The Pinwheel House was designed by Peter Blake, architect and writer, as a vacation residence for his family. Blake and his wife used it primarily during the summer months; the house was not retrofitted with central heating and therefore its use was restricted to the warm seasons.
Following his post as curator of architecture and industrial design at the Museum of Modern Art, Blake designed the Pinwheel House in the Modern tradition and employed aesthetics characteristic of the humanized functionalism emerging at the time.
The original Pinwheel House was constructed using steel framing with concrete-reinforced columns. It measured 24' x 24' in a square layout elevated on 4' steel stilts grounded by a base of concrete blocks set on concrete slab with a caisson foundation system. The main living spaces of the house were set within the elevated level. A bathroom and an additional sleeping space were contained within the below-ground area which doubled as a base platform made of concrete blocks measuring approximately one-third of the size of the upper level.
The defining feature of the house was its wall configuration: the four walls were composed of a system of large floor-to-ceiling glass windows and plywood panels. Both the quarter-inch-thick plate-glass windows and the 8' x 18' white-painted plywood panels were mounted on a metal track system running the length of each facade. These walls could slide along the track, allowing the resident to decide how much or how little air and light to let in. When all four wooden panels were extended at once, it gave the house the appearance of a pinwheel in plan. And although the plywood panels extended beyond the corner framing, the glass window tracks terminated at the structural beams of the house's corners.
Peter Blake purchased one acre of land and built the Pinwheel House on four-foot-high stilts to grant a slightly elevated position that would afford better views of Hayground Cove to the east, Mecox Bay to the south as well as the immediate landscape: a potato field. Period photographs depict the stark openness of the landscape with its low-lying brush, coarse, sandy soil, and flat ground plane. These photographs also show little residential development in the vicinity.
The industrial materials used to construct the Pinwheel House- glass, plywood, aluminum and concrete- embody the Modern sensibility that championed economic and technological efficiency (the Pinwheel House cost ~$8,000 to build). The sliding window and panel system was unique and demonstrated not only Blake's creativity but the sophistication made possible by advances in mid-century engineering technology as well. The system symbolizes a departure from traditional load-bearing masonry and even early steel framing in that the wall substrate is nearly entirely dematerialized.
The Pinwheel House design also personifies the Modernist appreciation for eliminating boundaries between the exterior and interior and its open floor plan enhanced the visual transition between interior and exterior. It also facilitated the physical use of the interior. To achieve optimal dematerialization of visual barriers, Blake utilized the extended window shade-panels to redirect the perception of the house's x-y axis to an angular axial dynamic radiating in four directions. Blake was conscious of the panels’ visual effect on the viewer's eye and carefully curated the interior layout and offset the panel placement to avoid inhibiting views of the landscape.
Blake's design priority with the Pinwheel House was to integrate it with the landscape. Built as a vacation home, the Pinwheel House was meant for leisure, entertaining, and relaxation; it expresses the postwar prosperity of the American white middle class, as well as its desire for serenity and respite from urban life. The layout reflects an important shift in lifestyle in which leisure and its trappings reigned supreme. One enters the house via an entrance “bridge” or ramp and immediately encounters the kitchen and living room, indicating that the kitchen is part of the main living space. The kitchen area is open to the living room and dining space on either side which reflects the sentiment that the kitchen was not treated as a private domain, relegated to a far corner of the house and accessed via corridor by servants. Rather, the Pinwheel House kitchen represents a moment in which guests were not only allowed to see the working space but the location of the dining and seating areas set in the kitchen area indicates that guests were also invited to take part in preparing meals, fixing cocktails and conversing with the host as he/she cooked. The cooking area of the kitchen faces the living and dining room spaces, enabling interaction and conversation between people in both spaces. This key shift has become commonplace yet in the 1950s it was truly groundbreaking. It set the tone for the Pinwheel House; the notion of easy, carefree living resounds throughout the open living space divided by only half-walls and partitions, the location of a sleeping area adjacent to the kitchen, the transition between upper and lower floors, the bathroom location on the lower floor - all of these factors suggest an integrated plan in which the house was entirely accessible. This departure from the traditional hierarchy of residential spaces is emblematic of a shift in the dynamics of family life and way of living. Blake's design lends to the communal, shared exchanges between residents, with the bedrooms serving as unheralded areas for the sole function of sleeping. This heightened functionality and realism were trademarks of the Modern movement. Furthermore, they embody the growth of the middle class prominence and tailoring design to suit the desires of that class. This is a house conceived with a family in mind and planned according to fit family life in the summertime.
Jackson Pollock, famed abstract expressionist painter, was a friend of Peter Blake and the two had summer residences nearby in the Hamptons of Long Island. The two maintained a professional and personal relationship. They worked together on numerous designs including the "Project for an Ideal Museum" exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1949. Blake and Pollock conceived a plan to paint the four sliding walls of the Pinwheel House but that plan was never realized.
The Pinwheel House represented the initial wave of the arts community from New York City building inexpensive homes in the Hamptons of Long Island. Subsequent to this initial wave, a more affluent group of middle class, then upper class New Yorkers began to build houses in the Hamptons. The desire of these later seasonal visitors for larger homes has put small modest homes like the Pinwheel House under threat of demolition for redevelopment.
The Pinwheel House is a two story summer residence in the Modernist style. It appears to grow out of the land and dissolve into the viewscape simultaneously. This is achieved through the combination of rectilinear planarity mimicking the site in contrast to the transparency lent by the windows and the minimization of the opaque construction materials. The plan inverts the layout of traditional New England residences, which typically have the communal spaces on the ground floor and the living quarters above. At the Pinwheel House, the main living areas (kitchen and living room) on the ground floor while the bedrooms are relegated below ground. The cooking area of the kitchen faces the living and dining room spaces, enabling interaction and conversation between people in either space. This move gives the appearance that the house is a single story house. Blake's design lends to the communal, shared exchanges between residents. The open floor plan also enhanced the visual transition between interior and exterior, following the Modernist theme of reducing architectural boundaries between the exterior and interior. Another tactic that Blake employed to achieve optimal dissolution of barriers was to use the extended panels to redirect the perception of the house's x-y axis to an angular axial dynamic radiating in four directions. Blake was conscious of the panels' visual effect on the viewer's eye and carefully curated the interior layout and offset the panel placement to avoid inhibiting views of the landscape.
With its flat roof, square layout, and rectangular "pinwheel" panels, Blake's design is a composition of geometric forms. Its pared detailing, lack of superfluous ornamentation, and deliberate appreciation of its structural elements reflect the architectural functionalism common to Modernism. Furthermore, the cubic form, open plan configuration and prominent use of glass in the facade are reminiscent of the style pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler and inherited by Charles and Ray Eames and Pierre Koenig in the California Case Study Houses as well as Paul Rudolph’s Walker Guest House in Florida.
The influence of these designers is natural given Blake's association with the Museum of Modern Art and Architectural Forum in the early 1950s. As curator and critic, Blake closely analyzed such designs. Furthermore, he traveled in social circles which allowed him to visit and experience those of his contemporaries. In his autobiography, Blake recounts ‘we were a very small group, and we all knew one another...There were so few of us that we saw one another constantly.’ This group includes Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson, John Johansen, Landis Gores, Ulrich Franzen, Edward Larabee Barnes and Paul Rudolph among others. This generation of architects were key players in the intellectual avant-garde scene of the period. Blake describes their lifestyle as one in which they were ‘hanging out in the same bars and restaurants; going to the same parties; swapping wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends; and sharing some of the same political interests.’ The Pinwheel House provided a setting in which they could carry out this free-spirited way of life.
The Pinwheel House has significance in the context of the development of the Modern movement, particularly in the vein of “good-life Modernism” and the growth of the functionalist aesthetic in residential architecture. A product of its time period, the Pinwheel House parallels the emerging sense of self explored in the Abstract Expressionism of painters like Pollock and Robert Motherwell. Like contemporary work by Koenig, Rudolph, and the Eames duo, the Pinwheel House received much acclaim because it brought new freedom to architecture and blurred the line between architecture, art and experience. It crosses the boundary from architecture into art because of the aesthetic, experiential nature of its conception and execution. It is a notable example of architectural discovery on the part of Peter Blake; one that invites human interaction and reaction.
Books: Blake, Peter, No Place Like Utopia: Modern Architecture and the Company We Kept, New York; W.W. Norton & Co; 1996. Curtis, William J. R., Modern Architecture Since 1900, Second Edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice-Hall, Inc.; 1982. Gordon, Alastair, Weekend Utopia: Modern Living in the Hamptons, New York; Princeton Architectural Press; 2001. Hitchcock, Henry Russell and Philip Johnson, The International Style, New York; W.W. Norton & Co.; 1966. Peter Blake architectural records and papers, Dept. of Drawings & Archives, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, Accessed 31 January 2011 and 1 February 2011. Webb, Michael, Modernism Reborn: Mid-century American Houses, New York; Universe Publishing; 2001. Wright, Gwendolyn, Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America, Cambridge; The MIT Press; 1983.
Articles: Cotsalas, Valerie. "Who Needs the Riviera?" The New York Times, USA, 29 May 2005. Gordon, Alastair."The 10 Best Houses in the Hamptons" The New York Observer, USA, 1 July 2001. Gordon, Alastair. "Blake Canvas" Dwell, USA, June 2007, pp. 129-136. Jarzombek, Mark, "Good-Life Modernism and Beyond: The American House in the 1950s and 1960s", The Cornell Journal of Architecture, Number 4; Fall 1990. Kimball, Roger, "Going Nowhere with Peter Blake" The New Criterion, Volume 12, USA, January 1994, pp. 9. Moonan, Wendy, "Pillars of Modern Architecture That Stand the Test of Time" The New York Times, USA, 15 November 1998.
Websites: Stelle Architects "Blake Addition" Stelle Architects website, accessed 1 February 2011.