Page D1.2 . 11 April 2012                     
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Distilled Farmhouse

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This form set the proportions for the rear addition of a one-and-a-half-story great room bridged by a steel walkway to the sixth bedroom, tucked above the living room and overlooking the sunroom and screened porch. The original ridge beam was reinforced to support this new cross gable.

The choice of modest practical materials such as radiant-heated concrete floors and stock stainless-steel kitchen cabinets completes the Midwestern metaphor. Corrugated metal panels clad the complex, and were placed vertically on the new, horizontally on the old. The whole is covered in checkered asphalt shingles, carrying on a local tradition of eccentric roofing.

Packed into 3,500 square feet (330 square meters), the old/ new farm shelters another family while putting food on neighborhood tables.

"Margaret recognized what we wanted, and we gave her carte blanche," said one of the clients. "The house works very well — and it's a fun place to be."

A Work Ethic Under Fire

In the spirit of full disclosure as her husband and her partner, I note that I do not approach writing about Margaret McCurry's architecture objectively.

I undertake this task blissfully because I am the one who most closely observes her way of working, ergo I am the one most likely to understand her means and methods of contending with clients and their individual and collective mishegoss.

Margaret comes from a family of architects of various stripes. Her father was — and her sister, her brother-in-law and her husband are — architects all, each with his or her own idiosyncratic approach to the discipline. To break bread at her family's dining table in Lake Forest was to digress about the architectural issues of the day and to debate the impact that those issues might have had on the communal gathering.

Because Margaret was educated in the liberal arts and sciences both in high school and at Vassar College (albeit with a later dab of professionalism at Harvard University), she brings a Socratic approach to architectural problem-solving. Margaret never sees architecture solely as a vocational field bereft of the more significant issues of the spirit.

Her oft-repeated mantra about the need for quiescence in design resonates not only through the spaces between her words but through the spaces defined by the walls of her buildings.

Margaret would never be so bold as to suggest that her work contends with the spirit, but I have no such compunction. Her insistent use of symmetries, both overarching and intimate, situates her directly within the most sacred traditions of architecture.

The quality of Margaret's architecture is coalesced somewhere between Shaker reductivist building and craft and her personal interpretation of Mies van der Rohe's minimalist aesthetic as defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, Mies's spiritual guru.

Margaret is renowned for her tenacity. Once she sinks her incisors into a client's calf, nothing can shake her loose. A good architect is often defined as one who has both a long attention span and a high threshold of pain: Margaret is burdened (but her work benefits) by both.

But it is Margaret's personal ethic on which I wish to focus my attention. Margaret is the most ethically inclined architect that I know. She is repulsed by marketing and couldn't identify branding if it popped up right in front of her as she charged forward to her own destiny with connoisseurship.

Unlike professionals who do it for money, Margaret is the consummate amateur, if by that definition the prefix ama- means doing it for love. Margaret's personal code of ethics exudes love while eschewing avarice. Words beggar my admiration for her ethical behavior.

Ours is a time in which professional ethical conduct has been displaced by untrammeled trafficking in commerce. There seems to be no length to which an architect won't go to corral a commission. Margaret belongs to that rapidly diminishing dinosaur class of architects whose inescapable passing will signal the death knell for a profession that fell only too willingly to its knees before the onslaught of free-based capitalism run amok.

Long may she reign.

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Margaret McCurry, FAIA, IIDA, ASID, ALA, is the president and a principal of the Chicago firm Tigerman McCurry Architects. A native Chicagoan, McCurry received her bachelor's degree in art history from Vassar College and her Loeb Fellowship in Advanced Environmental Studies from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Well-known for synthesizing the American vernacular with classical modernism, her award-winning projects have been published widely in architectural and interior design magazines and exhibited at museums and galleries in the United States and abroad. McCurry has also lectured at major universities and conferences, taught design studies, and authored articles for architectural journals and catalogs.

Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, RAAR, is a principal of Tigerman McCurry Architects. He received both of his architectural degrees from Yale University. Tigerman has designed numerous buildings and installations throughout the United States and around the world. He has been a visiting chaired professor at numerous universities, including Yale and Harvard; was the resident architect at the American Academy in Rome in 1980; and has given hundreds of lectures worldwide. He was also director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago for eight years. In 1994, with Eva Maddox, he cofounded Archeworks, a socially oriented design laboratory and school, where he remained as director until 2008.

This article is excerpted from Distillations: The Architecture of Margaret McCurry by Margaret McCurry, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, ORO editions.

 

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SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

The central space of the Saltzman Farmhouse is a long kitchen/ dining room. At its western end (shown), the space leads to the home's main sleeping wing, while its eastern side opens into the central volume of a three-room living suite.
Photo: Johansen Krause/ Courtesy ORO editions Extra Large Image

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The primary cladding of the Saltzman Farmhouse is corrugated metal.
Photo: Johansen Krause/ Courtesy ORO editions Extra Large Image

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Saltzman Farmhouse site plan drawing.
Image: Harold Di Vito and Erik Martin Extra Large Image

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Off the main living room, a sunroom forms the eastern arm of a south-facing courtyard at the Saltzman Farmhouse.
Photo: Johansen Krause/ Courtesy ORO editions Extra Large Image

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The living room of the Saltzman Farmhouse features a deep hearth flanked by window seats.
Photo: Johansen Krause/ Courtesy ORO editions Extra Large Image

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Saltzman Farmhouse ground-floor and upper-floor plan drawings.
Image: Harold Di Vito and Erik Martin Extra Large Image

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Small and large gable roofs rhythmically punctuate the facades of the Saltzman Farmhouse.
Photo: Johansen Krause/ Courtesy ORO editions Extra Large Image

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Distillations: The Architecture of Margaret McCurry by Margaret McCurry with the assistance of Harold Di Vito, Erik Martin, and Mara Wilhelm.
Photo: ORO editions Extra Large Image

 

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