Gunnar Birkerts – Freeman House (1965-1966)

Located on a heavily wooded lot lies an unusual prismatic structure. Nestled into the earth amongst a shroud of trees is a modern masterpiece and private residence, the Freeman House. Illuminated by natural daylight flooding in through angled panes of glass and clerestory windows, this home was designed to connect with nature and to provide a serene, almost spiritual sense of enclosure while granting maximum privacy. Barely visible from the street, its low profile and flat roof topped with a lopped-off pyramid is an indication of something peculiar.

Gunnar Birkerts Exterior 03

The entrance of the home is accessed from a busy drive. However, the only glimpse of the house from the street appears for just a second as one passes the white brick retaining walls that are built into a short, but steep hill, which funnel toward the entrance of the house. Even from this vantage point, the only hint of an interior glimpse is shown through a curtain glass wall that sits inside an overhang in the entryway. Here, a pathway descends with a few shallow steps across a slate floor into a narrowing enclosure that leads to the front door. Immediately behind this iron-gated glass screen lies another white wall and marble floor. This paradox of transparency and obstruction is strangely inviting, by evoking curiosity of what must be present where the eye cannot see. Accordingly, it is from within that this house is most striking.

To comprehend exactly what makes this house so unusual, it is important to know that the entire design originates from one single point. 

And that point is indicated by a peculiar black tile at the center of the house. Placed in the white marble floor of a sunken atrium, the tile is square in shape, with a white center. Like a small frame, this point is the nucleus of the floorplan, placed directly under the the center of the pyramidal roof. Like spokes of a wagon wheel, the radial grid on which this house was designed explodes outward, providing views through windows at every far end of the house and into the wooded setting beyond. This tile is a frame both literally and figuratively, allowing occupants to frame views into the furthest reaches of the home from this single point. All other rooms in this house expand outward in coordinance with this central space. One particularly unusual characteristic of this concept is that the grid is slightly off-center, making for a somewhat lopsided pyramid. This is most noticeable standing at the center point and looking straight up at the thirty-foot ceiling, from which a smaller, inverted pyramid hangs–the lopped off tip of the roof inverted. This cockeyed, upside down stalactite is encircled by a band of windows. Although unexpected, this slight lean in the roof line is functional by allowing the home to capture a great deal of daylight as the sun rises from the east. Sunlight is dispersed into rooms adjacent to the atrium through a continuous band of clerestory windows running the perimeter of a flat raised section of the roof, and through a series of internal windows along the top of some interior walls. This light-filtering effect is aided by the reflection of the pure white walls and the exposed beams of the ceiling, which form fins that channel the brightness of the sun.

Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Living Room 03

Here in the atrium, a koi pond is placed in the floor against the northern wall. Views to the exterior come through several windows, some along the roofline, some looking out through the covered patio to the backyard, and others looking into a trapezoidal outdoor courtyard placed within the home. Round steps lead upward to both the master suite, and to an open area above the atrium, which houses a formal dining area, circular fireplace, and lounge. There are two sliding wall panels nearly two feet above the floor of the atrium (a steep drop) which lead either to a hallway that accesses two secondary bedrooms, or directly into the bedroom nearest the master suite. When pushed aside, these slim partitions create an even greater sense of openness, providing direct views to the outdoors via the bedrooms from the center of the atrium. (A third of these openings once accessing the master bedroom, has since been removed and plastered over.)

Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Bedroom 01

Birkerts was very strict with the radial grid of the floorplan. Even the door edges and jambs are angled in accordance to this grid, making for almost no right-angled door edges. When opened fully, most doors in the house nestle into precisely fitted pockets and lie flush against the walls. Because everything was custom built for this house, Birkerts was careful in choosing a competent contractor, and commissioned local builder Jordan Shepard to oversee its construction. (Shepard, a regional legend, built several modern homes around the area.) Moving walls and doors are built with an impeccable level of precision, with fit and finish as tight and refined as a well-built cabinet. Many of the doors feature Soss invisible hinges which were manufactured in Detroit, and cabinets make use of piano hinges. Because of the quality of craft that went into building this house, as well as the care taken to maintain it, there is nary a sign of aging. The structure appears timeless, as if it had crystalized out of the earth on which it was formed.

Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Bedroom Ceiling

As with most mid-century modern homes, built-ins are present in nearly every room. Birkerts used clever strategies to make use of spaces like the deep triangular window sills. All of these sills have built-in drawers and sit at desk-height above the floor with  open space below so that a chair can be pulled up. A good example of Birkerts’ desktop / window sill hybrid is the workspace corridor adjacent to the gourmet kitchen. Extending from behind a built-in breakfast nook, the outer kitchen wall forms a sawtooth shape which alternates between brick and glass, shielding views from the street. All along this zigzagged wall is another deep desk-height sill with drawers, shelves, and places to pull up chairs to. Because the windows in the home do not open, circulation is provided by screened vents built into the window sills that can be cranked opened to let air flow in from below.

Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Bedroom Bookshelves

Birkerts’ expertise of hybridizing function and structure continues in the master bedroom suite. Connected to the bedroom for example is an amalgamated walk-in closet, dressing room, and bathroom space. Opposite of a twin vanity are mirrored walls that open to reveal cabinetry, drawers, and closet space. The bathroom and shower are found at the far end of this room, with the shower being partitioned by a glass wall. Here, illuminated steps descend into the  sunken marble-lined shower, which features a massive window overlooking the courtyard. Privacy from the adjacent living room window is provided by a series of three structural fins which extend at angles congruent with the radial grid. This courtyard can only be accessed from master bedroom by sliding glass doors and pocketed screens.

Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Master Bathroom Shower 02

A similar set of sliding glass doors and screens are found in the atrium, facing the backyard. Here, a slate floor and covered alcove lead out into the yard. Nearby, a massive piece of rough-hewn bedrock seems to float on the surface of a small reflecting pool, water bubbling gently out of its crevices and over its surface. The serene space of the massive backyard unfurls beyond. Originally much larger than it is in its current state, the lot once encompassed far more neighboring properties. At the time the home was first sold, so were portions of the plot offered to the neighbors on the other corner of the block. This yard, still large compared to most properties in the neighborhood, is also home to several unusual plants and trees. Nestled closely to the house, for example, is a group of three soaring Dawn Redwood trees. Elsewhere in the yard, Sedge and Amur Maples provide shade. As a whole, the backyard teems with growth, engulfing the house in its lush canopy. A walk around to the front brings with it a variety of  flowers such as Trillium, Japanese Peonies, Daffodils, and Azaleas.Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Exterior Backyard

In the case of the Freeman house, the beauty in Birkerts’ design is the match of setting and structure–of repose and élan. Over time, the lead coated copper roof has developed a white patina, a metamorphosis that echoes the growth and change of the setting which surrounds it. Because Birkerts’ designs aren’t necessarily linked to his previous work, there is always a specific approach in his solutions. In this case, the unorthodox radial grid structured by an orthogonal matrix yields a unique and highly unusual solution to maximize privacy while opening the house to nature in unexpected ways. The resulting effect is just as organic as geometric, a beautiful paradox, crystalline and lush. This sort of inviting enigma may be the only constant in Birkerts’ work, and the Freeman house is no exception.

Gunnar Birkerts Exterior 06

About the architect

Born in 1925 in Riga, Lativa, Gunnar Birkerts was birthed into an era at the cusp of modernism. While the likes of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe were redefining contemporary architecture with their austere and minimalist approach to building solutions, Gunnar Birkerts was being raised by a family of scholars, writers, folklorists, and philosophers.

Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Foyer 02

Near the end of World War Two, Birkerts relocated to Bavaria. After the war had ended, he applied for University under a displaced persons status. With his hopes set on moving to the USA, he began studying English when he was accepted to the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart. It was in this academic setting that he was introduced to modernism, with drawing exercises occasionally conducted at the Wissenhofsiedlung (a housing estate built for an exhibition in 1927 featuring works from Le Corbusier, Mart Stam, Mies van der Rohe, and other contemporaries.) In 1949, Birkerts graduated with a degree in architecture and engineering.

Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Kitchen 0

Without haste, Birkerts moved immediately to the USA upon graduation, arriving in New York Harbor within the same month. Then 24, Birkerts had followed the footsteps of many European architects who emigrated to the USA after the war, seeking a new life and new opportunities. Inspired by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Birkets set his sights on Michigan to explore opportunities with their design practice.

Gunnar Birkerts - Freeman House - Foyer View to Living Room

Thus, Birkerts arrived  in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan at the doorstep of Eero Saarinen, who had to turn him down on grounds of not having work. Birkerts was then sent to Chicago on recommendation of Saarinen and was hired by Perkins and Will. Birkerts would later be beckoned by Saarinen to return to Bloomfield Hills, where he worked under the Saarinen’s for five years. His time in southwest Michigan also brought him to work with Minoru Yamasaki in Birmingham, and landed him a teaching career at the University of Michigan. In 1959, Birkets joined forces with Frank Straub, founding Birkerts and Straub in Birmingham, a partnership that lasted until around 1963, when Birkerts formed his own architectural firm. Birkerts still practices architecture today, and maintains an office in Wellesley, MA.

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