- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Doubtless, the best people to define the word “modern” in architectural circles are those who live in or design modern homes of note.

Architect Eric Jenkins and many other professionals in the design field say they feel strongly that “modern” does not refer to a style, so much as the choices involved in everyday life; choices such as a person’s taste in furniture or preferences in entertaining. It most definitely does not apply to an open loft with high ceilings, and exposed pipes and ducts.

“It is a way of living and not an aesthetic,” says Mr. Jenkins, assistant dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at Catholic University. “A lot of people have the wrong impression. They feel it is uncomfortable and cold when it is not.”

Modern also has to do with using materials in unusual ways.

“It has to do with our times, the 21st century; it does not have to do with style,” says architect Susane Reatig of the Northwest firm that bears her name. “It’s really kind of difficult to name it.”

She recently designed a set of duplexes on M Street Northwest with steel and glass facades and precast concrete in the walls that can reduce the problem of noise and termites. “It’s the way you build hotels,” she says.

What we think of as modern style goes back 100 years, says Mark McInturff, of Mark McInturff Architects in Bethesda.

In its generic form, all three professionals agree that modernism fundamentally is a lot about space. “It’s about having more or using space,” Mr. McInturff says.

“It’s about how space is organized,” says Mr. Jenkins.

Mr. McInturff has spoken often on the topic of what is “modern” and will be one of the architects featured in next month’s model showroom exhibit called “The Modern Mix” at the Washington Design Center, which will be open to the public from March 26 to June 19 at 300 D St. SW.

“My goal in the lecture [“Beyond MidCentury: Modernism’s Brilliant Future”] was to debunk some of the myths about modern as cold, boxy and lacking color,” he says. To some degree, combining the traditional with the modern works best, he believes, while acknowledging that the contemporary emphasis on such a combination is a much different concept from that in generations past.

“We want more open kitchens, more light and less formality,” he says. “We open the house to the garden.”

Mr. Jenkins and his wife, Adrienne Jenkins, who is a landscape designer, live in River Park Homes in the District’s Southwest, a distinctive grouping of 150 row houses and 200 apartments whose construction in the early 1960s was sponsored by Reynolds Aluminum Co. to promote the use of aluminum in residential housing, a novelty at the time. The late Charles Goodman was the architect. His best-known work locally may be Hollin Hills near Mount Vernon, considered an innovative break from the conventional tract-home development of the period.

The Jenkins’ three-level row house features a single barrel-vaulted frame and aluminum screen on the exterior, with free-flowing spaces and clean lines on the interior. The aluminum frame, he points out, allows for the large windows that flood the place with light. In addition, there is a great deal of storage space that helps prevent clutter. An oak staircase adds warmth and depth to the standard 8-foot-1-inch ceiling height on the main level.

The couple left a large, loft-like co-op on Capitol Hill in the spring, determined to find a house near a Metro stop. “As an architect, I looked for good housing stock,” says Mr. Jenkins. “These houses had integrity, which means they were honest for the time they were built using the materials and technology available.”

They renovated the 1,600-square-foot interior, adding stainless steel cabinets and new utilities in the kitchen. A grand piano and a soft green angular sofa from Apartment Zero dominate the living room. Several other pieces were custom-crafted or recovered from secondhand sources.

“We had fun with it,” Mr. Jenkins says of their adventures.

Dan Snyder, owner of what is believed to be the only residence in Washington designed by I.M. Pei, has a similar attitude to describe pride of ownership. “It’s fun to see how it works,” he says, referring to the interplay of materials and the adaptability of the rooms in the handsome, intimate 2,400-square-foot split-level house in Cleveland Park that he bought four years ago sight unseen. Materials include concrete, buff-colored brick, clear and frosted glass, and indirect light fixtures, including a fluorescent spotlight.

His first order of business was an expensive new roof. Next, he added radiant heat under travertine marble floors. And other upgrades are planned. An industrial designer by training who now is a public relations executive, Mr. Snyder regards his home almost as a human being with personality whose character has facets he learns about daily.

Both the Jenkins home and the Snyder residence are hidden from public view to some extent — a high brick wall shields the latter home from the street. Curiously, too, both have a barrel-vaulted exterior. The difference is the use of concrete with brick columns on the facade of the free-standing Snyder home.

Another so-called modern element evident in both is the open floor plan that can make a house look bigger, plus connecting links between the inside and the outside.

“This house is all about light,” Mr. Snyder says, quoting Mr. Pei in saying “light is the key” with architecture in general. Because of an overhang on the front columns, the sun doesn’t hit the interior directly even in summer, but vertical electric white shades controlled by a hand-held remote device can be drawn shut when necessary.

Comfort and casualness go together in the Snyder house. He loves to entertain, doing all the cooking himself in the kitchen adjacent to a similarly shaped dining room on the lower floor. There are no hallways. The few doors are for privacy’s sake, separating bath and bedroom areas. Mr. McInturff urged him initially to open up the house, but it was Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Washington’s long-established guru of contemporary residential architecture, who was the consulting architect throughout.

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