Jan 18, 2010

Russel Wright: Manitoga

Constructed during the 1950s, Russel Wright’s Manitoga, a seventy-five-acre estate in the Hudson River Valley, was the culmination of a design practice that extended like a Moebius strip from the household objects of the house’s interior to the regeneration of the surrounding landscape. Manitoga’s significance was officially recognized in 2006 when it was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest level of recognition for historic sites in the United States, but despite this recognition, the project seems to have fallen in the cracks between disciplinary histories. Best known as an industrial designer, it is Wright’s only completed architectural and landscape project, which is presumably why it has inspired little interest from architects or landscape architects. However, it is worth revisiting Manitoga as a design project that is particularly pertinent to 21st century practice – a house, studio, and environment that folded industrial, interior, architectural and landscape design onto a single continuum, and redefined the relationship between design and nature.

Dragon Rock nestled into the walls of the former quarry

In an earlier blog entry, which serves as an introduction to this one, I outlined Wright’s design career up until he began working on Manitoga. Thus this story begins in 1942, when Russel and Mary Wright purchased the property with the intention of building a retreat from life in New York City. The site had been extensively logged and its main feature was an abandoned quarry, which hardly made for a picturesque setting for a future home and studio. Their initial work included creating paths, diverting a stream to make a pool in the quarry, as well as both selective clearing and regeneration of the landscape. With Mary’s death in 1952, Russel, while continuing to practice as a designer in New York City, became increasingly obsessed with Manitoga. After working with the landscape for some years, Wright finally decided on a site for his house and studio. Instead of situating the house on the hill top with views of the Hudson, Wright chose to fit it into the side of the granite cliff overlooking the quarry, enclosed by rocks and trees. Between 1955 and 1960, Wright designed and completed the house, Dragon Rock, with the aid of David Leavitt, an architect who had worked for Antonin Raymond in Japan for several years in the early 1950s. Though Leavitt is officially credited as the architect (and Wright was drawn to his Japanese experience), Wright had very specific ideas on the design of the house, and was certainly responsible for the interior fittings and furniture.

Wright's studio on right, main house to the left

Dragon Rock comprises a split-level living-dining room which flows into a kitchen, a wing for his daughter and a housekeeper to the West, and Russel’s separate bedroom-studio building (which also included a guest room), to the East. The studio is connected to the main house via a vine-draped loggia intended to create a theatrical effect of anticipation for a visitor who can hear but not see the waterfall beyond the screen of vines. The house itself is built on several different levels, creating not only visual interest but also heightening sensory awareness for the occupant moving through the space – though they can hear it, visitors cannot see the waterfall and quarry below until descending into the living-dining room area, further heightening anticipation.

Looking down into the dining room from the living room area

While Dragon Rock contains many innovative design details, Wright suggested two principles as the key to his design process: Blending and Contrasting. Framed in local white oak, the house blends with its natural surroundings, an idea which is carried further by his blending of the house’s interior and exterior by his use of granite stones from the quarry site for the living room’s rough stone stairs, fireplace, and flagstone floor. The living room feels like a cave built into the cliff face. A cedar log supports the main ceiling beam above the dining room. Plant material from the local area was incorporated into the ceilings, and native leaves were pressed behind transparent plastic laminates on a sideboard panel. A local stone becomes a door knob, a branch becomes a towel rack. Via materials, colors, textures and literal appropriations, Wright blended the interiors almost seamlessly with the environment outside.

A local stone becomes a door knob

However, the principle of Contrasting provides both visual and sensual interest in the interiors, with Wright’s juxtaposed the local, natural materials, with modern, high-tech plastics and textiles; regular windowpanes with the organic forms outside; and plastic furniture, panels and partitions with the stone floors and wooden beams. With careful attention to the texture, color and surfaces within the house, Wright incorporated innovative synthetic materials supplied by manufacturers such as DuPont, for whom Wright had previously worked. Dragon Rock was not simply a homage to raw “nature”, but a dynamic interaction between the artificial and the natural, blurring the boundaries between the two.

The cave-like living room, constructed of local granite from the quarry

The house was designed with Wright’s earlier “Easier Living” concepts in mind. He included a practical kitchen arrangement, for example, with a bar for buffet serving of food, built in shelving and pull out racks for easy storage. While Wright’s easy living was not reliant on technology, the house is equipped with a modern washer-dryer and dishwasher. Entertaining and meals were an important part of Wright’s redefinition of American lifestyle and for Manitoga, he took this idea further, designing menus with specific meals designed for both nutrition and aesthetics. Dinnerware and table settings were chosen to compliment particular foods, as well as harmonize with the seasons. Thus the house also designed for a specific way of living that Wright described as a reaction against the increasing mechanization and homogenization of American culture in the 1950s: Dragon Rock, he said, was “a designer’s experiment, not only in designing a house, but in designing a home and the way to live in it.” (Garrison lecture) It is worth noting that the 1950s was the era of the popular prepackaged TV dinner, a phenomenon diametrically opposed to Wright’s “creative living” ideal.

Looking down onto the kitchen-dining room area

Dragon Rock was designed to interact with the seasons, as Wright carefully devised two seasonal schemes for the interiors which included changing curtains, furniture, reversible panels and partitions, and artworks. For summer, cool blues, greens and white shades dominated the interiors, while for winter, warm colors such as brown, red and gold provided a contrast to the winter whites and grays outside. For winter, chairs were covered in fur slipcovers, which could be pulled off in summer. Even the candle chandelier above the dining table was replaced by a Plexiglas summer light fixture. Wright’s design of Dragon Rock ensured that the house and its inhabitants were in a continual and changing dialogue with the local environment – engaging with the materials of the landscape and adapting to seasonal rhythms.

The former quarry

Learning from Manitoga

Wright began working on Manitoga by clearing underbrush, planting native vegetation, pruning trees, and designing a series of trails that followed the site’s topography. From redirecting the stream to creating secret alcoves of native flowers, Wright completely redesigned the formerly denigrated landscape. In his design, Wright retained and highlighted the remnants of native forest remaining, but the site was also selectively cleared and leveled, trees pruned, and perhaps most importantly, plants cultivated in an effort to regenerate the environment. Wright completed extensive study of local flora in an effort to create appropriate plantings for the region and its climate. In his regeneration, Wright paid careful attention to texture, color, light and sensual qualities. The waterfall, for example, was carefully designed for both its aesthetic and aural qualities, stones and boulders were moved to create steps or informal seating, and a moss garden invited visitors to touch its sensuous surfaces. But this was not the recreation of “wilderness”, as Wright acknowledged human intervention into the landscape by exposing a cable hook embedded in a rock, or leaving blasting marks visible on another rock, and even hinting at more recent human intervention here and there in the form of carvings into a stone, for example, or subtle trail markers nailed to trees.

Cable hook embedded in a rock

Wright’s ongoing project at Manitoga included the construction of woodland paths to be experienced on foot, providing a range of sensory experiences for the walker. Four miles of trails, each with individual names such as Autumn Path, Morning Path, Sunset Path or Lost Pond Path, were designed for a particular time of day or season. The paths were carefully conceived to provide a wealth of sensory experiences – they narrow so the visitor has to climb over rocks or brush past undergrowth, then widen to a scene such as a hemlock canopy or bed of ferns. Wright’s ritual paths through the property may have been Japanese in inspiration, but can also be seen in an American context as part of a continuing tradition from New England Transcendentalism, a designer’s response to David Henry Thoreau’s walking in the woods in order to engage with the environment sensually and intimately.

The moss garden

Historically, the 1950s are typically characterized in architecture and design as the triumph of International Style modernism on the one hand, and more popularly, by the growth of suburbia and excessive consumerism. Both International Style modernism and suburban design began with a universal space, regardless of local environment or topography, and both (in their different ways) fetishized new technologies. Unlike either suburbia or the International Style of the period, Wright’s design engages intimately with the local environment, ecology, topography, and history. While modernism was typically confined to urban areas, suburban design was reshaping the landscape beyond cities by a clearing and leveling, thereby erasing the local topography and ecology, and replacing it with the standardized monoculture of the suburban lawn and decorative evergreen trees. Wright’s process at Manitoga was a reverse of this “tabula rasa” beginning of both the International Style and suburbia, beginning instead with an already “disturbed” landscape and carefully regenerating it through intervention and care. However, there could be no “return” of the landscape to the wilderness – the environment, as Wright’s design of Manitoga constantly reminds us, is always already artificial.

Wright's studio

Finally, it is worth reconsidering Manitoga as a contemporary design laboratory. For Wright, nature is always already marked by human intervention, and the dynamic interaction between nature and culture is at the heart of his project. At Manitoga, the environment is more than simply a background for human habitation and consumption, it is integrated into a dynamic relationship with culture, and Wright’s “creative life” actively involves humans in a tactile, sensual relationship with the surrounding landscape. Wright’s design process challenges the industrial society of the mid-20th century, whereby nature was seen in merely utilitarian terms (quarrying and logging), to begin what could be termed a postindustrial design practice that engaged in an alternative dialogue with nature. If the dominant narrative of postwar American culture was the technological conquest of nature by culture, Wright’s view from his studio at Manitoga is a good place to conclude. Wright described this view as a “worm’s eye view” – rather than looking down on the environment from above, Wright consciously positioned his studio so that the designer was situated below, or at least within, the landscape, a perspective which engenders a certain humility and respect.

Inside Wright's studio: "a worm's eye view"

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