Master Builders

Which architect is right for you? Critic Martin Filler recommends 28 firms specializing in domestic design.

Most basic of all building types is the house, which shelters us from the elements and enables our essential daily activities. But the function of a house goes far beyond that. As repository of our highest hopes and deepest dreams, it exerts a tremendous psychic influence on our families and development as individuals. Thus, though the world is already filled with beautiful dwellings, many people desire nothing more than to build an abode that will be theirs and theirs alone, tailored to their innermost desires and expressive of their self-image and aspirations.

That's a tall order to fill, but it can be done. The trick is in the pairing of client and architect, or, on a more ambitious level, patron and artist. On the following pages is an opinionated sampling of some of the more noteworthy architects specializing in domestic design in America today, selected with an eye toward quality, stylistic inclusiveness, and geographical diversity.

Several names well known to the general public have been omitted, for various reasons. Chief among them: Because building houses is notoriously time-consuming and rarely proves as profitable as public projects do, many architects abandon residential work once their careers hit the big time. But rest assured that all those listed here, however celebrated, maintain an unshakeable commitment to the house as the cornerstone of architectural thought.

Two at One with Nature

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, spouses since 1983, are a paradoxical pair by current standards: star architects who reject the cult of celebrity that has overwhelmed their profession, indeed as it has most of present-day culture. While others labor to expand their practices, raise their profiles, and boost their bottom lines, Williams and Tsien struggle to keep their New York office and international job roster small so they can devote full attention to their work and clients. They eschew computer-generated design and take on no more than two new projects a year.

The benefit of that close focus is palpable in such projects as their superb American Folk Art Museum, which opened in New York three months after 9/11 and gave the city an exhilarating spiritual lift in its darkest hour. "We see architecture as an act of profound optimism," they wrote in their book Work Life (Monacelli Press, 2000). "Its foundation lies in believing that it is possible to make places on earth that can give a sense of grace to life."

Williams and Tsien have done that with their Long Island Residence, which began with an arcadian property dotted with tall pitch pine trees and overlooking a salt pond with views of the sea. The architects' ability to imbue strong modern forms with uncommon warmth is borne out by the three flat-roofed wood-and-glass pavilions that sit in the landscape with the serenity of classical Japanese architecture and the organic unity of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Substantial materials—a broad bluestone chimney, pewter-colored metal cladding on part of the roof structure—never feel weighty or showy and underscore the air of repose. Interiors flow with a graceful logic and are illuminated by large windows that frame vistas of nature. "As one walks through it," the designers point out, "images of the outdoors reveal themselves like images on a scroll."

TOD WILLIAMS BILLIE TSIEN ARCHITECTS 222 Central Park South, New York, NY; 212-582-2385;

The Power of Pure Color

Ricardo and Víctor Legorreta have revived the venerable tradition of dynastic architectural practice, and this father-son partnership's personal approach to modernism is likewise rooted in precedent, but not in imitation. From their Mexico City office they carry on the proud regional spirit of their country's most celebrated architect, and the elder Legorreta's mentor, Luis Barragán, whose embrace of tropical colors set his cubic structures apart from the wan white boxes of the International Style.

The Legorretas' houses share a basic vocabulary of solid rectangular massing, formidable walls, and deeply recessed windows that read as sculptural voids rather than reflective surfaces. Designs such as their Casa Bowes in California's Sonoma Valley, commissioned by San Francisco art patrons to show off their collection, never seem institutional, despite their typically large size and monumental presence. Several of the firm's latest domestic schemes, in locations as diverse as Maui, Napa Valley, and Fort Lauderdale, are illustrated in a dazzling monograph Legorreta + Legorreta: New Buildings & Projects, 1997-2003 (Rizzoli, 2004).

What those houses have in common with the Legorretas' Reno House in Nevada are settings of breathtaking natural beauty. This terra-cotta-colored mansion—predominantly horizontal with one tower containing a bedroom suite—sprawls among the brush and boulders of the Reno Valley against a backdrop of majestic mountains. It takes considerable architectural duende for a building to hold its own against such topographical competition, but this one's got it. The soaring interiors are cool, spacious, and mysterious in their grandeur. One unexpected amenity is the private family chapel, a tranquil cobalt-blue sanctuary that confirms padre Legorreta's belief that: "good architecture has a soul. There are buildings that whisper softly to us and inspire us forever."

LEGORRETA + LEGORRETA 285A Palacio de Versalles, Mexico City, Mexico; 52-55-5251-9698.

New Age of Enlightenment

Gilbert P. Schafer III is an unabashed adherent of classical architecture, but what distinguishes him from the growing number of retrograde enthusiasts is his faultless sense of proportion and restraint, not only in the sense of measurements but also in terms of what is correct in a given setting. Before modernism, builders relied on pattern books that spelled out how one part of a structure should relate to the others. That's why you can travel through rural America and find nary a displeasing 18th— or 19th-century building. Because such patterns are no longer consulted, it's why you drive through miles of new McMansions and find not one thing right.

The New York-based Schafer, unlike most of the classical cohort, maintains a becoming modesty. He simply wants to create buildings that are accommodating, pleasing, and appropriate, and that will pass the test of time. He has achieved that goal with his own house in Dutchess County, New York the antithesis of the grandiose manner in which classicism is most often reinterpreted these days. The welcoming pedimented portico would likely win the approval of Thomas Jefferson, and the gracious but simple staircase puts to shame the curving entry-hall extravaganzas that every million-dollar developer house features nowadays. This is just what our architect president dreamed of.

G.P. SCHAFER ARCHITECT 270 Lafayette Street, Suite 1302, New York, NY; 212-965-1355.

Shingle Style Inherited

Samuel G. White comes by his command of the Shingle Style honestly, perhaps genetically, as a great-grandson of the legendary Stanford White. Though the younger White's illustrious forebear is now best remembered for grand public buildings executed in the classical mode, his early shingle-clad houses of the 1880s and '90s have exerted the most enduring influence on American domestic design. That continuity can be traced in Sam White's acclaimed book The Houses of McKim, Mead & White (Rizzoli, 1998), which sets the record straight on the work of a master to whom thousands of buildings have been erroneously attributed. To paraphrase Henry James and quote Aretha Franklin, "Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby."

But White can hardly be called a nostalgia freak. He understands the principles of modern architecture as well as those of the classical ideal, and his keen sense of function keeps his work from being antiquarian, or, even worse, postmodern. A splendid example is his Bridgehampton Residence, which displays a sure grasp of traditional form and a light touch that set it apart from the overbearing pomposity of postmodernist kitschmongers like Robert A.M. Stern. "Some of them are just too wound up," says the notably relaxed White.

Because White knows the Shingle Style like the back of his hand, he's not averse to having a bit of fun with it. Take the detail above the Bridgehampton house's central second-story windows. He carries the downspouts of the side-by-side gables at a continuous angle so that they cross over and imply a ghostly pediment, a jest architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown would appreciate. But never is cleverness forced in White's houses, which invariably suit the locale and promote a civilized way of life, in no small degree because he encourages clients to spend generously on first-rate decorating and landscaping.

PLATT BYARD DOVELL WHITE ARCHITECTS 20 West 22nd Street, New York, NY; 212-691-2440.

Urbanity Without Vanity

Stanley Saitowitz may hail from South Africa, but he has become as integral to the ongoing Bay Area Style as any of its American-born exponents. After studying architecture at Berkeley (where he now teaches), Saitowitz settled in San Francisco and has built primarily in that region, designing several houses and wineries in the area. Those schemes, even when large, share an informal attitude and recall indigenous agricultural shelters, incorporating humble materials such as wood and corrugated metal without appearing the least bit hayseed.

Saitowitz is equally at home in town, and his condominiums and houses are among the best constructed there since the prime of William Wurster in the 1940s and '50s. In 2002 Saitowitz set off a local tempest in a chai cup with his Yerba Buena Lofts, an excellent but unapologetically modern development in a city narcissistically beguiled with its pre-1906 quake past. "There's nothing at the public level that educates people about architectural options," he laments. "Because people are surrounded by old-fashioned Victorian architecture in this city, that's the boundary of what they know."

Pushing that boundary even further, Saitowitz's most recent hometown job, the five-level Shaw house has startled staid Russian Hill. Like Darth Vader showing up unannounced at an Ann Getty ladies' luncheon, this remodeling of an existing structure claims its narrow site with complete authority, rejecting sentimental gestures to its traditional neighbors while adhering to a strict urban decorum. The severe charcoal-gray concrete-panel exterior makes no concessions to the houses around it and, unlike them, is devoid of ornament. The proportions are unassailable, the massing intelligent, and the aesthetic reminiscent of Minimalist sculpture. Inside, a luminous, skylighted stairway leads to upper-story rooms with staggering bay views.

STANLEY SAITOWITZ OFFICE/NATOMA ARCHITECTS 1022 Natoma Street, San Francisco, CA; 415-626-8977;

Mr. and Mrs. America

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown stand at the pinnacle of American architecture, their only peer being Frank Gehry, though he does something entirely different from their critical exploration of traditional and vernacular forms. This Philadelphia-based husband-and-wife team have long enjoyed a secure place in the history of modern architecture. Starting in the 1960s, they revolutionized their profession with such then-startling pronouncements as "Less is a bore" and "Main Street is almost all right," which signaled the overthrow of the International Style as well as the recognition that everyday architecture possesses an innate wisdom not to be lightly disregarded.

Through all the upheavals this couple has set in motion, they have remained dedicated to the centrality of the house, and have designed several of the most iconic ones of the past four decades, including the residence of Venturi's mother in Philadelphia's Chestnut Hill. Completed in 1964, it was radical because of its pitched roof, shocking at a time when modernists insisted that all roofs be flat. More recent works, such as their Coxe-Hayden House and Studio on Block Island, Rhode Island play familiar forms against a subversive undercurrent of unexpected scale. It epitomizes the architects' powerful simplification of domestic imagery, their ideal being a child's drawing of a house.

Although Venturi and Scott Brown now concentrate on large-scale public commissions—museums, university buildings, and campus planning—they might be persuaded to return to domestic design should an ideal patron emerge. "We're always busy and can only take on a house if the client is a little bit patient," says Scott Brown. "A house is an odyssey. It's a testing ground for trying out and sharpening ideas about architecture—not irrelevantly to a client's needs, but within them."

VENTURI, SCOTT BROWN & ASSOCIATES 4236 Main Street, Philadelphia, PA; 215-487-0400;

Merging Divergent Styles

Jim Olson and Tom Kundig of Seattle's Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects might, on the face of their very different approaches to residential design, be working for two separate firms. Yet the wide latitude each partner is given within this prolific practice confirms the validity of a pluralistic approach.

Olson pursues an urbane direction with an almost classical sense of balance and simplified details corresponding to traditional motifs. His 18,500-square-foot Red House in downtown Denver was commissioned by a collector who, reflecting a nationwide trend, wanted to move back to the city center from the suburbs. Clad in red sandstone, it responds to the scale of its gritty context but also stands apart from it with the dignified demeanor of a small museum.

Kundig is much less concerned with finesse and finishes than is his partner, and his houses, including one in Seattle called The Brain exude more raw strength than Olson's polished essays. This tough concrete box serves as the filmmaker owner's cinematic laboratory, and was conceived as the sort of tinkering shed in which discoveries are often made. In that improvisational spirit, the double-height interior projects a workmanlike pragmatism. A huge square window overlooking the lushly wooded setting lends itself to creative daydreaming.

OLSON SUNDBERG KUNDIG ALLEN ARCHITECTS 159 South Jackson Street, Seattle, WA; 206-624-5670;

Eyes for Perfect Detail

David Piscuskas and Juergen Riehm, principals of 1100 Architect (the room number of their first office) in New York, have won a devoted following among performing and visual artists—including Harrison Ford, Jasper Johns, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, and Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer. But that star power has nothing to do with showbiz glamour, for Piscuskas (American) and Riehm (German-born) are masters of the stealth luxury interior, in which superb materials and painstaking craftsmanship never upstage the inhabitants. Yet to call their work neutral is to miss the point, for while it looks discreet, nothing is left to chance in these exactingly conceived but eminently comfortable dwellings.

So renowned are the partners for their distinctive details that when Parsons School of Design held an exhibition on them earlier this year, it focused almost entirely on the grace notes. Glass doors framed with Mondrian-like metal mullions, walls faced with rich woods, and sensuous bronze hardware that you never want to let go of are a few of their signature touches. However, their residential work—mainly Manhattan loft, apartment, and townhouse renovations—is never finicky, as can happen with those who sweat the small stuff.

The typical 1100 Architect interior possesses a gutsy spatial sweep that sometimes results as much from shrewd perceptual strategies as from the skillful manipulation of raw internal space. Exhibit A: David Holbrook's West Village townhouse. To draw natural overhead illumination onto every floor, the designers cut a continuous slot from the skylights straight down to the entry level. The owner wanted his African art collection to be seen against floors evoking the tamped earth of a tribal village; the architects managed this with subtly finished mahogany. The dynamically torqued steel staircase is a sculpture in itself, as animated as any of the artifacts around it.

1100 ARCHITECT 435 Hudson Street, New York, 10014; 212-645-1011;


1. DEBORAH BERKE NEW YORK This anti-diva describes her work as "Simple, not simplistic; elegant, not extravagant; understated, not undefined; rich, not expensive; timeless, not trendy; refined, not rarefied; complex, not complicated; modest, not meager; subtle, not invisible; luxurious, not lavish." 212-229-9211.

2. COLEMAN COKER MEMPHIS Coker excels at giving Southern vernacular traditions such as dog-trot cabins and tin roofing a smart contemporary twist, especially in the rural South and Southwest. Never gimmicky, endlessly imaginative, ecologically responsible. 901-527-3086.

3. RICHARD FERNAU AND LAURA HARTMAN BERKELEY, CA Fernau and Hartman apply the intimate scale, quirky informality, and warm materials of the Bay Area Style with sensitivity across the country, from Montana to West Virginia. 510-848-4480.

4. RICHARD GLUCKMAN AND DAVID MAYNER NEW YORK Today's most-sought-after architect for contemporary art spaces, Gluckman is so identified with the museum world that that aspect of his work tends to overshadow his gift for residential design. But leading collectors know he's the go- to guy for art-friendly interiors. 212-929-0100.

5. ALLAN GREENBERG WASHINGTON, D.C. Accomplished classicist and scholar, Greenberg is impresario par excellence of grand, richly detailed houses, as well as interiors at the U.S. State Department. 202-337-0010.

6. GISUE AND MOJGAN HARIRI NEW YORK These Iranian-born sisters push the edge but never fall over it, with interiors that balance intriguing textures, inventive details, and an aura of up-to-the-minute excitement. Their spatial instincts are particularly acute. 212-727-0338.

7. STEVEN HARRIS NEW YORK Coeditor with Deborah Berke of Architecture of the Everyday, (Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), Harris is an eloquent advocate of unpretentious design that suits the way people really live. Yet his stunning Wiess house, on a bluff above the Pacific in Cabo San Lucas, is pure James Bond fantasy. 212-587-1108.

8. STEVEN HOLL NEW YORK An artist who chose architecture as his medium, Holl brings an intense and soulful investigation to every undertaking. He finds inspiration in all other art forms: His Stretto House in Dallas was prompted by principles of musical composition. Sometimes arcane, always authentic. 212-629-7262.

9. RICK JOY TUCSON One of the true originals to emerge from the Sun Belt of late, Joy experiments with packed-earth construction—one of the most convincing rethinkings of how to build in a punishing climate in this age of global warming. Perhaps a prophet, certainly a guru. 520-624-1442.

10. JOHN KEENEN AND TERENCE RILEY NEW YORK Cool, confident modernism without the theatrics. Keenen and partner Riley, MoMA's architecture and design director, have done some of their finest work in a Manhattan duplex maisonette for design collector John C. Waddell. 212-645-9210.

11. GLENN KEYES CHARLESTON, SC Meticulous restorer of historic houses, including South Mulberry Plantation on South Carolina's Cooper River for financier Parker Gilbert. Keyes plays it low-key by making like he hasn't been there at all. 843-722-4100.

12. HANK KONING AND JULIE EIZENBERG SANTA MONICA Joyful, livable, and unstuffy, the houses of this underappreciated duo channel the free spirit of southern California modernism, from the days of Rudolph Schindler onward. For those who want quality but don't require a big-name label. 310-828-6131.

13. RONALD KRUECK AND MARK SEXTON CHICAGO The rigor of the greatest émigré to call Chicago home—Mies van der Rohe—is filtered through a scrim of transparency and translucency. Arresting and surprisingly sensuous modernism. 312-787-0056.

14. MARC MARESCA CHARLESTON AND GREENVILLE, SC Not yet as well-known as he should be, Maresca handles traditional southern forms with affection and respect. His full-service operation comprises architecture, interiors, and landscape design, and he excels at inventive handcrafted details. 864-298-8019.

15. LEO MARMOL AND RON RADZINER LOS ANGELES Peerless restorers of midcentury modern classics, they're equally adept at start-from-scratch houses that summon up the bracing optimism of avant-garde California architecture in the heady heyday of Neutra and the Eameses. 310-826-6222.

16. THOM MAYNE LOS ANGELES Among the top three American architects of the fiftysomething generation, this fearsomely talented artist guarantees designs that deliver on his challenging terms. Not for the faint of heart, but then, no game, no fame. 310-453-2247.

17. SCOTT MERRILL AND GEORGE PASTOR VERO BEACH, FL Beacon of hope for those who pray that Florida can kick its addiction to the ghastliest residential architecture in America, Merrill and Pastor produce clean, graceful updates of southern and Caribbean traditions. 772-388-1600.

18. THOMAS PHIFER NEW YORK Phifer, a former lead design partner of Richard Meier's, has escaped the clone syndrome yet embodies a scrupulous adherence to pure form with dazzling white houses in the heroic modern manner. 212-337-0334.

19. MICHAEL ROTONDI LOS ANGELES Former partner of Thom Mayne, Rotondi creates large-scale schemes that affirmatively answer the question of the owners of his $3-million, 12,000-square-foot Teiger house in Bernardsville, NJ: "Can we make a house that feels traditional, but looks contemporary?" 323-226-1112.

20. ALAN WANZENBERG NEW YORK Adept at so many things, star-favorite Wanzenberg could be underestimated as a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. His highly sophisticated versatility, from traditional to modern, supports everything one looks for in a house: utility, style, ease, and pleasure. 212-489-7840.