Can Modernism be vernacular?
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts might be the answer.
"It's a small victory for humility," declared Stuart Kestenbaum, the director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, when his campus was awarded the AIA's Twenty-Five Year Award in 1994. "The buildings work doubly well because, in addition to being integrated into the site, they convey what the best of the crafts can impart. There is the human scale, the sense of seemingly intuitive grace, and a thoughtful relationship to the earth."
The summer crafts school, perched on a rocky ledge facing the Atlantic Ocean, is also a triumph of vernacular architecture. Designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, Haystack stands in stark contrast to most of the other quarter-century winners in AIA’s portfolio. Just compare the shed-roofed wooden studios with Rockefeller Center or the Seagram Building to get a sense for its relative singularity.
The Harvard-trained Barnes, who was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal, had a notable career as a designer of major museums, skyscrapers, churches, and academic buildings. Barnes' reputation was built upon the elegant Brutalism of his museums for Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Dallas, along with the restrained contextual work on campuses such as Bowdoin, Amherst, and Bennington. Yet in later life, he described Haystack as "one of the happiest jobs of my career."
As with so many architects with long, successful, and heralded careers, it is often the odd early work or the particular one with constraints of budget or location that brought out the best of a designer. A special strength is required when dealing with limitations, and at the site itself—precipitous, heavily treed, and rocky—there were many.
The School of Crafts was initially summer home to fifty-five people, including potters, textile artists, wood and metal workers, who came to work in an idyllic setting. It was assumed that the school would be on a plateau atop the bluff, but Barnes insisted that the studios and residential cabins hang on the cliff itself. The planning principle at Haystack is a central spine that runs eighty feet down to the rocks and ocean. The units of dining hall, workshops, and sleeping quarters are organized along walkways running perpendicular to the stairway spine. A gathering place half way down serves as the central focal point for the community. (85 people can live and work here now.)
Expandable, but no less intimate and contextual
Given the steep rugged landscape, Haystack hasn't much room for growth, but Barnes made allowances for limited expansion of most structures. A bay can be added at the end of an individual building, but the shingle fabric of Haystack is a material that can be repaired or replaced in small amounts as needed, in an organic process not unlike the constant regeneration of certain Japanese temples. Barnes remained connected to Haystack until his death, working with architect David Cheever who was appointed to oversee additions to the school while Barnes' burgeoning work schedule kept him from Maine.
Haystack's structures are raised above impermeable post-glacial granite on posts, giving the ensemble the look of less-than-permanent vacation cottages. Add the shingle sheathing and Haystack could be mistaken for a Maine fishing village. While the lobster shack analogy is appropriate, Barnes' inspiration was actually the Greek island of Mykonos. Or, to elevate the discussion, the architect referred to Haystack as "Basic living, high thinking."
The school was simple and inexpensive—its 42 acres were purchased for $3,500 and construction costs were $5 to 8 per square foot—but not unsophisticated. Such modest figures are in inverse proportion to Haystack's riches as a work of architecture and rewards as a home for artists.
Haystack is assured in its poetic functionality, like a tool that fits perfectly in the hand. In The Unknown Craftsman, Japanese cultural historian Soetsu Yanagi could be speaking of this site and crafts school. He praises "the plain, the natural, the homely, the simple, and the normal," rather than the costly, the luxurious, and the over-decorated.
In its embrace of the vernacular, Haystack was a harbinger of a Modernism looking less to a machine aesthetic and more to handcraft and the spirit of place; it inspired designers searching for regional roots, rather than a universal ideal. Or, as Maine architect Carol Wilson has written of Barnes and Haystack, "He was able to bridge the paradox of being modern while, at the same time, drawing from the source."
William Morgan is an architectural historian and writer. He lives in Providence, R.I.