For architect Christian Dean, residential modernism is about “remaining open to influences like context, site, and topography, and allowing those influences to bear on the design work.” With the modern house he designed for a young family next to a busy arterial street in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, Dean considered not only the traditional architecture of the established neighborhood (Cape Cods, Tudors, bungalows), but also a steep front-sloping site.
The clients also requested an attached garage, which could have “led to a massive house out of scale with the rest of neighborhood,” said Dean. So he sited the house 20 feet from the property line rather than filling up the zoning setbacks. He broke up the 2,300-square-foot structure’s three levels (basement/garage, first floor, and second level), creating a profile that steps back from the street. He also held back the terrain 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,” Dean said. The exterior materials also subtly underscore the stepped-back massing, creating a layered effect more common in traditional architecture. The upper level is clad in familiar cedar shakes, while elsewhere the house is sided in starker, white-painted HardiePanel. “For me, modern is decoration through repetition and textures,” he said, “and I love cedar shakes for that reason.”
To address the clients’ request for a patio, Dean put a covered outdoor space on the elevated south side of the house, rather than in the back. “We challenged the typical notion of filling out the site north to south, to present a public front and private back,” he said. “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 couple has a young daughter), the outdoor space is accessible from the kitchen via floor-to-ceiling glass doors.
“All of the rooms, in fact, are well-lit because we lined up the program across the site for south daylight,” Dean said. A north wall of exposed concrete, with high windows for privacy, anchors the house. The south side is more permeable, and lightly framed with copious glazing. While the main entry and media room face the front (and the busy street), the living room, dining area, and kitchen “retreat from the street and are programmed deeper into the site for more privacy,” Dean said.
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. The clients wanted to take the loft aesthetic with them into their new home, which Dean created with concrete, stainless steel, and glass, warming up the industrial feel with oiled ash floors. A glass wall alongside the white concrete staircase, which features a gray-stained ash “runner,” emphasizes the contrast between materials. The clients’ addition of Swarovski crystal chandeliers in the kitchen and soft casual furniture add to the interior’s vibrancy and comfort.
While a dilapidated 1930s house needed to be torn down to make way for the new, Dean’s modern approach ensured the home fits neatly into the existing neighborhood. “For me, modernism isn’t a set of prescribed rules,” he said. “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. We are good neighbors in that way.”