Jan 18, 2011

James Rose House

As part of my ongoing Manitoga project, I visited landscape architect James Rose’s home back in July last year. Completed in 1953, the Rose house is an unusual and little known gem of mid-century modernist design, integrating architecture, interiors, furniture design, and landscape design into a harmonious experience of serenity and tranquillity in the somewhat unlikely setting of suburban New Jersey. While Rose’s adaptation of Japanese aesthetics is compelling, he also drew on modernist principles, and employed an improvised, ad hoc approach to design. The Rose house and garden is an idiosyncratic but provocative design project, and certainly deserves wider recognition.

Fountain in the rear garden, James Rose House

In the 1930s, Rose studied architecture at Cornell, then landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. In 1937, just as Harvard was on the cusp of a modernist overhaul with the arrival of Walter Gropius, Rose was expelled from the landscape architecture program for refusing to conform to Beaux-Arts principles. Rose, along with fellow Harvard students Garrett Eckbo and Dan Kiley, gained an early reputation as a radical theorist as the trio wrote a series of articles in the late 1930s expounding modernist principles in landscape design (some of these articles are reproduced in Marc Trieb’s Modern Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review). They began with a rejection of the Beaux-Art planning principles and historical styles, advocating instead a practice driven by a spatial order adopted from modernist art and architecture. Rose himself wrote of the need for landscape designs that were more appropriate for modern life, and advocated multiple viewpoints; flowing, continuous space; the integration of house and garden; and a sculptural approach to landscape design.

Living room view to the Garden, James Rose House

After World War 2, Rose’s practice comprised mainly private gardens in and around New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, and he continued to write about modern design. His Ridgewood home, though completed in 1953, was initially conceived during post-war military service in Japan. Here, he completed a model of a future home, and began his lifelong love of Japanese design and culture (he later became a practicing Buddhist). The house is situated on a modest corner block, perhaps one fifth of an acre, and Rose preserved the site’s existing linden trees, designing his house and garden around them. As well as the building and garden, Rose designed much of the furniture, woodwork and panelling, the abstract mosaic, sculptures, water features, and many thoughtful details.

Mural designed by Rose, James Rose House

Originally, the house was a single story with three separate pavilions – Rose’s studio, his mother’s, and his sister’s pavilions. These were at once separate yet connected via internal courtyards so that the house comprised a series of enclosed and open spaces that were separate yet interlocking. The low, horizontal, flat roof structure has a Japanese feel, while the use of exposed wood, glass, and concrete blocks also give the house a modernist feel. Interior and exterior spaces were seamlessly integrated, emphasizing an intimate engagement between the human-made and the natural. Flexibility was a key to Rose’s design, and he described the building as an armature around which he improvised spaces, adding and subtracting over time as needs changed.

Roof garden addition, after 1970, James Rose House

This flexibility was demonstrated in Rose’s redesign of the house in 1970 (after his mother passed away). In addition to altering the internal spaces, Rose incorporated Japanese-style shoji screens and built a “roof garden” of semi-enclosed spaces, bounded by wooden and fibreglass structures (see photo above). He also included an enclosed meditation room on the roof. The improvised nature of Rose’s practice is highlighted in these later additions both on the roof and in the garden, which included recycled materials for sculptural fountains, and a bench made from an old door. Not surprisingly, Rose had a difficult ongoing relationship with the local building authorities. While the Rose house is a difficult project to describe in words, it is also difficult to capture in photographs, so I have included three short videos below with brief explanations, which will hopefully make the project clearer. Below these I have included a plan and more photographs.

Rose House video 1: Entrance

This video starts at the street entrance to the house. The twisted metal lampshade is a Rose creation. Inside the entrance, the fence to the right provides privacy from the street. The camera then pans across the roof garden to the front door. Note the large tree by the front door – I imagine Rose designed his home around this tree and one in the rear. His studio is to the left of the tree. The camera then moves around the side of the house and focuses on a mosaic created by Rose. The flagstones and plantings in this front courtyard contribute to the Japanese feel of the architecture. The sounds are faint traffic noise and water features from the rear garden.

Rose House video 2: Interior

This short video, though a little dark, gives some sense of the interior. The living room mosaic continues the same forms and colors as the one outside. Rose designed much of the woodwork and furniture in these spaces, some Japanese inspired.

Rose House video 3: Roof Garden and Garden

This video is shot from the roof garden above Rose’s studio. It gives a good sense of the ad hoc character of the roof top structures, their mixed materials, and their interaction with the trees. The pattern in wood you can see at 0:30 evokes a leaf skeleton. The camera then pans down across the rear garden and its three water features, the sounds of which were much more tranquil than they sound on this video.

Additional photographs:

Internal courtyard with steps going up to the roof garden, James Rose House

Japanese-style rusticated log in living room, see also my Manitoga post

The mural continues inside

The roof garden constructed around a tree

Japanese characters on the street-side of the house

A view from the rear garden

An old door recycled as a garden bench

Living with nature

The Japanese-style meditation/tea room

All photos by D.J. Huppatz

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