Habitat Book Review: A Place of Houses by Charles Moore


The seminal book of my architectural education was “A Place of Houses” by Charles Moore, with his partners Gerald Allen and Donlyn Lyndon. The firm’s fourth partner, William Turnbull, drew the beautiful axonometric drawings of houses in the book, ranging from the historical Tidewater house, Stratford Hall, in Virginia to many of the houses that MTLW designed throughout their careers. Their book was published the year before I graduated from architectural school and profoundly influenced my thinking about residential design throughout my career to this day. It is written for anyone who is contemplating building a new house or remodeling an existing one.

The authors set the scene by writing about three towns they believed showed how individual houses grouped together can bestow a unique sense of place on an entire community; Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, Santa Barbara, CA and Sea Ranch in northern CA. Edgartown’s three centuries of New England architecture, Santa Barbara’s decision to rebuild in the Spanish Colonial style after the devastating 1925 earthquake and the new architecture of Sea Ranch were all unique places.

I was fascinated by the first pictures I saw of the Sea Ranch condominiums. The stunning black and white photography made the simple geometric house forms seem to rise naturally from the rocky cliffs along that part of a barren stretch of Pacific coastline and to resemble rock formations themselves.

Climate and topography have always influenced the form of houses. Houses here in Maryland evolved to primarily deal with the hot summers. Unlike New England houses where the fireplace was centered to conserve heat for the surrounding rooms, Tidewater houses located the fireplace on the exterior wall, with rooms along a double sided central corridor through the middle with doors at each end to catch the breezes. In other parts of the country, a preferred way for arranging rooms evolved from the New England boxes to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie houses such as the Willitts House in Highland Park, where he removed walls between rooms and extended wings in four directions to spread across the flat site.

The authors believed there were three factors to be considered in designing a house, and they christened them “The Order of Rooms”, “The Order of Machines” and “The Order of Dreams”.

They describe rooms in their simplest forms as a space with a floor, walls and a ceiling. Space is brought to life by its dimensions of length, width, and height and is animated by light. Variations in the height of a room alters the feeling of the room- my old farmhouse has 7’-4” ceiling heights and whenever I visit homes with heights of nine feet or greater I keenly feel the striking spatial change.

The authors felt the opposite factors of movement and repose are important characteristics of a room. A single focus like a fireplace inglenook, a bay window, etc., becomes the center of interest and invites repose. The authors also believed “focus” organizes the interiors of rooms and “outlook” occurs through windows, which can bridge between near and far views.

The authors divide machines into two groups, self-operating like HVAC units or small machines that we operate directly, like a washer or dryer. These machines require spaces and must be considered in the design of a house. They also consider stairs to be “machines” since they assist us in vertically moving between floors. One of the most beautiful stairs I have ever seen is one illustrated in the book, the central hall in the Nathaniel Russell House in Charleston, SC, with its sinuous stair that connects three floors in a graceful spiral.

My favorite order was the last, the order of dreams. Around the middle of the 19th century, American domestic architecture changed with the popularity of Pattern Books. Instead of the sole New England Colonial style, these books offered an international range of styles from Greek Revival, Gothic, Queen Anne, Tudor, Swiss Chalets, etc. Now homeowners could select a house style to match their dreams.

The order of dreams encourages you to imagine your house fulfilling your memories and daydreams so you can create special places for them to be nurtured. One of the author’s examples of how dreams inspired an iconic house is Fallingwater. The family would picnic opposite the waterfall and dream of their house with that view. In a master stroke of genius Frank Lloyd Wright placed the house over the falls instead and the everyday became extraordinary.

Think about the places you have seen or read about that linger in your memory. For me, a few of them are a glimpse of a garden with a trickling fountain through a gate in Charleston, SC, the two-story library at Biltmore House with its massive fireplace, terraces where Fred and Ginger danced, and the screened porch at the Buckhorn Inn in the Great Smoky Mountains of my home state of Tennessee.

Collections and other memorabilia give clues about the things that matter most to us and need an important place in our homes. I collect pitchers and Oaxacan wood carvings of animals in colorful patterns. I also love genealogy. Along my stairwell are five generations of my family on my mother’s side back to one Antonio DePrato of Barga, Italy. I see my great- grandfather Mac in my brother’s face and I like to think my love of roses “stems” from my great-grandmother Rose.

The authors end the book with a series of thoughtful questions to encourage one to contemplate how their answers will tell them what they want their house to be. I used their list as a base to compose my questions for clients to create a ‘building program’ to guide the design. I have made many changes over the years but the core list remains a thoughtful guide.

Jennifer Martella has pursued her dual careers in architecture and real estate since she moved to the Eastern Shore in 2004. Her award winning work has ranged from revitalization projects to a collaboration with the Maya Lin Studio for the Children’s Defense Fund’s corporate retreat in her home state of Tennessee.

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