When I was small, around 9 or 10 years old, my mother took me to see a house in our neighborhood in Ann Arbor designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. She was friends with the Palmers, who had commissioned the house from the architect in 1950—and it remained in the family for more than half a century. The brick and red cypress structure was beautifully tucked into a wooded rise, so it was hard to see the entire house from the road—its low-slung forms, with a deeply overhanging roof, were revealed as you walked toward it, crunching on the pulverized brick that Wright had specified for the driveway. The house, of course, was dramatically different from the split-level colonial we lived in nearby: inside, the open living room, dominated by wood, exuded a cozy warmth, with windows overlooking the leafy garden. As the guiding motif was the equilateral triangle, there were virtually no 90-degree angles in the place, and that included much of the Wrightdesigned furniture. The dining room table was rhomboid, and even the beds in the modest-sized bedrooms weren’t rectangular. When we left, the first question I asked my mother was how Mrs. Palmer could possibly find sheets that fit.
My design queries have become a little more on point since then, but I learned to expect the unexpected in houses by great architects. Some turn out to be surprisingly small: Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, for example, or the Margaret Esherick House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, by Louis Kahn (one bedroom! tiny kitchen!). Others are embedded with drama. The stunning modernist home in Pacific Palisades, California, that Ray Kappe designed for his family in the 1960s is a light-filled flow of spaces that spill over multiple levels— many open to each other, without railings. Of course, even more vertigo-inducing is Paul Rudolph’s extravagant penthouse on Beekman Place in Manhattan, with a total of 27 different levels, some barely bigger than a stair landing, carved out of a converted townhouse by the architect, beginning in the 1970s.