Fred A. Bernstein

We Have a Family Welder

Arthur Cotton Moore designs a curvy metal house to test his theories

Published in The New York Times, September 24, 2000

ROYAL OAK, Md. - As the architect behind the $81 million renovation of the Library of Congress, Arthur Cotton Moore would seem to be an expert on coordinating complex projects. But his own home here, some 50 miles east of Washington, was almost his undoing. On the lawn behind the house lie several 30-foot-long curved steel girders. Has Moore acquired a Richard Serra sculpture? "Actually," he explained, "those are some of the pieces that didn't work."

Pieces, that is, of Moore's house, in which 77 girders--many of which are curved and all of which were usable only if correctly formed to within 1/16th of an inch--collide. Assembling the house, in a style Moore has dubbed "Industrial Baroque," took more than nails. As Moore's wife, Patricia, observed, "Other people have a family doctor; we have a family welder."

Seen from the water, the house has two main parts: On the right is the master bedroom, roughly the shape of a quarter-circle. On the left is a two-story living room, also a quarter-circle, but turned up on its side.

Between them is a "tower wall" sheathed in squares of extra-tough stainless steel. "It's the only grade of stainless that can hold up to A-1 steak sauce," Patricia Moore said. (The material, she explained, is generally used for restaurant kitchens.)

Throwing curves

The tower culminates in an observation deck decorated with the kind of asymmetrical S-curves that have become Moore's trademark. His buildings, including the multiuse Washington Harbor complex, take as many turns as the Potomac. During his decade-long renovation of the Library of Congress, already one of the most ornate buildings in the country, Moore managed to work in a few more undulations while outfitting four new reading rooms. At his house, every element that can assume the S-shape--including railings, rain gutters, even a ladder meant to be used by window washers--does.

Moore has been fascinated by what he calls "reciprocating curves" since he was an architecture student at Princeton in the 1950s. He said, "In nature there's often one curve followed by a smaller curve--picture a blade of grass blowing in the wind."

Curves like those employed by Moore often appeared in Baroque architecture, as fanciful decoration.

Centuries later, after a dry spell for architectural curves, they reappeared in such aerodynamic structures as airplane wings and sports cars.

His work somehow brings these disparate impulses--one the height of impracticality, the other mandated by laws of physics--into a dalliance, if not an alliance.

Moore, 65, explained: "The first cars, the Model T's, were boxes with vertical windshields. No one would build a car that way today. But houses are still boxes."

He added: "For thousands of years, buildings have been built to resist gravity, but winds have largely been ignored. And winds do more damage to buildings than gravity ever did. The box pays a price for being a box."

Because wind directions--especially on waterfront lots--are fairly predictable, Moore said, it was possible to build his house to withstand 150-mile-an-hour gusts even with large expanses of glass.

Soon after construction was completed (in mid-1999), Hurricane Floyd came along to put Moore's design to the test. "Things were blowing all around," Moore said. "The trees were literally doubled over. But being in the house was fun."

His wife interjected, "I was scared to death."

Thanks to strict setback requirements, the shape of the house, which has 4,000 square feet, assumes the shape of its site.

Since those requirements apply even to decking, most of the outdoor living space is on the roof, reached by a long ramp, which Moore said he designed for "wheelchairs and an occasional cocktail trolley."

Getting the point

The Moores are known in Washington as bon vivants. So how did this citified couple end up building their house 10 miles from the nearest supermarket?

"In Washington, the approval process is byzantine," Moore said.

After 40 years as the architect behind a number of closely watched projects, he explained, "I wanted to do something that had a lot of freedom so it could be a study in pure form, a project where you can really let 'er rip."

The site had to be a point of land--because it would have no "adjacencies" (Moore's term for neighbors); because it would be windy enough to test Moore's theories ("Why do you think they're always calling these places Breezy Point?"); and because the very shape of the property would suggest a kind of pedestal rising out of the water. Such a pedestal would demand a bold sculptural form.

It took the couple seven years to find the right point. After searching in Maine, on Cape Cod, Mass., and on eastern Long Island, N.Y., they discovered Talbot County, Md., which Moore says has more points of land than any other county in the country. One of them, Benoni Point, had never been built on.

Construction wasn't easy. The other houses in the area are Colonials, so it was hard to find people to do the kind of metalwork required. Moore says the construction cost was "several times as much" as a conventional dwelling's.

Skeptics at work

The customs of rural workmen also took getting used to. "First there was hunting season, then there was fishing season, then there was boating season," Moore said. Not to mention skepticism season.

"At first," Moore recalled, "they'd say, `There's no way we can build this.' But a few months later they were bringing their children to see what they had done."