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Scale and Context: Redefining Residential Modernism in Minneapolis

In many areas of South Minneapolis, a housing epidemic has taken hold. Small cottages and mid-size bungalows, in which mid-century middle class families raised their families, are being bulldozed for McMansions devoid of neighborhood or architectural context. On one lot in the Linden Hills neighborhood, however, the owners of a new home, in collaboration with their architect, took a different approach.
“We decided not to fill up the setbacks in a neighborhood where zoning ordinances have taken hold and people are really concerned about monster houses,” says Christian Dean, principal, Christian Dean Architecture, LLC, Minneapolis. While the original house was too far gone to save, Dean and his clients were determined to design a modern house scaled to the original neighborhood and reflecting its architectural context.
Dean considered the traditional architecture nearby, such as Cape Cods and Tudors in addition to bungalows. He also had to account for a steep front-sloping site. Then the clients asked for an attached garage, which could have “led to a massive house out of scale with the rest of neighborhood,” Dean says. But he had a solution.
Dean sited the house 20 feet from the property line rather than filling up the zoning setbacks. He created three levels for the house (tuck-under basement/garage, first floor and second level) that gradually stepped back on the site. He also pulled back the yard from the tuck-under garage and the driveway cutout to retain the site’s original profile.
As a result, the house has “a unique footprint that presents a low and narrow profile to the street,” he says. The house’s exterior cladding also underscores—in a quiet way—the stepped-back massing, to create a layered effect common in traditional architecture: The upper level has cedar shakes familiar in the neighborhood, while modern white-painted HardiePanel covers the lower levels.
Redefining residential modernism
For Dean, residential modernism “isn’t a set of prescribed rules. It’s about remaining open to influences like context, site and topography, and allowing those influences to bear on the design work. It’s about sourcing, reflecting and reinterpreting conditions, like vernacular porches on the street, as well as the neighborhood context, while working with the site.”
“Through this approach, we give people the confidence to do a modern home in established neighborhoods,” he adds.
Dean’s methodology was especially appealing to the clients for this South Minneapolis home: A couple with a young daughter. The family had been living in the Humboldt Lofts in downtown Minneapolis, designed in part by Dean while he was working with Julie Snow Architects (now Snow Kreilich Architects). The clients wanted to take the loft aesthetic with them into their new home.
To bring the loft’s industrial materiality inside the house, Dean used concrete, stainless steel and glass throughout the interior. He then warmed up the industrial feel with oiled ash floors. A glass wall along the white concrete staircase provides a striking modern accent, while the stairs are inlaid with a gray-stained ash “runner.” The client put chandeliers in the kitchen, and cushy furniture in the living areas, to further soften the loft aesthetic. The contrasting materials, Dean says, “make the space vibrant.”
Challenging typical notions
The couple chose the family friendly South Minneapolis neighborhood in order to provide more social opportunities and play areas for their child and her friends, as well as space for outdoor living for the family. “So things like outdoor experience were part of the house’s design,” Dean says. Instead of putting the patio and play spaces in back, Dean sited these areas on the house’s elevated south side.
“We challenged the typical notion of filling out the site north to south, to present a public front and private back,” he explains. “Instead, the outdoor social space is to the side, which is pleasant in summer as it’s covered and in the winter lets light into the kitchen.”
Semi-private and well away from the street, the patio and yard are accessible from the kitchen via floor-to-ceiling glass doors. “The kids can run in and out of the kitchen to the side yard,” Dean says, while the full-wall doors once again bring the downtown loft aesthetic into the new home.
Not only the kitchen is flooded with natural daylight. All of the house’s interior spaces are well lit, as Dean sited the house for maximum solar orientation (which also helped with energy efficiency). He lined up the interior spaces across the site for south daylight, and anchored the house with a north wall of exposed concrete, which has high windows for light and for privacy.
The home’s main entry and media room face front and the busy street, while the living room, dining area and kitchen “retreat from the street and are programmed deeper into the site for more privacy,” he says. It’s a modern home—private to the front yet open to the side, and also safe and secure—that fits snugly into its existing context.
For Dean, modernism is “of today, while sourcing, reflecting and reinterpreting conditions. That’s what my practice is about: responding to a growing interest in residential modernism, and giving people the confidence to do it in established neighborhoods. If the design and materials are familiar, and the house is scaled correctly, more people will have the confidence to do modernism right.”  
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