Habitable Art

Architect David Jameson transforms an unassuming Bethesda rambler into an award-winning modern masterpiece

Habitable Art

In the back yard, the copper-clad garden pavilion containing a two-story storm porch appears to float above a glass-enclosed gallery space. Photo by Paul Warchol.

On a traditional street in Bethesda, a Georgian rambler went on the market a few years ago. The 3,000-square-foot split level with three bedrooms surrounded by trees and set on a conventionally landscaped, sloped lot was functional, bland and uninspired—an icon of postwar suburbia.

Architect David Jameson saw beyond the original structure and envisioned a new one that would reengage the site. The award-winning architect known for his timeless modern design bought the rambler himself to develop as a conceptual project.

His solution, built on the bones of the rambler, bears no resemblance to its former self. It is not a pop-up or an addition, but an architectural metamorphosis. The old house vanished entirely inside its modern incarnation so that virtually no trace of the original was left behind. Says Jameson, “The design is generated by a subtle balance of tensions. Weight and weightless materials sit side by side. Transparent merges into opaque. Solid becomes void.”

One of Jameson’s priorities was to preserve the site’s mature trees. “Many would have torn the existing house down,” he says, “but it seemed more compelling and responsible to reinvent the house in its existing footprint.” The design that emerged after a year-long transformation is a modernist statement that still blends in with its suburban surroundings. It is not a jarring structure of soaring steel, but one whose lines and materials complement the neighborhood.

Throughout the residence, Jameson resourcefully employed materials and contextually repositioned them as design elements. For example, he carefully choreographed the approach to the front entrance. “The landscape elements were conceived to help define the tectonic nature of the house,” he says. An auto court and skip laurel hedge are the first thresholds to the house, followed by a lawn panel and a plane of groundcover. Beyond the laurel is a path to an interlocking bluestone plinth stair that Jameson describes as “a heavy, three-dimensional composition in motion,” covered by a steel bris soleil that acts as a sunscreen over the black steel windows. The minimalist façade is broken by a niche that contains the vault-like aluminum and mahogany front door, which, at five feet wide and nine feet tall, is the final threshold into the house.

Theoretically, Jameson divided the interior into structured and unstructured spaces knit together by a central “circulation core.” The front stucco volume of the house contains the more structured areas, including the living room, dining room and library on the main level and four bedroom suites and laundry on the second floor.

Upon entry, the living room is to the right of the foyer. A distilled fireplace without mantel or detailing anchors a thick floating wall. To the left of the foyer are the library and dining room. The window frames and the floor are mahogany and all the walls are scaled to accommodate large paintings.

Lit by clerestory windows, the “circulation core” contains an elevator and stairs to the second floor and marks the passage into a copper-clad pavilion that encases the unstructured spaces of kitchen, family room and breakfast room in an 11-foot-tall, loft-like volume. The upper floor houses the master suite and sitting room.

The copper-clad volume is cantilevered over a glass-enclosed gallery space on the ground level. In the rear of the house, it also encloses a two-story screened porch that carves out an exterior space within the visual bounds of the building envelope and provides the side elevation with a distinctive character.

As with the front of the house, the boundaries of the informal rooms are marked by panels floating in space. For example, Jameson notes, “The loft volume is organized as a continuous flow of space that moves through and around the mahogany objects that define the cooking, eating and sitting areas.” In its new manifestation, the house has increased from 3,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet. “It is not immediately apparent that this is a large house,” Jameson says. “I’m not interested in large spaces, but well proportioned and crafted spaces.”

What does interest David Jameson is theoretical modernism applied to architecture. “Architecture is habitable art,” he says. He lists among his influences the conceptual artists Richard Serra and Donald Judd. “Architecture is the one next step that allows you to live your life in an art object. Architecture is empowering.”

David Jameson’s work carefully stitches his modernist buildings into both the topography of the land and the typology of the existing structures around them. Before drawing up a design, he studies a site’s natural elements and his buildings play with patterns of illumination as well as materials. If surrounding homes have copper gutters and roofs, he tries to utilize copper, but perhaps in a more unusual and unexpected way. His projects may not look like other houses in the neighborhood, but they respect the scale—perhaps continuing an adjacent roofline or replicating “I am interested in creating a visceral experience in each project that you move through. For example, in this house as you move through the landscape threshold, then climb the stair to the entry and structured areas and then finally arrive at the copper pavilion, at each juncture you move into a different spatial experience.”

Alice Leccese Powers is a Washington-based freelance writer and the editor of Tuscany in Mind, France in Mind and Italy in Mind, all Vintage/Random House books. Anice Hoachlander of Hoachlander Davis Photography is based in Washington, DC. Paul Warchol is a photographer in New York City.

Jameson carefully choreographed the approach to the front entrance. Photo by Anice Hoachlander.

In the living room, a distilled fireplace without mantel or detailing anchors a thick floating wall. The floors are mahogany and the walls are scaled to accommodate large-scale artwork. Photo by Paul Warchol.

The boundaries of the informal rooms in the pavilion, including the kitchen and the dining area, are marked by panels floating in space. Photo by Paul Warchol.

The kitchen space flows into the family room, where a large painting, Attic, by Steven Cushner and a smaller piece by Christopher Brooks hang. Photo by Anice Hoachlander.

The dining room. Photo by Paul Warchol.

House of Cards by Steven Cushner dominates one wall of the library. Photo by Paul Warchol.

A large two-story stitch window in the copper-clad garden pavilion opens to the family room space off the kitchen and the master bedroom above. Photo by Anice Hoachlander.