“We never consciously decided on it,” explained Sebastian Schmaling of Milwaukee’s Johnsen Schmaling Architects, while discussing why the office has focused on mostly single family homes in the last 12 years of practice. “We’re never specifically thinking about program when taking jobs, rather we try to find whatever’s interesting, but as a young firm it is easier to get these things built.”
And building is what partners Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling have been doing. Their award-winning houses are highly detailed, materially rich forms designed for a clientele “interested in a journey of discovery.” Their process involves an iterative series of conversations with the clients about form, the site, and materials investigated through hand drawings and study models. “We always make a point to show our clients a series of models.”
But single-family housing is not all that Johnsen Schmaling is focused on right now. In a shift in scale for the office, their current project, Belay, is a multi-unit project that integrates a canyon-like climbing facility. At the other end of the spectrum, the office has designed and built projects as small as a stand-alone single room studio for a country western musician. “The clients that hire us are usually interested in the arts.” Addressing a possible misconception about the part of the country they chose, Schmaling said, “There is a real contingency of people here willing to take risks and experiment, and now half of our clients aren’t even from Wisconsin.” As the office’s market grows with recognition, Schmaling reflects on what it means, or doesn’t mean, to work in a medium-sized Midwest city.
“We are often asked ‘Why Milwaukee?’ Our answer? ‘Why not!’” Although admitting that there is an economic advantage to being in a smaller city like Milwaukee, Schmaling is also quick to point out how things have changed in his time in there. “When I was a student here in the late 90s, it was difficult to get information—you’d have to order a book about Zumthor that wouldn’t show up for two weeks. Now with technology, everything is available at all times. The whole conversation has really become irrelevant to us.”
And the reach of the office has definitely been growing. With projects like their Topo House and Pleated House continually receiving attention from press and award juries nationally and internationally, Johnsen Schmaling is quickly establishing themselves as a critical practice to watch.
Currently under construction, Belay sits in the heart of Milwaukee on a remediated brownfield. Maintaining some of the roughness of the former industrial site, careful attention is paid to materials and form, with the main interior space designed as a canyon-like climbing club. “We construct a narrative of what the building looks like, and then grind away, perhaps sometimes too much, down to the details,” laughed Schmaling explaining their approach to larger projects.
Door Peninsula, WI
Nestled in Wisconsin’s picturesque Door Peninsula, the Pleated house blends with the form of the landscape and the surrounding trees with its articulated cladding. This ambiguous boundaries between man-made and nature, interior and exterior, is a negotiation between the bright white interior and the shaded dense forest that surrounds the project. Exterior patios and large sliding glass thresholds further this delicate interaction between the building and the site.
Studio for a Composer
Spring Prairie, WI
A limited pallet of sober materials comes together to form a rural writing and recording studio for a country western musician. Shrouded by a rusting steel skin, the main single room space of the studio looks out from the steep hill the project is born into. Carved into the hill, acting as the base for the studio is a concrete storage space. Separated from this solid foundation by a glowing frosted clerestory, the upper studio volume stands ever so slightly off the ground.
Blue Mounds, WI
Situated in the dramatic pre-Ice Age landscape of Wisconsin’s “Driftless Region”, the Topo House is formed by a green roof emerging out of one of the many rolling hills that defines the area. Conceived as a blurring of landscape and architecture, the home was designed for a couple moving out of the city to get closer to the nature they enjoyed biking through. A glass lookout is perched atop the long linear form of the house, looking out, as much as it is looking back at itself sliding into the landscape.