Daniel Marcus

‘Water - Instance No. 2’
Text for the solo show ‘Water’ (Curator: Jo-ey Tang)
Beeler Gallery, Columbus College of Art and Design Columbus, Ohio, USA, 10 Oct 2019 - 15 Mar 2020

Paris-based artist Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann‘s project EXPOSURE is structured as an active score and a performative tour of Glenbrow / Gunning House, a 1940 Usonian-style house in Blacklick, OH, built by sculptor Tony Smith, Theodore van Fossen (known for Rush Creek Village, Worthington, OH), and Laurence Cuneo.

For Instance No. 2, EXPOSURE, Badaut Haussmann engages the Gunning House, also known as Glenbrow, a private residence in the Columbus suburb of Blacklick, Ohio, commissioned by Robert and Mary Gunning in 1939. In sharp contrast with conservative Columbus society, the Gunnings were gregarious bohemians, whose desire for a new home had been piqued by a bicycle trip through provincial France in 1938. Returning to the States, they contacted the 18-year-old design student Theodore van Fossen, who was a friend and conversation partner to the couple, commissioning him to draw up plans for a ravine-side plot in rural Blacklick.

At the time of the Gunning House commission, van Fossen had less than a year’s worth of formal training under his belt: In 1938, he had departed Columbus for Chicago to attend the New Bauhaus, an experimental art, architecture, and design school headed by the Hungarian émigré László Moholy-Nagy. It was at the New Bauhaus that van Fossen (who would go on to design Rush Creek Village in Worthington, Ohio, a planned community of 48 modernist homes), met his future collaborators Tony Smith (best known for his late contributions as a Minimalist sculptor) and Laurence Cuneo (the future art director of the television show I Love Lucy), who joined him on the Gunning House project the following year. Rebelling against what they perceived as Moholy-Nagy’s excessive emphasis on industrial design over art and aesthetics, the trio of van Fossen, Smith, and Cuneo left the New Bauhaus to apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright in Pennsylvania, with van Fossen joining them as a laborer. They became acolytes of Wright’s “Usonian” design philosophy—especially his prescription of locally sourced building materials and a harmonious marriage of architecture with its natural surroundings.

The site chosen for the Gunning House furnished an ideal case study in Wrightian aesthetics: a sparsely wooded clearing overlooking Dysart Run, a tributary of Blacklick Creek, the terrain sloped gently from East Broad Street, then a modest two-lane road, before descending into the streambed. Although the Gunnings had requested a farmhouse-style design with peaked roof (a modernist flat roof was not to their taste), the three young designers—led by Smith, who was both the eldest at age 27 and the most experienced of the group—offered them something altogether different. As van Fossen later recollected, the house “could be designed to marry the open field with the wooded ravine along the complete break that existed then between them. It would face north into the view of the ravine drinking in the sun in Winter and being sheltered from it in Summer.” The team’s plans called for a single-story home hugging the edge of the ravine, its flat roof barely visible from the driveway, with an open-plan kitchen for Mary—an unheard-of novelty in 1939—and a “dormitory” for the Gunning children. Improbably, the Gunnings warmed to this idea, and the house would be built over the course of the following year, remaining in their family’s possession until the late 1980s.

Passing from owner to owner following the death of Mary Gunning in 1986, the Gunning House was abandoned from 2006 to 2014, during which time the powers of nature took their toll. Rainwater cascaded through the house, rotting the interior structure and paneling beyond repair (the exterior board and batten cypress, originally grown in swampy conditions, had weathered but remains viable). Purchasing the Gunning House in 2014 with plans to make a full restoration, the Columbus-based couple Dorri Steinhoff and Joseph Kuspan discovered, much to their chagrin, that the majority of original woodwork needed replacement. Attempting to marry architecture with nature, van Fossen and his colleagues nearly doomed the Gunning House’s habitability in the long term. Even so, the Gunning House remains a monument (or anti-monument) to its natural surroundings, drawing its raw materials from the creek-side site—including the element of water, which makes itself felt in various forms. Walls made of sandstone quarried from the ravine below evoke the slow action of water upon stone (fittingly, Robert nicknamed the creek “Quarry Run”) as well as the sedimentary prehistory of central Ohio, which once formed part of a shallow inland sea. Floor-to-ceiling glazing in the original living (now a dining room) affords a panoramic view across the streambed, which swells into a cataract during storms. At the same time, the house’s horizontal silhouette expresses fluidity in a different sense, symbolizing the flow-space of automotive transit—a vector of mobility that has led to the rapid suburbanization of the Blacklick area over the course of the Gunning House’s lifetime.

Water gives and water takes. On the afternoon of Oct. 13, 2019, Badaut Haussmann invites visitors to engage the past and future of the Gunning House, conjuring its original occupants as well as the site’s environmental forces and flows. As if temporarily suspending the forward motion of historical time, a team of dancers, Tai Chi practitioners, and artists will animate the concatenated memories of the Gunning House (which Robert and Mary regarded as a person in its own right), its trio of designers, and the surrounding landscape.

Daniel Marcus