Breuer and Noyes in New Canaan
by William D. Earls
Over fifty years ago, the "Harvard Five" architects, Marcel Breuer and his students Landis Gores, John Johansen, Philip Johnson, and Eliot Noyes, built houses for themselves and their clients in New Canaan, Connecticut.
That ushered in a period during which some of the best-known architects of the 20th century produced landmark designs in a community otherwise known for staunch New England conservatism. Set against a backdrop of old colonial houses and idyllic scenery, the modern houses incite strong reactions from nearly everyone who sees them, even today.
First Noyes House in New Canaan, 1947
The street level of the first Noyes House contained the bedrooms and entry foyer. Living room, dining room, kitchen, and study were located on the lower level, giving privacy from the street, direct access to the backyard, and views to the pond below.
"As every reader of this magazine knows, New Canaan is the home of men (sic) like Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, Eliot Noyes, John Johansen, Landis Gores and others. They have made New Canaan a symbol of creativeness in modern American architecture." House & Home, January 1953
Upper, entry floor plan of the first Noyes House.
Image: Courtesy Christian Bjone
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Lower, living floor plan of the first Noyes House.
Image: Courtesy Christian Bjone
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First Breuer House in New Canaan, 1948
"Is there today such a thing as a demonstrative architectural form? Is there a structural symbol comparable to the archaic column, the Gothic arch, the Renaissance dome? It is, perhaps, the cantilevered slab — light and slightly resilient in the wind..." Marcel Breuer
"New Canaan (pop. 8001) is a conservative, pretty, station-wagon town in handsome Fairfield County, within fashionable commuting distance of New York. Its startling notoriety began some six years ago when Marcel Breuer, one of the world's best-known and most admired contemporary architects, moved in and built himself a small but dramatic house, a long, one-story building suspended in mid-air over a platform by means of cantilevering and steel cables. Breuer is a master, and masters, of course, attract disciples. In no time at all New Canaan had a colony of new, T-Square-carrying residents all busily designing new houses for themselves." Holiday, August 1952
Breuer's 1948 house in New Canaan stands on a sloping site with views downhill in two directions.
Photo: Pedro E. Guerrero
"Until recently, the only way to build was to exploit the dead weight of stones or bricks or wooden logs, to pile one on top of the other; beams or arches that depended upon gravity or compression-principle for their strength. The great change in construction has been the shift from simple compression structures to continuous, fluent tension-structures. This change is so radical that it alone would justify a completely new architectural concept. The past used gravity to defeat gravity; the Egyptian pyramid is broad at the base and narrowing to a point at the top. The 'new structure' in its most expressive form is hollow below and substantial on top — just the reverse of the pyramid. It represents a new epoch in the history of man, the realization of one of his oldest ambitions; the defeat of gravity..." Marcel Breuer
"As a result, we can now cantilever structures way out into the air — either horizontally, or vertically, as in a skyscraper. In either case, the seemingly unsupported structure reaching out into air is really tied to the rest of the building and to the ground. The whole skeleton of the building is a continuously integrated frame, and any stress on one part of it is resisted by all other parts of the frame. It is the principle of the tree: a structure cantilevered out of the ground, with branches and twigs in turn cantilevered out from the central tree trunk..." Marcel Breuer
"Somebody said 'architecture is frozen music.' This is true, though I have my reservations about the word 'frozen.' How about opening the doors, sliding open the windows or walls, going in and out, moving the chairs? How about the curtains, the changing light, color, and atmosphere... you not only see or photograph architecture, you live in it. It should be alive, not 'frozen.'
"Somebody else said it's a 'machine for living.' Again true, but you don't want to get greasy if you lean against the wall. You want to have something simpler, more elemental, more generous, and more human than a machine." Marcel Breuer
"The real impact of any work is the extent to which it unifies contrasting notions, opposing points of view. The easy method of meeting contrasting problems is the feeble compromise. The solution for the contrasts between black and white is gray — that is the easy way. Sun and shadow does not mean a cloudy day." Marcel Breuer
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This article is excerpted from The Harvard Five in New Canaan by William D. Earls, copyright © 2006 William D. Earls, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.