Questions and Answers with Andrew Cogar of Historical Concepts
Andrew joined designer Steven Gambrel for the ICAA event "The Craft of Collaboration: The Process of Partnership and Invention"
On Wednesday, April 7th, 2021, Andrew Cogar of ICAA Member Firm Historical Concepts joined designer, frequent collaborator, and ICAA Board Member Steven Gambrel for "The Craft of Collaboration: The Process of Partnership and Invention," an online discussion that explored aspects of collaboration in the creative process, drawing on projects and images that were featured in the recent book, Visions of Home: Timeless Design, Modern Sensibility. The full presentation will be available online in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Andrew has taken the opportunity to answer a few questions about the book, the firm's process, and architecture and design in general.
Q: In your new book, Visions of Home, you tell the stories of the houses through narratives you've created for their inception and also for your clients lives. What is your typical process for creating these stories?
A: It really depends on the client and how far they want to take it. For the ‘Dowager Inn’ project, the client brought us a fully formed essay, complete with fleshed out characters and fully developed backstories. For others (like the projects in the chapters ‘Rambling West’ and ‘It Takes a Village,’ the narrative starts as a vague idea of what architectural styles they are drawn to and what kind of lifestyle they want to realize with the home. From there, we look closely at the history of the property and the local cultural context and develop a plausible narrative of the decisions the home’s occupants would have faced over successive generations. This narrative explores the existing environmental conditions (solar orientation, prevailing breezes, views, significant trees, fields, bodies of water, topography, etc.) and responds first to those conditions. Then the narrative looks at how the house would have grown, evolved, and learned over time. We then overlay the client’s current lifestyle needs, along with their hopes and dreams for what they want the house to be and we see where the threads start to connect. Using that framework, we develop a narrative to describe a home that looks and feels authentic and appropriate without being locked in as a period set piece or a singular snapshot in time.
Q: The projects in the book represent various architectural vernaculars. Are there any continuous themes or principles that you apply to each project, regardless of location?
A: Absolutely. One principle theme is how we bring light into a home, which we believe is critical to the overall experience and joy of a home. We consider carefully not only the direct light provided by the exterior doors and windows but also the shared light from interior transoms, glass dividing walls, and overhead skylights. For us, the interplay of light with architecture is critical in conveying the desired spirit and character of a home. We work closely with the interior designers to determine how the millwork and architecture further enhances or mutes the effects of light within a given space (high gloss and chamfered edges for reflection, stepped profiles for desired shadow lines, or plaster walls and limed wood floors for a more absorptive effect). The “Natural History” project in our book is a great example of this. Another principle theme is how we work closely with the interior designers and landscape architects to extend the interiors of a home to the outside, making direct connections with the landscape beyond. Whether that is through framed views from critical moments within the house, covered porches as seamless extensions of living and gathering spaces, or intentional connections to garden spaces that serve as their own outdoor rooms, it all greatly influences the floor plan and massing of our homes. It is very much a collaborative, weaving process of design as opposed to a more linear hand-off and I think you can sense that in how deeply rooted and connected our homes feel with the landscape. (See the ‘Seaside Ensemble’ project for a clear example of this interplay between architecture and landscape.)
Q: Most of the projects are new houses although you also handle renovations and restorations. How does your process differ when you are working on a renovation as opposed to designing a new residence?
A: With a renovation project, while there are different technical needs (complete building survey, structural assessment, cultural survey, etc.) the design process is actually quite similar in many regards, especially with the use of narrative. In a renovation project (like the ‘Restored Retreat’ project in our book), we conduct our research and uncover how the initial design of the existing home directly responded to the land and the needs of the original occupants. We also research closely how the home evolved from there, trying to unlock the reasons behind each alteration and addition the home experienced over the generations. With that information in hand, we begin the process of editing and filling in the narrative to give us a complete picture of the home, then transition to curating and editing the home so that the renovation can fully meet the needs of our client’s while appearing to have evolved naturally over time. This approach is different than a pure historic restoration in that we are cultivating what we believe is the best of the past but that will also serve our client’s needs today. We don’t want our clients to feel like they are living in a museum or living a lifestyle that is dictated to them by the home. Instead we want to make the house work for them; we want to keep a direct connection to the past and be inspired by it without being beholden to it.
Q: What becomes clear from reading the text is that the whimsy and personality that is evident in each project often serves an architectural purpose. Can you share some of your favorite, unexpected solutions and the problems they solved?
A: Thank you for that observation. We try very hard to impart wit and whimsy into each project as a way to express our clients’ personalities as well as the ‘personality of place’ for where the home is sited. This comes from studying and understanding the local nuances, quirks, and idiosyncrasies the builders and artisans have left as architectural thumbprints from the past. These local interpretations of regional architectural styles provide a rich pallet to play with and play off of as we tailor the design of the home uniquely to our clients. Examples of this can be seen in how we express what could have been an in-filled porch or breezeway, how dormers are ganged together to create attic rooms, or how material changes and roof planes denote generational additions. Often these interventions are more humble in design and earnest in expression, playing off the formality and constraint of the “original” core of the home. We also like to include outside influences into the design that are inspired by our client’s personal travels and memories. In the example of ‘Dowager Inn,’ this imparts a bit of a collector spirit into the interior architecture of the home, manifesting in eccentric and playful details ranging from custom built-in furniture, mirrored panels, hidden doors, and unique trim profiles. In these moments we also like to inject a bit of the unexpected and celebrate the ordinary (a glass a screen wall at the laundry, a library and reading nook at the top of the stairs, a pocket bar in a deep cased opening, or a sleeping porch off of the hall).
Q: Are there any specific examples of projects or details that were made better or improved-upon thanks to classical architectural principles and precedent?
A: All of our projects are made better through the careful study and application of precedent and through the informed use of classical architectural principles. Even in our more recent, “modern” work (like the ‘Precedent Redefined’ project in the book), the basis for these designs can be traced back directly to vernacular building types, local architectural precedent, and classical proportions as they relate to human scale and experience. We believe that, regardless of the medium (be it art, music, architecture, literature), successful design is often driven by a firm understanding of past precedent and the direct creative response to that precedent. I know it has been repeated over and over but ‘you need to know the rules before you can break them.’ That is why we think the ICAA is so critical to architectural education today, because it not only provides a resource for the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of classical design but it also provides a clear understanding of the ‘why.’ And we believe this has led to the resurgence we see today of not only classical styles but also a continuum of vernacular traditions and regional expression. The creativity and collaboration exhibited by architects, interior designers, landscape architects, and builders today is inspiring and we firmly believe that classical architectural principles provide the foundation for that collaboration.