Designed for living and learning

Wimbledon House is known for its bold, modular design and sunny, inside-out aesthetic, but when then-budding architect Richard Rogers designed the London home for his parents in the 1960s, he wanted to create a flexible living space that could shape-shift to suit their needs.

The modular home world-renowned British architect Richard Rogers designed for his parents in the 1960s now serves as an urban studies lab for the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

The steel-framed, prefabricated house with moveable partitions influenced Rogers’ later work on landmarks such as the Centre Pompidou — but more than an architectural experiment, the home was designed for living, a space where his mother, who loved to cook, could host big gatherings around the dinner table.

So it’s fitting that one of the first events to be held in the home since it became a fellowship residence for Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) will be a talk examining the way food and cooking shape cities — one focus of study by the fellows this year.

Rogers gave the home to GSD in 2015 to ensure the Heritage-listed property’s continued use as a residence — and last month it was unveiled after restorations by architect Philip Gumuchdjian and landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, M.L.A. ’84.

Movable partitions allow rooms to be reconfigured.

The restoration wasn’t Gumuchdjian’s first brush with the house. In 1980 while he was an apprentice, he was tasked with replacing the home’s iconic yellow blinds and even then he was awed by the house’s flexible design, which he describes as “radical.”

“I recall it as a place full of serenity and aesthetic harmony,” he said, “a place of sunlight and of views into landscape.”

In the fall, the Graduate School of Design will hold an event at the house, showing the way food and cooking shape cities.

Fast-forward to 2015 and Gumuchdjian presides over a firm whose challenge was to restore the modernist icon to its original state while modifying it for its new role as a research home for Harvard. Replaced were the roof, the asbestos-filled external walls, and the servicing; removed were recently added buildings and internal partitions.

“[Wimbledon] is not just an iconic, flexible machine for living nor simply a historic experimental building that foretold the architect’s future work,” he said, “it was also a home with a unique memory, patina, and aura.”

The garden was completely re-created. Longstaffe-Gowan, a 1984 grad of GSD, strove to “restore the original balance of the 1960s composition to better reflect the architect’s original intentions.” Wimbledon is “a total work of art,” he said. “The house, gardens, and interiors were conceived in concert to form a unified whole.”

“The outdoor rooms are at once boundless and enveloping,” said Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who restored the home’s gardens.
The internal steel frame of Wimbledon House allows for a flexible layout.
Rogers has described the house as a “transparent tube with solid boundary walls.”
“The house was conceived as a kit of parts in an age before such concepts were commonplace,” said Philip Gumuchdjian, the architect who led the restoration.

In addition to serving as the residence for the Richard Rogers Fellowship, the Wimbledon House will provide the GSD a new venue for lectures, symposia, and other events bringing together scholars and practitioners from London, Europe, and around the world.

One of the first events to be hosted at the house this fall explores the way food and cooking shape cities, which seems apt considering the central role of food and cooking in Rogers’ life — his wife, Ruth, runs a Michelin-starred restaurant, and presented a lecture about food at Harvard last fall. One of the six inaugural fellows, GSD alum Jose Castillo, is studying cooking and eating through cultural, ecological, and political lenses, probing connections between urban food economies and forces like climate change and migration.

This application of design thinking to broad global questions exemplifies the work GSD hopes to stimulate, especially through the Richard Rogers Fellowship. Other projects by fellows this year will focus on public and affordable housing as well as citizen-driven revitalization efforts in cities.

The goal of the residency program is to support research that addresses alternative and sustainable urban futures.
Rogers’ experimentation with materials and techniques through the Wimbledon House influenced his work on the Centre Pompidou, which he co-designed with Renzo Piano.
The first class of fellows are from Austria, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States.

The fellowship, launched in October, is inspired by Rogers’ commitment to cross-disciplinary investigation and social engagement as an architect, urbanist, author, and activist and is dedicated to advancing research on a range of issues key to shaping cities — social, economic, technological, political, and environmental.

Each year, six fellows will be awarded a three-month residency, travel expenses to London, and a $10,000 cash prize. 

To learn more, please visit the Richard Rogers Fellowship website.

(Reprinted with permission from Harvard Gazette.)

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