Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson
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“I simply could not stay away,” says Darwin Harrison. The disclaimer explains why the architectural designer decided to design, build, and craft the interiors—not to mention the landscaping–of the new house he shares with partner Robert Buckner. Harrison and Buckner often drove past the vacant lot, which was actually the side yard of a rambling limestone-block house, built in 1938, on the former site of a dairy farm. Now, the one-acre spread is in the middle of booming Austin, a verdant oasis that resonates of another time and place.

When the lot came on the market a few years ago for the first time ever, Harrison and Buckner leapt at the chance to purchase a site where they could build a house squarely at the epicenter of Austin’s perfect universe—right on Shoal Creek, right next to Austin’s Hike and Bike Trail, and within walking distance to restaurants.

The materiality of the house—Harrison guesses he used 11 different kinds of materials ranging from Hardi Board siding to burnished concrete floors to aluminum shingles—are a contrarian’s take on Modernism’s stereotypical starkness. For Buckner the materials were the key to happiness. “They meant that our modern house could be elegant but not sterile.” It was also the opportunity of a lifetime for architect Harrison. “One of the joys of this project,” he says, “was to use materials I’ve always loved and to see how they work together.” Apparently the architect wasn’t the only one who felt that way. After the project was completed, Harrison was confronted by two women who had parked their car in front of the house. “I’ve been wanting to touch it,” one of them said. “It looks so yummy.”

Harrison devised ways to introduce light into the house, via the glass cube breakfast room inserted between a custom Henrybuilt cabinet system framed from Douglas fir to match the windows and doors in the house. Buckner and Harrison personalized the Ingo Maurer light by clipping on their own photos. The table is by Wells Mason.

The kitchen opens into the living room.

The hallway gives this house its meaning, as well as its functionality. It turned out that one of the features of the lot that made designing the house so difficult was the same one that made the hallway possible. Difficulty morphed into magic when the architect exploited the concept of the long hallway as an organizing principle, one that targeted a path right through the maze of oaks. Where the trees were unavoidable, Harrison notched out courtyards.

The façade of the private side of the house has another dynamic: glass-fronted courtyards alternate with Hardi-board siding to reveal interior spaces such as the kitchen and an interior hallway

In the living room, a four-foot wide oil on canvas painting by Lynn Boggess evokes the sense of moving water in the vaulted space; Chris Richter’s oil on canvas panel “Green Space” makes its own green space above the fireplace.

A light well in the hall is the work of lighting specialist Jill Klores of Essential Light Design Studio, its ever-changing array of LED colors a tribute to light artist James Turrell.

Other pieces—such as the custom commission by Francis de Fronzo of a fair sign in Harrison’s home town—hangs in the dining room, with its walls of Roman brick, a way for Harrison to acknowledge Buckner’s request for brick in the house.

“It’s like living in a park that you don’t have to leave,” says Buckner. “You get the sense of people being alive and doing things here.” One of the things some people are doing is driving by the Harrison/Buckner house and admiring it. “One lady left us a poem,” says Harrison. By Emily Dickinson, it begins: “I dwell in Possibility—a fairer house than Prose–.”

A shou sugi ban wall behind the master bedroom bed is by Delta Millworks in Austin and is half burned so that the top grain of the cypress shows through.

There were other goals for this long and lean house that is sliced down the middle by a 102-foot hallway. “I wanted a hallway,” says Harrison, “as a way to showcase our growing collection of art.” Many of the pieces the couple has collected are deeply personal. Paintings, photographs, and sculpture are from galleries in Santa Fe and in Austin, as well as through private commissions.

Aluminum shingles are the backdrop for an enclosed patio off the master suite.

The Henrybuilt vanity in the master bathroom has the presence of an art installation.

A rammed earth wall makes for a tactile presence in the architect’s studio where he has hung three panels of his own photography, “Light Experiment.” An electrical insulator sits atop an old clay chimney pipe. The painting on the right is by Charlie Burk.

Another view of the library and its rammed earth wall.

One of Harrison’s prized electrical insulators that he collects from a large electrical transmission yards is on display in the courtyard.



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