Landscape Architect James Royce On His Stay at the Kugel Gips House

James Royce, a Cambridge, Massachusetts based landscape architect, participated in the CCMHT scholar-in-residence program this past May, which included a week-long stay at the Kugel/Gips house in Wellfleet. He documented his experience, in text and photographs, and shared it with us.


CCMHT Kugel Gips House

Wellfleet, MA

James Royce, RLA

May 23, 2011

I arrived late Sunday afternoon after a cold ride out on the Triumph. Riding through the damp sea air it felt more like an earnest November ride than a carefree summer jaunt to the outer Cape. The smell of fires drifting through the Cape Cod air was familiar and comforting while my curiosity and excitement for a week at CCMHT kept me on the edge of my seat. The ride to the outer Cape is always enjoyable, especially aboard the ST, and I located the house with some help from a friendly local, a trait that proved to be characteristic of the area.

I quickly settled in and while having a glass of wine in the office space was immediately struck by the unique relationship between the site and architecture. The building’s slim form, openness and light stance upon the site create a special relationship which enables the landscape to activate and empower the interior spaces with an energy that could otherwise not be generated by the architecture itself. Gracefully perched above a pond with a view through the native scrub forest that is so emblematic of Cape Cod, it is the ability to reside in this place, within this structure, and in this relationship to nature that creates the synergy between landscape, architecture and life. If one of the goals of modernism was to provide a setting which fosters creativity, harmony with nature, and a lifestyle which can be personally enriching but marked by simplicity, then this could be measured as successful.

I was thrilled to be selected for the CCMHT scholar-in-residence program. My concept was to revisit the original ideals of modernism, consider how they could inform current design dialogue, and interpret them for the challenges facing today’s designers. But as soon as I dove further into the topic I realized there was such a wealth of information and so much study had been done it actually became a little daunting. How could I possibly contribute to this expansive body of work? What could I add that would be relevant?

Quickly realizing a week is not a long period of time and this should be more a journey of exploration, I had to relax my target fixated approach to become more open and holistic. A combination of selected reading, writing, reviewing earlier photography of modernist works in Berlin, and periodic breaks for photographing the Kugel Gips house and Cape Cod landscape became my formula. It took a few days to arrive at this and at least loosen, if not abandon, my production oriented mind set from the office.

It is such an unbelievably beautiful and calm place, it’s really a shame it took me several days to shake off the office mind set. It’s so quiet and the structure has such a close relationship to the place, it creates a tranquil and inspiring environment to be in. The challenge is to let go of anything that might prevent you from fully experiencing the simple but powerful energy of this place. After awhile one cannot help but surrender to the calming influence embodied here.

Once moving beyond the anxiety of my production oriented thinking, I had a wonderful time reading on the back deck overlooking the pond. After reading just a few hours I realized one could write an entire dissertation on the original goals and ideals of the Modernist movement, but for the purposes of my exploration I focused on some key quotes from Walter Gropius. They struck a chord with me and I was amazed at how relevant they still are. Since this was the basis of my concept at CCMHT it was a logical starting point for my journey;

(Excerpts from Masters of Modern Architecture by Edwin and Joy Hoag):

“I want a young architect to be able to find his way in whatever circumstances; I want him to independently to create true, genuine forms out of technical, economic and social conditions in which he finds himself, instead of imposing a learned formula onto surroundings which may call for an entirely different solution. It is not a ready-made dogma I wish to teach but an attitude toward the problems of our generation which is unbiased, original and elastic.”

“Act as if you were going to live forever and cast your plans way ahead. By this I mean that you must feel responsible without time limitation and the consideration whether you may be around to see the results should never enter your thoughts.”

“For whatever your profession, your inner deep devotion to the tasks you have set for yourself must be so deep that you can never be deflected from your aim. However often the thread may be torn out of your hands, you must develop enough patience to wind it up again and again”.

What was the ultimate goal of the Bauhaus: Fulfillment of a utopian vision, economic reform, social justice, rejection of oppression through class upheaval? The Bauhaus was certainly successful in revolutionizing design and highlighting many of the social issues they sought to address, but were they able to achieve a more fair and equitable society? If the Modernist movement is viewed as a failure by some, was it simply because it never received mainstream acceptance or was it because it failed to achieve their greater overarching goals of social reform through design and technology?

Minimalism in architectural form originally was intended to be a rejection of the things classicism came to represent: a bourgeois and capitalistic society with a stratified socioeconomic class. The elimination of architectural adornment with classically inspired forms was meant to strip away all it represented and create a new identity and way of life for the people. Today’s designers must also seek to address not only these same issues within today’s more complex society but also those of sustainability within the larger global framework.

I revel in the opportunity afforded to me by a week at the Kugel-Gips house (thank you Peter!) to take time to study more closely the original goals and ideals of the early modernists and reflect upon these to consider how they could inform design dialogue, highlight or address current issues, and be applied in a way that is relevant and practical to the problems we face today; not just ones of design but also of environment, society and economy. Can we address them through design and technology to achieve equality and real sustainability for the future?

My goal in this exercise is not to find a simple fixed answer but rather through a series of observations and conclusions develop a set of underlying principles upon which to reference and base future design. This is very much a personal journey to understand the history, goals, achievements, and failures of these visionaries who sought to make a better world for people through design, and how I might learn and benefit from their experience to pursue the same goal within my career and lifetime. I am very grateful to the CCMHT for this exceptional opportunity and look forward to working together in the future to explore these ideals and achieve common goals.