Eleanor Raymond: A book, an exhibition

"I like things simple," Eleanor Raymond declares. Then she say it again. Hers was an architecture whose artfulness lay in its seeming ease. Her "style" was adjusting to the daily pattern of her client's lives, her technological searching almost invisible in its service to the design at hand.

Now 94, with more than a half century's career behind her, the lively nonagenarian's concepts of close fit and the experimental way she achieved them have earned her a book and exhibition through Nov. 1 at the Institute of Contemporary Art. boston.

In a period when women's work was in,m not on,m the home, Eleanor Raymond created a large group of residences that settled into the landscape as if they had grown there. She broached new ideas with a temerity beyond her time -- beyond even our time.

While Americans were beginning to soak up a seemingly endless supply of energy and spew it out indiscriminately from chimney and car, she designed her Solar House of 1948.

"She was not intimidated by the requirements of her profession, but harnessed technology, structure, form, mechanical systems, and materials," Doris Cole, author of "Eleanor Raymond, Architect" (London and Toronto: Art Alliance Press) and "From Tipi to Skyscraper: A History of Women in Architecture," writes.

Raymond used plywood and Masonite early on; she sent her New England houses out along horizontal lines in a fashion that created a modified international style in harmony with the landscape to New England.

When House Beautiful called her "a dazzlingly prolific innovator" half a century ago, it recorded not only her power of design but her place in a circle of forceful women -- Katherine Hepburn clones like sculptor Amelia Peabody.

Peabody commissioned the sun house in Dover, Mass., and the architect and her colleague, Dr. Maria Telkes of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's solar laboratory, circled the city, watching how the skylights on factories held the winter snow and then applying their knowledge to the new home.

Glauber's salt in cans held the heat on the Peabody roof and, as Raymond tells it in the show's catalog, "When the door opened a wave of hot air hit me, all from the heat stored in the Glauber salts during the day."

Energy concerns still punctuate her conversation on a brisk fall day in her Cambridge apartment. Sitting by a grove of house plants whose health reflects her sensitivity to growing things, Raymond drops the principles of nature -- conscious siting -- offhandedly.

"You look for something that has a view and the sun of the east or southeast and the kitchen on the east," she says.

Unfortunately, the technology of our century has not measured up to her early experiments (the cans leaked and no replacements could be found) nor matched her casual understanding of the way to ease solar awareness into architecture.

America was no more ready for a new approach to energy consumption than it was prepared to welcome a woman architect to the mainstream of male practice.

The unquenchable architect found her own way, nonetheless, entering architecture through a route marked "women" (Henry Atherton Frost's Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in Cambridge in 1917) and proceeding along a women-mostly domestic route (running her own office and supplying her elite cloister of private clients with homes).

Today Raymond's house on Cambridge's Longfellow Park has lost its unifying latticework and looks a bit like a skiff adrift on a sea of lawn. Still, it suggests that its maker dared to venture beyond the confines of her time and place and to escape drawing what she saw as the fussy details of her day.

No single style dominates the Raymond repertory exhibited, from the boxy cube of her sister's house in Belmont ("the first modern house in New England," she calls it); to the colonialike complexes on Boston's North Shore; to the cozy TZE clubhouse for Wellesley College, from where she was graduated in 1909.

Both in photographs and on the Wellesley landscape, this last structure belongs to some charming Hansel and Gretel never-never land.Set at the bottom of a slope by a lake, its wonderful shingled roof, lofty chimney, and battered bricks retain a sense of permanence that seems far more romantically remote than its alive and lively creator.

Much of the appeal of the clubhouse, like that of other Raymond designs, lies in its oneness with the lay of the land -- the sense of the house in the garden.

The show calls on that quality in its modest staging of flower boxes and pale blue and green walls.

Both in her art and in her conversation, Raymond is even more evocative of surroundings. Recalling the past with precision, she is as likely to draw a word portrait of the view or foliage of a place as of her own work. Of her renovation at the foot of Beacon Hill in Boston, she says: "One beautiful tree of heaven [Ailanthus altissimam ] was enough to make something you could live in."

Creating the essence of an urban garden, she lived in this 112 Charles Street site until a neighboring apartment blocked her view.

The same eye to the integrity of architecture and lanscape architecture applied to her suburban work.

"I'am crazy about American cedar trees," she says. For her sister's home the architect stained the wood on the house a very pale gray to go with the bark of the tree and the door an orange to match its berries, all the while clearing trees on the slope of its hill to preserve the view.

When she went back, Raymond mourns, the color was changed and scrub trees -- "treelets," she calls them contemptuously -- had marred the tenderly planned view of nature.

Elsewhere, though, that carefully plotted room-with-a-view approach to design is Eleanor Raymond's unassuming but splendidly well-mannered, and often adventuresome, contribution to architecture.

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