Can modern architecture, with its cold machine aesthetics, make room for fanciful play?

To a great extent, this question gets at the evolution of buildings by Charlie Lazor, principal of the Minneapolis-based Lazor Office and co-founder of Blu Dot furniture company. Earlier on, Lazor transposed his knowledge of ready-to-assemble furniture to architecture, and invented his FlatPak system in 2004. In a house-of-cards fashion, FlatPak “unpacks” a house with prefabricated panels of wood, concrete, metal and glass in 8-foot-wide modules.

The idea of a ready-to-assemble architecture seems especially applicable to extreme living conditions. Ikea is working with the U.N. Refugee Agency to mass-produce 10,000 flat-pack temporary shelters for refugees and victims of natural disasters. Famed British architect Richard Rogers is collaborating with the YMCA to create the “Y:Cube,” a flat-pack home for homeless people.

With FlatPak, however, Lazor envisioned a distinct application — streamlined production of highly customized, refined houses of modern aesthetics.

FlatPak finds aesthetic influence in Charles and Ray Eames’ 1949 “Eames House” (inspired by the design of a Chinese kite). But unlike the do-it-yourself, ready-to-assemble Blu Dot furniture, a FlatPak house requires custom design, planning and site work, before it is “pieced together” by the architect and his crew on-site. Notwithstanding the behind-the-scenes labor, Lazor’s system promulgates modern living as an interchangeable commodity.

FlatPak enjoyed exceptional success when it was launched. Then came the recession. Like many enterprises, FlatPak struggled.

Lazor resumed his private architectural practice, designing buildings on a one-to-one basis. Among his non-FlatPak work, three cabin designs bear special mention: Week’nder (on Wisconsin’s Madeline Island), Peek-a-Boo (New Auburn, Wis.) and Kiss-Kiss (Bear Pass, Ontario).

Prefab components still figure prominently in these homes, but now Lazor shifts his focus from building technology to design narratives, and thinks in terms of “bars” (rectangular blocks), instead of “panels.” This shift hints at a mischievous twist in the aftermath of FlatPak, against the modernists’ more spartan geometry.

Diagrammatically speaking, Week’nder consists of two parallel bars, with a giant pitched roof straddling their edges. Peek-a-Boo has one long bar supported on metal legs. Kiss-Kiss shows two bars kissing at an angle through a breezeway (a buffer at the entrance); these bars are linked to a garage and a vegetable garden on the premises through raised pathways.

Lazor’s “bar” logic gives rise to clear interior arrangement. The bar forms in Week’nder bookend an open, main living space; inside they enclose a laundry, a kitchen, bedrooms and bath — the size of the bars were determined by the capacity of the watercraft that carried them over to the island. The pitched roof atop them forms a void for a triangular clerestory and lets light in.

Previously, a FlatPak house mandated its lot and thrust its existence upon it — the system assumed an air of the high modernist aloofness. But now Lazor heeds the site and allows it to inspire his design. Kiss-Kiss alights on the bedrock in situ; its pathways surround, preserve and frame the rock. Peek-a-Boo elevates itself on legs, so as to be engulfed in a canopy of trees. The result of these thoughtful gestures toward their sites, and their geometries and compositions, is robust building forms with strong architectural presence — as opposed to FlatPak’s house-of-cards precariousness.

Above all, the rigid modernist axiom “form follows function” — i.e., the purpose of a building should determine its design — which governed FlatPak, now recedes to the background. Lazor adds a touch of “fantasy” over “function.” Each cabin is full of character. Week’nder is a trickster. Turning 90 degrees, its shape changes 180 degrees; one hardly recognizes the same building. Peek-a-Boo resembles a lively creature, though not one that actually exists in nature. Kiss-Kiss is both a kisser (of architecture) and a hugger (of nature). This non-FlatPak ensemble epitomizes architectural renderings of fantastical characters in form.

In space, the cabins furnish a sumptuous source of tranquillity — a present-day fantasy removed from the citified bustle. Lazor slips in distinctive interstitial spaces to the interior, much as a writer inserts parentheses in a sentence to introduce information beyond. In the case of Peek-a-Boo: a study nook overlooking the lake nearby, a small pocket marked by a double sink facing the summer woods, and so on. Imagine, say, performing the mundane task of washing hands while immersed in luxuriant green foliage; imaginably, a green oasis of serenity wells up and soothes one’s nerves. On the exterior of the cabin, a series of deep orange boxes and maple wood frames punctuate the elongated bar, serving as an index of the internal “parentheses” projected for varied domestic, everyday activities.

Similarly, Kiss-Kiss’ “breezeway” breezes in a blue expanse of sky and water.

Inside these spatial “parentheses,” function and fantasy are correlated; the real and the fanciful are interchangeable. One is free to cross their borders.

Lazor re-envisions the modernists’ mantra, “a house is a machine for living in,” to create fantastical creatures for fantastical living in. Beyond FlatPak, fantasy abounds.

 

Lisa Hsieh is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota.