Four years ago, Edgar Papazian and his wife Michelle Lenzi were living in the New York area when they decided they wanted to settle down. Papazian, being an architect, was itching to build something that they could call home.
At that time the real estate market in New York and northern New Jersey was rocketing out of control and beyond their financial means. During the same period they visited with friends in Portland, Oregon and immediately connected with the more affordable city. They soon discovered that the northwest cultural mecca is home to a strong foodie scene, vibrant design culture and a love of bicycles — all things they adore.
In 2008, the pair made the leap to the West Coast, and they settled on a 1941 home in Portland’s Mt. Tabor neighborhood that Papazian describes as “minimal traditional” because of its few historical characteristics or details.
Papazian’s creation, the Eyebrow House, transforms a typical mid-century American home by integrating curvilinear elements that look futuristic and industrial without rejecting the neighborhood and its identity. The design integrates color and curves to make the home, which has three bedrooms and two full baths, feel luxurious and unique without sacrificing its smaller scale. The back wall in cut out so that it feels more connected to the garden and outdoor space and other interior elements like the fireplace and staircase are decidely contemporary.
I interviewed Papazian via email about his creation.
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Hrag Vartanian: Lots of people in your position would’ve torn down the old house and built a new one. Why didn’t you?
Edgar Papazian: I think my generation of architects understand the emotional attachment people have to context. Had we torn it completely down and put something rather different in place, it would have changed the tenor of the neighborhood. The surrounding block was all developed in the early 1940s and the houses have a certain similarity to each other. The aesthetic for the dormers was based on trying to make more space within the envelope of a 1 ½ story house without taking up a lot more of the sky plane.
The modernist “cuboid” aesthetic, which I am no stranger to, just would have seemed discordant. Maybe it’s the time I spent in New York working on landmarked projects which required vetting for their sensitivity to context. But, of course, there’s also a subversive element to the project too.
HV: What were your inspirations for the project?
EP: In Portland there is an industrial neighborhood on the east bank of the Willamette river (where I used to have my office) that has several examples of Quonset huts from the post-war period. They were cheap and easy to put up — used for garages, storage, and now office spaces, stores, etc. There’s a relationship there. Also, I have a personal predilection towards curvelinearity in design that I was able to bring to bear. As soon as I saw the house I had a sketch very much like what we built — not that it was a forgone conclusion, but the idea of penetrating the volume of the house with these curvelinear elements, taking advantage of the site and the existing locations of things like the stair and the mantelpiece just felt like it would be fun and interesting. The first drawing I made was a section, ie. a cross-section through the house showing the new bedroom upstairs looking out on the rear yard (which is slightly deeper than a typical Portland lot).
HV: How about your limitations?
EP: The code stipulated that we needed to do a major amount of structural work for reasons of seismicity of the Pacific Northwest. It meant there’s a lot of hidden and not-hidden lateral bracing in the house. We had to add a lot of steel. I sleep fairly comfortably at night for this reason. The zoning also prevented us from adding on more to the front or sides of the house, which was fine. The renovation works within the zoning envelope and is well undersized for the lot. We barely added any square footage at all, but make such better use of the space that’s there.
HV: Do you mind asking how much the renovation cost? It looks super amazing.
EP: Let’s say we were on a severe budget, but things always crop up during construction.
HV: What are the biggest obstacles for people who want to do something similar to what you did? What advice would you offer them?
EP: Well, making a new home out of an old home is in some ways more challenging than starting from scratch. Get an architect and a structural engineer. DO a lot of exploratory demolition to find out what’s inside your walls. Be prepared not to live in the house during that time (we lived in the house for a fair portion of construction for financial reasons and it was really tough).
Most people think they can design something themselves and they end up making huge mistakes and getting an architect involved much later in the game and in the process they are forced to spend more money. Architects are rather misunderstood by the general public as either plan-drawers or permit-getters or wacky impractical visionaries. In reality, we have the totality of a project in our minds from the get-go. We coordinate the construction process and save the owner money by doing so.
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Readymade has a post about the Eyebrow House, which includes more details about its construction.
Homepage image by Brian Libby.