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    The Rapson Cube


    In addition, because the nature of Rapson's work demanded constant interaction with students, clients, and colleagues, he sought some measure of isolation. "I wanted a place to be alone, and even a lake can be pretty hectic. So we started looking for land on a river." Hence the appeal of the forty-acre parcel in Amery, Wisconsin, some fifty miles east of Minneapolis, which the Rapsons purchased in 1972. The property included pine woods, meadows, and bluffs, and the Apple River snaked through it. "At the time, there were no houses in view. It was so nice to look out over the rolling pastoral valley."

    Ideally, Rapson wanted a house that afforded 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape yet also offered protection from the elements and some of its inhabitants. "I like nature, but I like a glass wall between me and all those little crawly, squirmy things." The beauty of the land in all seasons convinced him to build the house on the rise of the hill, sixty feet above the river, to maximize views and capture breezes.

    Rapson was intrigued by the idea of a glass house, but his early sketches for the project show that he initially considered more conventional forms and materials. The design evolved as he continued to walk the site and draw. As he and Mary discussed the plans, walls began to evaporate. "It [was] such a marvelous spot, with views in all directions, that it seemed whenever I planned a wall I was somehow denying the environment. So walls became windows, and I designed an all-glass house."

    The mass and volume of the house evolved as well, from an elongated box to a near-perfect twenty-six-foot cube. "The early designs were fun, but they weren't really radical." As both client and architect, Rapson could be as radical as he desired. The nature and constraints of the cube as a building form had challenged Rapson since his days with Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus, where students were encouraged to explore "pure" forms and primary colors. Later, at MIT and the University of Minnesota, a favorite studio design project of Rapson's was simply presented as "1x1x1=1" a cube, as the fortunate students realized.

    The client relationship may have been the most agreeable one of his career, but the construction of the house had the potential to be problematic. Since the site was miles from any large city, Rapson had to rely on a local builder to fabricate his house out of glass:

    "He had never built anything, really, from plans, but he put this together. It was rather surprising. There were a lot of mistakes [but] the walls went up very rapidly once the framing got up. They nearly put one wall up each day."

    Holding fast to his long-held belief in the suitability of standardized materials for residential construction, Rapson readily employed them in constructing his house. "My theory was that we would build this completely from stock things... nothing special... just off the shelf things," a decision particularly well suite to the Rapsons' limited construction budget of $25,000. The dimensions of the cube were determined by the measurements of window and door units, which the Minnesota-based Anderson Windows company supplied to Rapson at cost in return for being able to feature the house in their advertisements.

    The Glass Cube is structurally simple but visually complex and animated. The four walls are, as suggested, composed of a minimum of wood framing and a maximum of glass. These planes are recessed within an exterior structural framework of wood stabilized by crossed steel tension cables. Rapson breaks the strong horizontal rhythms of the frame by occasionally interrupting the continuity of the black bracing beams at the midpoint of the wall. White-painted wood frames the windows and doors, emphasizing the verticality of the individual panes of glass. This counterpoint creates what many have described as a "Mondrian-like" composition. The facades are enlivened by the colors, textures, and activities within the cube all visible through the transparent walls.

    Being inside the Glass Cube is a singular experience. Because the walls are transparent, there is little difference between outdoor and indoor light. From every vantage point within, the outside is fully visible. Breezes can enter freely as major window-wall sections are opened. The distinction between inside and outside is blurred. Although there is of course a roof, there are no customary floors. Above, floor planes hang suspended from the ceiling, creating a treehouse-like feeling. The floors on the lower level are wooden pads, connected by stepping-stones that "float" on a pond of marble chips. The chips function thermally, retaining solar heat during the day and releasing it at night. Moving from level to level, pad to pad, one considers each step, as if scaling a hill or crossing a rocky stream.

    Brightly colored kites, banners, textiles, and sling chairs decorate the house. There is not a drape, shade, or awning in sight. Hour by hour, season by season, nature is vividly on display. "Only after being in this house have I realized the richness of sunrises and sunsets," Rapson told a writer for Twin Cities magazine in 1983. "I was surprised to learn there is really more color in the eastern sky. I have become more appreciative of Mother Nature." At night, the house is enveloped in darkness. The interior glows with a jewel-boxlike brilliance against the black land and sky.

    The Glass Cube was featured in Architectural Digest in May 1980. The article commended Rapson, along with former Cranbrook classmate Charles Eames, for demonstrating "that it is not the choice of materials, but their sensitive management within a total design scheme that gives architecture its particular character or style."

    Twenty-five years after it was built, the cube still serves as the Rapson family retreat. It has also become a kind of pilgrimage destination for architecture students and historians. They come to experience the cube and to study how Rapson produced a house that is durable enough to withstand the powerful pull of time and the elements while also appearing to be gossamer-light and enabling its inhabitants to feel at one with nature. This is the paradox of building a structure of glass. For Rapson, therein lies the appeal: "I like the idea of an architecture that is both substance and illusion: here and not here, seen and not seen."

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    This article is excerpted from Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design by Jane King Hession, Rip Rapson, and Bruce N.Wright, with permission of the publisher, Afton Historical Society Press.



    ArchWeek Image

    Crossed steel tension cables stabilize the exterior structural framework of Rapson's vacation house.
    Photo: Tony Soluri / Architectural Digest

    ArchWeek Image

    The floors of the Glass Cube are wooden pads that "float" on a pond of marble chips that retain and release solar heat.
    Photo: Tony Soluri / Architectural Digest Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The suspended loft evokes the feeling of being in a treehouse.
    Photo: Tony Soluri / Architectural Digest

    ArchWeek Image

    Rapson considered many schemes for his vacation home before settling on the Glass Cube motif.
    Image: Courtesy Ralph Rapson Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    A detailed elevation sketch of the Glass Cube.
    Image: Courtesy Ralph Rapson Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Site plan drawing of the Glass Cube.
    Image: Courtesy Ralph Rapson

    ArchWeek Image

    The outside is visible from nearly every spot within the Glass Cube.
    Photo: Tony Soluri / Architectural Digest

    ArchWeek Image

    At night, the illuminated interior of the Glass Cube glows with a jewel-boxlike brilliance.
    Photo: Courtesy Ralph Rapson Extra Large Image


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