It is a moderately cold and overcast winter day. Architect Julie Michiels and I have arranged a visit to the Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, to photograph it for this piece. Although we have been lucky to visit the house a few times in the past, we are always excited to visit owner Sidney K. Robinson and spend time in this 1950 house designed by architect Bruce Goff.
After picking up our rental car in the Stanley Tigerman-designed garage in downtown Chicago, we drive about an hour until we arrive at our destination, a unique house among a suburban residential neighborhood about two and a half miles west of downtown Aurora. You are welcomed by a low masonry wall with circular perforations defining the western edge of the site, a series of bright curved red steel structural ribs, a black coal wall with the irregular green glass pieces inserted in it, and above, the cedar shingles that culminate in skylights. The carport, with red panels and rope on the ceiling, leads you to the entrance door.
Entering the 1950 Ford House is entering a rich, complex, and welcoming space. A series of disparate and unusual materials that come together in a clear and disciplined way. You instantly feel at home, able to enjoy one of its multiple spatial conditions: the spacious area along the exterior coal wall, the sunken covered area of the kitchen that continues outside under the steel ribs, the mezzanine level above that continues as an outdoor terrace, and the intimate bedrooms flanking either side of the central spaces. While extremely photogenic, it is a real challenge to capture what it feels to be in this house with photographs or drawings. Each documents aspects of the house that, however, benefit from cross-referencing each other. Undoubtedly, being in the Ford House while listening to Sidney’s insightful experience of living there for over three decades, makes the experience complete.
To try to capture the experience of being at the Ford House, we asked Sidney K. Robinson, owner of the house since 1986 and Professor Emeritus of Modern Architecture at UIC, to share what it feels like to live there and what the house means to him. His remarkable work preserving this important building was recognized by Landmark Illinois with the 2019 Award for Stewardship.
We also invited others to contribute personal reflections about the house: artist Petra Bachmaier of the artistic duo Luftwerk; Seattle-based artist Leo Berk who spent most of his childhood growing up in the house; interdisciplinary artist and photographer Assaf Evron; architect and educator Grant Gibson; percussionist, composer, and musical entrepreneur David Skidmore, co-founder of Third Coast Percussion; and former Art Institute of Chicago archivist Mary Woolever, who co-curated the exhibition The Architecture of Bruce Goff 1904-1982: Design for the Continuous Present.
Our aim with the following reflections and photographs is to convey the qualities of the Ford House, what it feels like to be there, and what makes it a remarkable dwelling that deserves to be considered well beyond its unusual shape and materials.
Sidney K. Robinson, House owner and Professor Emeritus of Modern Architecture at UIC
Bruce Goff is an architect infamous in some circles for using orange carpeting on a roof, goose feathers on a ceiling, and for wearing gold lame jackets. This is not someone to be taken seriously by an architectural professional aspiring to high cultural status. At the other extreme, Goff is acceptable only if his novelty gives image-making trend-setters a charge by drawing attention to the transgressively unlettered. To say Goff was marginal does not quite go far enough since his work was dismissed for not meeting any of those criteria. The fact that he never went to architecture school and was only formally educated through high school confirms his inadmissibility to higher circles of culture. As an iconic American autodidact, his lack of credentials sets him apart. He has been castigated as the “Michelangelo of Kitsch” and as “American Weird.” My experience of living in the Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, designed in 1947 and constructed in 1949-50 has generated genuine respect. That is what this story is about.
I was one of those doubters having known about Goff’s architecture only through photographs. In the two-dimensional representation, patterns and textures and colors collided. It was just too much, excessive to the point of vulgarity. But now having lived in a Goff house for thirty years—what happened? I have visited a number of Goff buildings and the Ford House is the only one I would want to live in. Walking into this locally notorious house on an August Saturday morning in 1986 instantly overcame my previous doubts. As I have remarked before: like Saul on the road to Damascus, I was changed! What did I see in that flash of discovery? I saw intense sensory stimulation and clear order at the same time. As I have come to understand, this house is simultaneously exciting and calming. That is extraordinary.
As an educator, I decided immediately on entering the house that living in such an extreme example of architectural intensity might provide significant lessons to share with aspiring young architects. The comments that follow are not directed at placing Goff in an historical context so much as to explore what there is to learn from the Ford House. That might seem like an unwarranted expectation of a 1,700-square-foot, middle-class house and certainly risks trying to elevate my personal experience. It is quite possible that I am simply justifying my investment of time and resources, but I beg your indulgence. Proposing to find lessons for architects in a private house contradicts architecture’s historical role of providing places, not for individuals, but for communal activities like worshiping, governing, and celebrating. The Ford House is undeniably an artifact from the modern world as a place for personal activities and responses. Whether that diminishes architecture’s significance I will leave up to you to decide.
I have come to think there are two important lessons the Ford House provides. The first is that coherence is not only achieved by a singular formal language; composed differences can make a powerful design. The second is that some architecture can connect with a lot of people, not just the highly educated.
A “dialog of difference” is the way I have come to describe the Ford House’s particular strength. (Forgive the academic pretension!) There are elements of the house that can be categorized in oppositional or complementary pairs: natural/industrial; freedom/discipline; inside/outside; tent/cave; stimulating/calm; in-ground/above-ground. These differences expand the potential uses and responses to living in the house. One can easily imagine a house with just the first term of these pairs: natural–freedom–inside–tent–stimulating–in-ground. But to live in a place that includes both terms is, on the face, a setting for a much more varied and engaging life. Living with the dialog between these differences is more fun! It is a happy house.
The initiating move for the Ford House design was Goff’s desire to explore the potentials of the Quonset hut rib he had used while he was in the Navy Seabees in the Second World War. These curved, prefabricated, light steel members were used by the military in parallel alignment like rafters to quickly build structures with corrugated metal sheets enclosing their half-circle profile. In the Ford House, this steel structure is covered with cedar shingles on the exterior and lapped cypress boards on the inside, the first dialog between industrial and natural. Considering how else these structural members might be deployed, Goff proposed placing them in a radial rather than a parallel arrangement. That perfectly reasonable geometric alternative set the terms for the whole house. The radial pattern of the curved steel ribs produced a dome-like volume and a circular footprint. But they do not make a dome. That would have required a dense juncture as the forty ribs met at the top. The constructional difficulty and the circular plan may have suggested to Goff that the ribs could meet at a chimney of a central fireplace. The living spaces would focus on the hearth and, all of a sudden, we have a primordial house-form of a circle around a hearth: Central Asian yurt, igloo, American Plains Indian teepees. What started with an industrial product leads to the model of an ancient human habitation. A dialog of contemporary industry and ancient dwelling.
All the dimensions were set by the prefabricated structure, a 48-foot-diameter and a 15-foot-high circle. The hearth sits at the base of a chimney, not of masonry, but a steel frame covered in copper sheets. The slowly tapering chimney shaft rises up to receive the converging ribs and pushes on to a sloped skylight revealing the amazing geometric play of the ribs and the divisions of the skylight glass. The resulting centralized dome-like volume could easily contain the major, general living spaces, but what of bathrooms and bedrooms? Trying to fit them in a circle almost always results in awkward subdivisions, particularly if the clarity if the big space is to be preserved for both structural and formal reasons. Those functions were placed in smaller, quarter-domed pods flanking the big dome.
Goff made two critical adjustments to the initial model: with two radial glass walls, he sectioned off one third of the circle as an outside, porch-like area defined by the exposed ribs. The second step was to outline a smaller circle around the hearth depressed four feet into the ground covered with a circular cantilevered deck above. These smaller circles on two levels create a significant change in spatial structure; the high-curved volume is reminiscent of a tent while the lower level under the cantilever at the hearth suggests a cave: a dialog of two primordial habitations. Because these two smaller circles continue outside through the radial glass walls, they create a dialog between inside and outside. This outside is still contained by the exposed steel ribs, so it is not about bringing the outside in as an embrace of the site. The immediate “outside” is actually “inside,” each a version of the other. The overlap is part of an internal, designed dialog. The two radial glass walls defining the enclosed area are extended beyond the circle of the ribs as walls for two quarter domes with a radius of twelve feet that house two bedrooms. The area between the large circle and the two smaller quarter circles become closets and bathrooms with flat ceilings covered with rope laid up like corduroy. This texturally interesting material also crosses above the glass walls to the underside of exterior cantilevers. The rope also contributes to a marine imagery probably from Goff’s military experiences.
This description is not a report from Goff, but it is evidence of another significant aspect of this house; its “readability.” Careful inspection can reveal so much about how the design works. It is transparent in that respect. When architecture tells its own story, it invites engagement. It is not hiding behind sleights of hand or arcane design decisions; it is open and available.
The closed perimeter wall opposite the glass radial walls is cannel coal laid up in a random ashlar pattern. The coal is shaped into rectangular blocks that contrast with patches of cullet green glass in chunks; a natural material shaped and an industrial material in rough form. Another dialog of difference.
The freedom is most evident in the simultaneous presence of unexpected materials: coal, rope on the flat ceilings, steel ribs painted red-orange, chunks of green glass, black painted floors, and the spray of red steel at the top of the sky light. The discipline of the circular geometry provides the context for all this material richness. Freedom of materials and discipline of geometry. Unusual materials, often identified as a characteristic of Goff’s architecture, were chosen for their contribution to a rich and varied aesthetic. As a colleague remarked: Bruce liked to work with shapes. Goff is not a commentator on cultural or social matters. He is an “artist” delighting in design potentials. He also delights in taking positions and finding disregarded materials that cultured conventions avoid. There is a “rube-like” satisfaction in making the comfortable uneasy, but it delights the adventurous. Goff’s architecture is an invitation; it is not a judgement. Nor is it commentary on the excesses of industrial capitalism seen in the detritus bricoleurs collect. Although Goff’s architecture can be responded to in those terms, that is not to ascribe those motivations to Goff himself any more than you can say he set out to make a yurt. You can make those connections; Goff himself was too optimistically inventive to bother with any of that.
The second lesson of the Ford House is its remarkable accessibility. Its playfulness, described by a mother of four after their visit as “Doctor Seuss-y,” stimulates the imagination. Architects and designers, however, pick up on the orderliness. The house invites both responses. Some see Norwegian stave churches, or English Gothic chapter houses with their central column and radiating vault ribs. Some see a lantern or an umbrella or exploding fireworks. It suggests a yurt and, for Ruth Ford, a merry-go-round when she put painted horses on the outside deck. Whatever backgrounds or experiences people bring with them can find some way to connect to the house. Such a design is considered a notable achievement to some and regrettably indulgent to others. Architectural design is usually expected to be an exercise that clearly focuses choices and responses. The fact that many different responses can be made to the Ford House is evidence for some that it is an example of excess not selection, a lack of control, not discipline. The sign of design control is usually shown through a consistent formal language. The Ford House exhibits discipline in the way a range of possibilities is composed in a dialog of difference.
For all its initial strangeness, many find it immediately home-like, the enveloping geometry and focused hearth being the most evident sources. Goff was known for listening to clients’ requests and meeting them, maybe in unexpected ways, but meeting them. There are livable features one would want—closets by the front door and in the bedrooms, kitchen with cupboards and counter tops. Tubs in the bathrooms, albeit black terrazzo half circles, make for a functional space. The 70-foot coal wall was the gallery to display Ruth’s watercolor paintings. Unsuspecting visitors have remarked after they have stayed a couple of days how smoothly the place “lives.” The house does not require you to align yourself with its architecture, to knowingly get the clues and get in step. That is not to say that anything goes; it is a specific composition, not a junk-heap. An architecture professor of mine once remarked how he did not like Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair because he always felt he had to dress to sit in it, which is not all that strange since it was a modern throne for the monarchs of Spain on their visit to the Pavilion. You can wear anything in the Ford House, from Tuxedo to bathrobe, or nothing, if you like! It is amazing that when it is full of people, sixty-five more than once, it seems large and expansive and when there is only one, it seems cozy and comfortable.
The Ford House invites different responses because it is composed of contrasting formal and material patterns that can make life within it more open to differences. As I have noted, being free and joyful can co-exist with being focused and disciplined. There is a resonance between design and life. When geometric rigor is simultaneous with intense sensory stimulation there is a disconnect, a slippage between the contrasts that does not exist in a singular, consistent formal design. Singularity brooks no gaps; that is its point. Living in such a design intentionally limits responses. For some that is what architecture is all about, what sets it apart from the untidiness of random living. Because the Ford House is architecture that manages to compose those gaps between aspects of the design, it connects and lives with greater potential and generosity.
Bruce Goff identified his artistic mentor to be Claude Debussy. Debussy’s music impressed Goff for being structured in a uniquely fluid way. Analysts are still investigating the structure for one of Debussy’s later orchestral pieces, Jeux (Games). Debussy’s music leaves compositional gaps usually filled by conventional techniques of tonality, harmony, and rhythm that create a tight, unbroken development along a single formal line. In Debussy, this slippage makes for a composition that evolves rather than marches. In the Ford House, it means that the gaps between industrial and natural, between inside and out, between freedom and order are where the variations of individual life can take place. It is not an overdetermined framework; it is stimulating but not prescriptive. The Ford House is about as far from a machine for living as one can get.
The colors and textures in the Ford House are not set up as a contrast to the patterns and variations of nature like a white, rectilinear composition would do. They do not mimic nature either. The geometric framework makes it easy to chart the movement of the sun during the day and during the year. The round plan operates a little like a sun dial as light and shadows move around the “domed” space. There is the summertime igniting of the green glass as the late afternoon sun strikes the chunks directly. As winter approaches, those glowing patches disappear until the sun moves back around in the spring. There is also a magical time in summer when the late afternoon sun lights up the top of the copper chimney that reflects back onto the coal wall, the cypress ceiling, and the green glass in a delicate, peach-colored light. And there is nothing like watching a snowstorm through the green wall of ficus plants that cover the glass walls.
Now, the social dimension of the Ford House. The circular form, the bench focused on the hearth make for an excellent gathering place. The initial formal and structural choices led to this social setting recognized by Goff. Its circular embrace both in plan and in section makes for a comforting ambience. As one visitor noted, the curved ceiling wraps overhead like a blanket. Groups have gathered for food and beverages, for seminars, and for congenial sharing. The Ford House is a great party house and a retreat for one. The social and professional connections that followed my purchase of the house have been profound. I have gotten to know people I would never have known; I have entertained visitors whose varied responses have contributed to my intention to learn what architecture can mean to people. I have been stimulated to learn about architecture in ways I could not have imagined. One of the most memorable gatherings occurred when Third Coast Percussion played their arrangement of Goff’s piano-roll compositions in the house as the light projection artists Luftwerk projected patterns on the domed ceiling. The artist Leo Berk, who lived in the house as a boy, created a dozen works in several media that were interpretations of his memories. The house has stimulated various artists to respond to its intensity and, more importantly, to its implicit invitation to go and create in the spirit of house itself. That is the greatest testimony to the generosity of the architect, of the dialog of differences, and the embrace of whoever connects with the house in whatever terms they bring with them.
Living in the Ford House for thirty years has been a lesson in seeing how living and design interact. That was the point of purchasing it to begin with. Although the intensity of the design is inescapable, the presence of differences invites engaging in activities that are both orderly and joyful. There is a question whether I can say the Ford House is my “home.” There is no way my presence can overcome the presence of Goff’s architecture. I fully realize this house is not about me; it is rather an artifact to discover more about myself, others, and architecture. The fact that I am the eighth owner indicates that some people could not adjust to the place. Either you already live like the house suggests, you learn to do that, or you sell it. My three-decade inhabitation has given me a lot of time to consider the issue of architecture and life. Did I have to adjust, or did I fit in? Certainly the desire to make a life in the Ford House predisposed me to fit in, but it did not take much effort. The circular plan organizes a sequence of task sites around the perimeter. I can wander around the circle going from project to project getting things done in a peripatetic way. Wandering along a circle, stopping along the way, suits me just fine.
Leo Berk, Seattle-based artist
If it were not for the courage of Ruth and Sam Ford, the vision of Bruce Goff, or the craftsmanship of builder and architect Don Tosi, I would not be where I am today. My entire life has been inextricably shaped by the privilege of a childhood spent living in the Ford house. The house nurtured me aesthetically, hour by hour, for seven years with lessons on form, color, transparency, material, acoustics, volume, surface, light, and other subjects that I struggle to easily categorize. While every other kid in my neighborhood was certainly learning the conventional house version of these lessons, I was learning Bruce Goff’s idiosyncratic version. I am the embodiment of the transformative potential of exceptional architecture on an unformed and creative mind. I only wish I had the chance to thank those that made it possible.
Assaf Evron, interdisciplinary artist and photographer
“On A First Encounter with the Ford House”
It is difficult to convey the experience of my first visit to the Ford House. I became familiar with the Ford House through its various photographic (re)presentations in books and publications. I browsed the Goff archives at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries. I watched the poetic and comprehensive film “Goff in the Desert” by Heinz Emigholz dedicated to Bruce Goff. However, something in the actual encounter with the Ford House caught me unprepared or off guard. I found myself somewhere between a deer in headlights and a child in a candy store. It was not the overwhelming number of materials, details, and elegant solutions that make them work together; in a strange way, those actually felt very organic, seamless, and even soothing. It was not the precise and rigid yet creative engineering; it actually makes visible the rational and systematic organization of space. The exposed frame and symmetries communicate a coherent logic that is sensible through the details. It was not even the rich variety of gazes and reflections that the house offers that photographers (like me) indulge in so much; every step I took in the house opened up an abundance of visual trajectories that engaged me in an active dialogue with the building.
There is this phenomenological gap between the (re)presentation of a building and the experience of a building that I was unable to bridge at the Ford House. I can talk about the excess of experience and the ways in which the house is saturated with its own history and the love invested in it. But I will try to conclude by talking about affect. While being in the house I had a very strange feeling, I had no desire to take photographs. I had no desire to take a record to turn the visible into a visual and submit the house to the various organizational and reflexive regimes of the photographic apparatus. If to use the terminology of Emmanuel Levinas, I wanted to delay in order to linger in the experience, to keep the house as infinity, not yet grounding it under a totality of my visual reason. I felt, for a change, that I just wanted to be with architecture for a while, quietly, with nothing much to say about it.
Grant Gibson, architect and educator
The Bavinger House was my introduction to Bruce Goff’s work. Now gone, it was unlike anything I had understood as a building (let alone architecture). Even when represented in black and white drawings and photographs, the material experimentation, tectonic invention, and dynamic sectional composition of the house was exhilarating. It left me fantasizing of exotic Oklahoma; mind you, I was still a teenager at the time. But even then, I could not understand the spiraling plan. Goff had a thing for moving inhabitants along a winding path. In the Bavinger House this happens on suspended stairs along a stone wall; in the first design of the Garvey House, it happens in a translucent tube ascending around an enclosed garden. Like great amusement park rides with one dizzying route, these houses were designed to perform like machines for domestic entertainment. More reminiscent of pre-modern dwellings like yurts and wigwams, the Ford House is not like these machines.
What becomes immediately apparent upon arrival (under a ceiling of meticulously aligned cords of rope) is that this house was built with a higher level of craft than most of his other work. An achievement that likely belongs more to the builder than to the architect. Architecture’s realization is often beyond the control of the architect. In repeated visits to the house, I have seen many visitors overwhelmed by the kaleidoscope of material finishes and unique construction techniques; but the home’s material exuberance has faded to the background of my appreciation. Admittedly, I am an architect more interested in the influence of space and form on human behavior than in obsessions in material craft.
My love for the Ford House is rooted in the subtle ways activities and circulation are choreographed in the house’s plan and section. It is a radially organized house. Unlike the Bavinger and Garvey spiraling designs, this house is organized by a diagram of concentric circles. These circles never fully close on themselves, since the interior does not occupy the full 360 degrees. This results in a number of small deviations (ie. the eastern glazed walls, stairs, kitchen configuration, etc.) to the plan diagram. The result is two modes of movement. First in compliance with the governing circles of the plan, as one moves along the coal wall or the edge of the loft. Then at key moments, circulation is reoriented perpendicular to these arcs, as one ascends to the loft, enters the bedrooms or exits the interior to the carport. The alternation between these two different movement patterns produces choice and variety as one moves in loops through the small open plan.
Most buildings are conceived with a dominant orientation, with the majority of the architectural character coming from either the floor plan or building section. This is not the case with the Ford House; the building’s sections are as robust as anything Goff would draw. Whereas the plan provides the governing order to the house and establishes the nature of movement within it, the building section resolves structural concerns and provides programmatic distinction. Stationary activities are scripted to the spatial profile of the house: the sunken lounge facing a fireplace, the loft under a skylight looking back down on the base of the wooden dome, and the gallery wrapping around both of them. It is all calibrated to the inhabitants and the positions we take while eating, reading, and lounging. Built form and stationary programs are so fully synchronized that it is hard to imagine certain activities happening in any other way than how Goff imagined them.
As acts of design, these two fundamental design documents (the floor plan and section drawing) perform in such differing ways—one offering choice and variety of movement, the other demanding precision of behavior. Each is so clear and rich. They combine into a design proposition that holds little back. Even all these years after its completion (and in no small part due to the efforts of the house’s current owner) the execution of Goff’s drawings leaves little wanting. This is architecture of the highest standard. While some of the wonder for Goff’s work has worn off since I first found the Bavinger House, this house occupies my imagination like no other. There is little of my own work that does not owe a debt to the Ford House.
Mary Woolever, former Art and Architecture archivist for the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago
I had the rare pleasure of experiencing the house in near total silence and also as a music performance venue. After the Art Institute of Chicago received the Bruce Goff collection in 1990, Sid Robinson most generously invited several museum staff to lunch in the house. We fell under its magical spell and committed to a major exhibition [The Architecture of Bruce Goff 1904–1982: Design for the Continuous Present, 1995]. It was an ideal way to quietly and carefully observe the light, the materials, the spatial flow, as well as the all-round sensuous and tactile qualities of the building.
I had a dramatically different experience of the house in 2014 when Sid arranged for the quartet Third Coast Percussion to perform in the house. The program included transcriptions of Goff’s original music for player piano arranged by the musicians. The atmosphere was vibrant, enthralling, with original lighting designed by Luftwerk, proving the house could have multiple personalities.
David Skidmore, Grammy Award-winning percussionist, composer, musical entrepreneur, and cofounder of Third Coast Percussion
As a musician, I am fascinated by the way that the same old components of creation (in a musician’s case: notes, rhythms, instrumentation; in an architect’s case: floors, doors, walls, ceiling) can be infinitely reimagined to create new experiences and environments. Bruce Goff’s Ford House has a roof, a kitchen, bedrooms, windows, a carport, load-bearing structural elements—all features that on paper are as boring as they are necessary. But each of these elements in the Ford House is made fresh and delightful by the materials chosen by Goff, and the form he implements.
I think every musician deals with the creative tension between the ingenuity we desire for our work to stand out and the necessary constraints, like duration of a piece of music, instrumentation available, expectations, and entry points for our listeners. When I see the Ford House, I see a model in another medium for how to be entirely constrained by a brief (build a house!) and also entirely new. It is a great joy to spend time in the house and to have been able to perform there a few times as well. I can feel the playfulness and genius of the house seep into my bones just a little bit each time I encounter it…and perhaps it has helped me get a little closer to negotiating this creative tension in my own work.
Petra Bachmaier, multi-media artist and cofounder of the artistic duo Luftwerk
Entering Sidney’s world, the Ford House, felt like stepping into a universe that orbits in whimsical spatial tunes. Its circular layout invites you to meander along multi-sensory compositions woven into a tree-like place that seemingly grows from the center out, providing an enchanting shelter.
We met Sidney in 2014 while developing INsite, a site-specific intervention at the Mies van der Rohe-designed Farnsworth House in Plano, IL. While driving back and forth between Chicago and Plano, our several stopovers at Sidney’s home made this architectural exploration quite stimulating. Sidney mentioned that Mies would bring his students to the Ford House as a lesson of what not to do as architects. For us, the Ford House became a counterbalance to the floating, yet heavy intellectual excursion of the Farnsworth House. Goff’s work playfully spans a bridge between art and architecture. It encourages a bold use of materials to design spatial configurations that invoke curiosity.
Soon after INsite, Luftwerk collaborated with Third Coast Percussion on a one-of-a-kind light and sound piece dedicated to the Ford House, a Lyrical Geometry.
Historic name: Sam and Ruth Van Sickle Ford House
Location: 404 S. Edgelawn Drive, Aurora, IL, 60506
Architect: Bruce Goff (1904–1982)
General Contractor: Don Tosi (1923–2009)
Current Owner: Sidney K. Robinson
Added to the National Register of Historic Places: March 8, 2016