WRITTEN BY Nancy Barnes - PHOTOGRAPHED BY Melissa Winslow
Inspired by a Porch
Cornwall Bridge architect John Harding has friends who have named their property in upstate New York "Hawk Shadow." "That's very exciting," he said, "because they got to the point where they asked, 'What is the nature of our property?' It's about light. It's about the romantic notion of hawks drifting around outside and having an effect on the light as they see it on their property," said Mr. Harding, whose architecture emphasizes the relationship between nature and what is man-made.
"The whole notion of having a concept that fits your property and how you develop it is a vital element of how you appreciate your house, your property and your life," he continued. Mr. Harding thinks architecture is a value relation- ship between what is natural to a site and the responses that human beings have to it.
His sensitivity to site goes back to his youth in the small railroad town of Blue Island, Ill. There, he had an aunt who was a teacher and whose small house had a porch. "When I went to visit her, I always loved being on her porch. When I was on that porch it was very light, very airy, very spacious," he remembered.
Many years later, the experience had an effect on the house he built for himself, which, sitting on one of several plateaus on his property, takes in the sweep of the Housatonic River below and the hillside above so that "instead of having a house and a porch and terrace, the whole house is a porch. I wanted to establish a contextual relationship of the house to the land."
Between Mr. Harding's youth in Blue Island and his work on the property he and his artist wife, Wallace, now occupy in the Northwest Corner came the study of architecture at the University of Illinois, followed by three years spent working with modernist architect Paul Rudolph in New York. Then, while living on Manhattan's Upper East Side, he became the principal in his own architectural firm, John Right, architect John Harding at his Cornwall property overlooking the Housatonic River. Above, a studio he designed on the property. Top, the main house. Harding & Associates, on the Upper West Side. He designed not only residential architecture, but also restaurants and theaters.
Aureole, an elegant restaurant he designed in a brownstone on East 61st Street, has a pearwood staircase linking its first and second stories. "You have a tall but narrow open space at the bar, then you come to the staircase and that's open, again, so you still haven't felt 'narrow,'" he said recently, as he pointed to top elevations of a restaurant whose sense of space belies its limited width.
Mr. Harding's resume also includes a number of Off-Broadway theaters, including the Promenade Theater that stands on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
He terms theater a major influence on his work because of the glamour and the drama that theaters possess. "I really like the idea of theater," he said, "because theaters have a theme. Plays have got to have a very strong theme. I think that's also true of houses."
Mr. Harding saw drama in a property on the coast of Maine in the small town of Castine. "There was a very big plateau of land, and it all looked down in the ocean," he said. To retain the drama of the coastline in the residence he designed, he thought of his structures as big tents. "You only get that feeling of sky when you're at the ocean. It's just forever," he said. "I wanted that feeling of big openness to be in the house.
"It would be terrible to have all of the sky, and then walk into a house and feel as if you're being crimped," the architect continued. "So, these pavilions are each 40-by-40 [feet] square. There are three of them. They have 25-foot ceilings. The concept here, again, was to open the house to the site."
The houses in the area, he noted, were often very small. The client, whose property contained a sea captain's house, wanted his house to be far larger. "The idea of the three 'tents' or pavilions came about also so that the house would appear to be big, but made up of parts that emulated the small size of the structures in the area," Mr. Harding said, as he looked at photographs of the cedar structures that now comprise the coastline house.
For a house in Scottsdale, Ariz., he came up with a curvilinear or, what he terms a meandering plan, in order to maximize the structure's open, desert site.
Mr. Harding and his wife were still living in New York when they began coming to Connecticut. He said a realtor told them about a house just a up the hill from the Housatonic River. His wife, who, while growing up, had spent her summers in a house on the coast of New Jersey, was used to living by the water. They bought the property, whose land sweeps up from the river and across railroad tracks before becoming the slope of a hill, in 1975. They moved to Connecticut fulltime in the late 1990s.
"The idea of the land was to shape it in such a way that it felt very natural that you would put certain things in, like an outdoor courtyard," Mr. Harding said recently, standing between the two buildings that now anchor his land. "The road there is a planned landscape," he said, looking toward a magnificent maple that still stands between the railroad tracks and the road that enters their property.
The house that was on the land when the couple bought it consisted of four tiny rooms with small windows in a 20-by-30-foot space. The main floor had an attic above it and what he terms a damp, dank cellar below. The small windows and cramped spaces, he observed, did not allow the drama of the river and the surrounding mountain vistas into the house.
He has built an addition to the house, and opened up the entire structure with tall windows. A large, circular win- dow catches a view of the tops of the trees that stride up the mountainside. The house now runs with the slopes, Mr. Harding noted, and the concept of the porch, so rooted in him from his childhood memories of his aunt's house, allowed him to capture his property's many views. "The house is a porch or viewing platform," he said, because it is open on all sides with screens and glass.
He also designed a two-story building that he calls a barn, which his wife uses as her studio. There, she paints impressionistic scenes, which are sold at the Lenox Fine Arts Gallery in Massachusetts and in several galleries in New Jersey.
She is a great fan of the work of the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923), a native of Valencia who is known for his depictions of light. On a day in late May, a catalog of his work lay on one of the work tables she uses on the barn's second floor. A grass terrace that the couple carved out of a slope connects the barn, which has a number of gargantuan-sized, bright red geraniums in one corner and a roof at a sharp pitch, to the couple's singular white frame house.
This year, Mr. Harding expects to build an architectural studio for himself further back on the hill from the studio and the couple's house. He is also working on a house in Sharon, where he is extending its views—and its functionality with large windows and window seats that run the full length of its generously-sized rooms.
Over in Woodbury, he is putting an addition onto an 1810 farmhouse on Painter Hill Road. There, the rear windows of the house open onto a vista that includes a stream with a bridge below the level of the house and a mountainside that rises above it.
It is hard for him not to think of his aunt's house in Blue Island, Ill. When searching for a sofa for the second floor of his home, he came across a glider in a Connecticut store that reminded him of the glider he used to use on his aunt's porch. Now covered with velvet pillows, the glider sits before a glass coffee table which carries one book on the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whom Mr. Harding respects for his love of order, and one on the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, whom he likes for his sense of drama. He knows his aunt's porch is the source of the concept that guided the development of his own site in Connecticut. "I think of her porch, which I enjoyed, frequently," he said. Above, a view inside John Harding's Cornwall home. Below, the home's kitchen. page, the home's kitchen.
THE LITCHFIELD COUNTY TIMES MONTHLY JUNE 2005