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12.19.2013
Studio Visit> Max Levy
Dallas architect looks to nature for inspiration in his designs.
House on a Pond, Dallas, Texas.
Charles Davis Smith

For Max Levy, architecture is most powerful when it reframes one’s awareness of nature. Light, which he often refers to as a building material, defines his work. But it is part of a larger equation. “Atmosphere is everywhere,” said Levy. “The right architectural move can capture the wind, sun, or rain, and make someone notice it—done in the right way, it is soothing or stirring.”

Born and raised in Fort Worth, Levy studied architecture at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1960s. He cut his teeth working in San Francisco and at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office. In 1976, he returned to Texas to work for The Oglesby Group in Dallas prior to starting his own firm in 1984.

Since the beginning, he has kept his Dallas-based practice small. “I like to be involved in all the aspects of the work,” he said. “Because it is all design, all of it.” The meticulous care he brings to his work has ensured a constant flow of residential clients and countless local and state design awards. Drawing is fundamental to how he works, and, recently, he has fallen in love again with model making. For Levy, sketches and models not only help conceptualize and refine projects, they capture the souls of buildings. “Dreams come from sketching,” he said. “And model making provides otherwise unattainable nutrients for the design process.”

Simple forms and materials characterize Levy’s work. He is inspired by the inherent sustainability of vernacular buildings; he believes most architectural gestures add unnecessary noise to buildings. When asked about the quiet qualities of his work, he quoted the California modernist William Wurster: “Architecture is... the picture frame, not the picture.”

 

House at Wind Point

Lake Tawakomi, Texas

On a densely wooded site overlooking an East Texas lake, Levy designed the House at Wind Point as a weekend home for a family of kayakers, bird watchers, and hikers. “They like to disappear into the woods,” said Levy. “So we wanted our building to disappear too.” In order to protect the trees, Levy exploded the 3,000-square-foot floor plan, making every room a separate building. Then he raised all of them onto concrete piers and connected the structures with boardwalks. This solution required zero site grading and the removal of only two trees. The ten buildings are finished in composition shingles and feature large windows and screened-in porches. The goal was a low-budget house with minimal site impact. The result is a retreat of breeze structures nestled in the woods.

   
 

Sunlit House

Dallas, Texas

When the clients approached him with a flat, featureless tract lot and requested a white stucco box, Levy decided to reframe the harsh sunlight. “I told them that in order to avoid creating a white atomic blast, we would have to break up the facades,” he said. The answer was to create an illusion of dappled sunlight with hot-dipped galvanized aluminum leaves projecting from the stucco. The singular detail of the leaves, marking the facades with perfectly arranged sun dials, changed the Sunlit House from what could have been an exercise in minimalism to a building that connects to the essence of its site. Light and shadow animate the entire house. On the interior, the double-height living area takes advantage of abundant daylight from the generously glazed clerestory.

 
Plan Courtesy Max Levy
 

Columbarium

Dallas, Texas

Levy’s design for a columbarium in Dallas is currently under construction and reflects the consistency of his design intentions. As a place for rest and contemplation, it is an open-air structure made up of brick-masonry walls forming three courts enclosed with trellises. Small limestone-finished niches protect the ashes of the dead. A canopy of oaks trees on the site frames the sky, so Levy designed each of the courts around separate attributes of the atmosphere. A 15-foot-tall bronze cross with a perforated bronze sail, acts as a wind vane and presides over the court. In the second court, water is carried from an elegant, wall-mounted bronze rainwater collector (about 50 feet long and two feet wide) into a basin, where visitors can fill small bronze, cross-shaped vases with water. The last court focuses on light. Here, Levy plays with shadows and introduces unexpected views of the sky into the open niches—bronze boxes transverse the wall and project from the backside where a mirror finished plate reflects the sky and passing clouds back into the open niche. “I think when you reframe nature for people, you remind them of the magic of life,” said Levy. “It is important to do that here.”

 
 

Singing Bell Ranch

Lone Oak, Texas

Like the House at Wind Point, Singing Bell Ranch maximizes breezes and creates the feeling of living in a screened-in porch. Sited on an open prairie, the house is inspired by an old Texas fort: It is a long and skinny series of enclosed spaces and internal breezeways. The house is made up of roughly 3,500 square feet of air-conditioned rooms and 2,700 square feet of porch areas. Galvanized sheet-metal panels emphasize the gabled form of the shorter facades, and broad eaves protect the longer facades. A cast-iron bell used to call the ranch hands in the 1930s hangs in the main living space and is connected to a wind vane positioned on the roof. The bell rings only once or twice a week, sending a soft noise throughout the house.

 
 

House on a Pond

Dallas, Texas

Sited close to a quarry pond, House on a Pond is another example of Levy’s long, rectangular plans connected by breezeways. The emphasis of this design, however, is the connection to the pond. Levy chose to bring the movement of water into the experience of the house. Here, the surprisingly delicate-looking gutters, measuring 16 inches wide and four inches deep, are key to reframing the experience of the natural environment. They channel rainwater into a central pool that marks the focal breezeway of the house. Water runs from the collecting pool down the stairs on each side of the property. House on a Pond also demonstrates Levy’s affinity for elegantly rendering utilitarian and economical materials while seamlessly tying the building to the site. He recently completed a freestanding addition to the house.

Catherine Gavin