Monday, October 07, 2019


Powerhouse: The Life and Work of Judith Chafee
Christopher Domin, Kathryn McGuire
Princeton Architectural Press, October 2019

Hardcover | 10 x 8-1/2 inches | 272 pages | 252 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-1616897178 | $50.00

Publisher Description:
Powerhouse is the first book on the singular life and career of American architect Judith Chafee (1932-1998). Chafee was an unrepentant modernist on the forefront of sustainable design. Her architecture shows great sensitivity to place, especially the desert landscapes of Arizona. Chafee was also a social justice advocate and a highly respected woman in a male-dominated profession. After graduating from the Yale University Architecture School, where her advisor was Paul Rudolph, she went on to work in the offices of legends including Rudolph, Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen, and Edward Larrabee Barnes. In addition to her architectural legacy, her decades of teaching helped shape a generation of architects. Chafee's drawings and archival images of her work are complemented by stunning photography by Ezra Stoller and Bill Timmerman.
dDAB Commentary:
Where has Judith Chafee been all my life? With the posthumous publication of this biography/monograph on the three-decade career of the Arizona architect, I just now learned about Chafee and her amazing modern residences. Eleven of them are presented here with beautiful photos, drawings, and texts that delves into the physical characteristics of the dwellings but also the circumstances of their creations. Accompanying the projects, and splitting the book into two, are lengthy biographical essays: Christopher Domin tackles Chafee's upbringing, education, and early practice; Kathryn McGuire focuses on her late practice, from the early 1980s until her death in 1998. Introducing the book is William J. R. Curtis, who included Ramada House (Tucson, 1975, the project on the book's cover) in a new chapter added to the third edition of his Modern Architecture Since 1900 from 1996; I have that edition but do not recall her inclusion. When I see the houses assembled here, each one of them seems fresh, extremely well considered inside and out, beautifully detailed, spatially rich — I could go on with superlatives, but suffice to say I immediately liked each one and wondered why they, and her, weren't more well-known.

Two houses stand out from the eleven, but the Ramada House is not one of them, even though its rooftop trellis is stunning and the architectural promenade through the two-story house is reminiscent of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye; this house could likewise be seen as Chafee's residential masterpiece. Instead I was drawn to Viewpoint, a house completed three years earlier in Tucson for Chafee's mother, Christina Johnson, and her new husband and therefore also known as the Johnson House. Small compared to the Ramada House, Viewpoint has a simple rectangular footprint and straightforward layout of rooms on one floor; both are enlivened by dramatic concrete brise-soleils on the east and south facades, the subtle introduction of angles in plan, and a stepped section that brings north light deep into the plan. The other house I love is the Jacobson Residence (third and fourth spreads below), another Tucson house from the 1970s, 1977 to be precise. Somewhere between the Ramada and Johnson houses size-wise, the one-story house (the two-story plans seen below are part of a first pass) has a couple tall volumes that give the house an informal stepped silhouette. One of those volumes includes a reading loft atop a library stair, or what Chafee called an "involving stair." The asymmetrical stair with books on the sides and in the steps is a bibliophile's dream come true; I can easily imagine browsing the shelves and sitting anywhere on the stair to enjoy a book or taking it to the reading loft and enjoying the views while reading. Sliding glass panels protect the books beneath the treads: one of many details that expresses how Chafee considered the lives of her clients in the houses she designed for them.

Author Bio:
Christopher Domin is an architect and professor at the University of Arizona. He is co-author of Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses and a contributor to Victor Lundy: Artist Architect. Kathryn McGuire is an architect in Tucson, Arizona. She knew Judith Chafee for over twenty years as student, employee, and friend.
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