February 2007, Architect

Florida Bauhaus

Terence Riley and John Bennett find inspiration in the legacy of Mies van der Rohe

The doorbell rings often at Terence Riley’s sleek, new Miami home. Passersby stop in to inquire if Riley, formerly chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), can create a similar residence for them, while architecture students drop by unannounced to cajole Riley for a peek inside. “OK, I’ll give you two minutes,” he usually tells the students.

Having traded in his post at MoMA a little over a year ago for the directorship of the Miami Art Museum, Riley is pressed for time, busily overseeing that institution’s expansion and construction of a new building by Herzog & de Meuron. But Riley apparently thrives on creating new homes for institutions and himself. After overseeing MoMA’s transition into its latest built incarnation by Yoshio Tanaguchi, he worked with his partner, architect John Bennett, to design the Miami dwelling that they now share.

The house is half of a duplex that Riley and Bennett intend as a prototype for a leading Miami developer to replicate elsewhere, and is based on a design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that the two architects explored as part of research for the 2001 Mies retrospective at MoMA. Along with Mies’s more celebrated designs like the Villa Tugendhat and the Barcelona Pavilion, the exhibition included a group of so-called court houses with interior walled gardens, drawn up in 1931 soon after Mies became director of the Bauhaus. Riley believes that Mies created the low-cost court house design in response to criticism from his left-wing Bauhaus predecessor Hannes Meyer that he was overly focused on fashioning luxurious homes for the wealthy.

The court house designs were never realized in Germany, but after the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus and Mies came to the United States, several of his followers built Miesian courtyard houses, including Philip Johnson who built one in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1942. In Miami, Riley has taken a Weimar-era experiment and given it a tropical twist worthy of David Hockney, centering his duo of houses on a pair of narrow lap pools. On one side of each pool is the living room and kitchen; on the other are two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Moving between these areas, enclosed on each side by tall sliding glass doors, requires crossing a narrow concrete bridge spanning the water. Walled gardens, filled with Florida ferns and bromeliads, flank the front and back.

On a recent visit to the house, Riley’s swimsuited younger brother lounged poolside in the warm winter sun. In south Florida’s temperate climate, traversing the open air court yard bisecting the bedrooms and living area is generally unproblematic, though periodic rain and hurricanes means sometimes getting buffeted by the elements.

Riley and Bennett had originally wanted the perimeter walls to fill the lot line, but this went against local zoning code and prompted neighborhood opposition. At a public hearing by a local planning commission, Riley defended the concept and was ultimately able to get it built with only a small setback from the street. The New York firm K/R Architects, which Riley founded in the 1980s with John Keenen, acted as project architect.

While developer Craig Robins — whose company, Dacra Development, revitalized the Miami Design District a few blocks away from the duplex — may not share the same idealistic goals as the Bauhaus academy, he sees the reinterpreted court house concept as a template for affordable, yet high design housing. Riley, who undertook the project before leaving his MoMA job, said, “If a museum curator can afford it, it’s definitely middle class.”

With 1,600 square feet in each of the living units, each unit in the duplex cost roughly $400,000. Not exactly the housing for the masses that Hannes Meyer had in mind when he lashed out at Mies, but still of wide market interest for Robins, who quickly sold off the second unit to two Brooklyn-based art dealers.

“It is a great example of where simplicity and extraordinary design produces something that offers an extremely high quality lifestyle without an exorbitant cost,” the developer says. Indeed, the house affords privacy, light, and tranquility on a small cramped lot in what was until recently a not particularly desirable area of Miami. “You retain those things that are usually associated with houses that are larger and more extravagant,” said Riley, adding that the duplex is already sparking considerable interest. “People walk in off the street and call us to ask, ‘How much are these?'”

Some of the most lavish elements of Mies’ residential designs are absent. “Travertine floors, onyx partitions and the like are not what we wanted to do,” Riley says. He opted for polished concrete floors, thin steel pillars, and 9-foot ceilings with an abundance of glass and white plaster walls. Luxury has not been entirely foresworn. The low-slung Bulthaup kitchen looks, Riley says,” like Donald Judd had imagined it.” The furniture is by a range of designers from Eero Saarinen to Philippe Starck. “It all had to look beautiful from the bottom because once you’re in the pool you see it,” says Riley.

Oddly for the home of a museum director, the walls are bare of art, save for two partitions covered with collages meant to signal Mies’s desire for an integration of art and architecture. A wall overlooking the central courtyard and pool has been left blank for the projection of varied images at parties or to serve as a screen for outdoor film viewing on balmy nights.

Robins wants to build entire enclaves of these courtyard houses, but not in southern Florida where real estate price hikes have made land expensive, spurring high-rise construction. “We thought this was a sketchy neighborhood,” Riley says, recalling when he and Bennett first planned the house three years ago. Now, the modest 1920s bungalow across the street is on the market for $1 million.

So instead of Miami, Robins is considering Miesian enclaves for Beijing, Moscow, and Buenos Aires. If courtyard houses were to line both sides of streets in those cities, Riley says with evident delight, “It becomes a neighborhood of like-minded people who want to live in a house like this and have an interest in not just what is behind the walls but in the public spaces as well.”