to base his own design.
This might range from the stylistic language of the older building or its materials, to its scale, or its relation to the outdoors, or the hierarchy between public and private spaces. It might recall the history of a place, or it might draw together the disparate pieces of many structures built over time.
But many times what's there to start with is not much in terms of architectural quality or interest. It then becomes the architect's mission to create something interesting and engaging out of virtually nothing. McInturff's challenge is to do this while not ignoring what is there — to create a new environment that stands on its own, architecturally, while not undermining the context. It is a delicate balancing art, and it demands an attention and sensitivity to detail that is the product of years of practice.
A Sampling of Projects
For example, in the Borsecnik Weil residence, McInturff celebrates the existing building's lukewarm modernism by turning up the stylistic volume. The addition is a clean, crisp, light-filled ode to modernism that is faithful to the old 1950s house while providing a fresh interpretation of its architectural language. It pays homage to the old, but takes center stage all the same.
In another case, the Feller residence, the existing house and its site yielded an opportunity to create a new outdoor space inside, mediating between house and garden. Again, the response is just right for the circumstances and melds inside and outside.
Outdoor spaces are abundant in McInturff's work. He attributes the roots of this interest to Charles Moore and European design, and practices in a climate in which shady garden spaces are a welcome respite in the summer humidity that Washington is infamous for.
McInturff's designs are for outdoor rooms, gracious garden spaces that are usually extensions of the home's interior. One of the best examples is the Heard Teng II residence, in which green space, water, paving, and an arbor echo an interior arrangement of rooms that offer excellent vantages of the garden.
Another project, the Weiner II residence, is an exercise in preserving and tending a tiny outdoor space of only 200 square feet (18 square meters) in the rear of the home. The new dwelling is a cozy combination of two houses that sit adjacent to each other, with many of the interior spaces borrowing light or views from the postage-stamp back yard. In this case, the outdoor space is not only an amenity, but it provides the critical access to light and air that make viable this combination of two homes into one.
Any one of these projects reveals McInturff's infatuation with details. The beams and columns in the Knight House are an exercise in structure as sculpture. The Bronstein Cohn library suggests the intimately scaled and richly detailed spaces of Wright's own house and studio in Oak Park, Illinois.
The cladding of the Tasker house demonstrates a range of scale and depth that can be achieved with relatively simple, vernacular materials. The King Stair is a detailing tour de force that articulates every connection between one floor and the next. The Withers house takes common materials such as asphalt shingles and corrugated sheet metal, and uses them in ways that turn a cabin in the woods into a miniature art museum.
Mark McInturff's choice to keep his practice small and personally manageable has preserved for him those very aspects of architecture that attracts us to it.
For young architecture students looking forward to that day when their dreams will become built reality, and for older architects looking backward from the lofty peaks of principaldom where one's designs can be recognized only in their broadest conceptual outlines, McInturff's architecture reminds all of us that the joy of architecture is in the journey, and in the very parts we can grasp with our hands.
Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, an associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.
This article is excerpted from In Detail: House Design by McInturff Architects, copyright © 2001, available from Images Publishing and from Amazon.com.
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