Architectural Designer Eric Allyn Builds a Career by Defying Limitations
Most artists, I expect, dream of creating work that will arouse a passionate response from the public. Few succeed as wildly as Eric Allyn, architectural
This is the truth: I was a guest at a genteel Sunday brunch last winter in the heart of Rockport village, and over coffee the conversation turned to my modest cottage-building project, under way (and over budget) up the coast in Lincolnville.
"Oh, who's your architect?" someone asked.
The Battle Boathouse interior, Camden.
I don't recall finishing the sentence. What I remember clearly were two hands suddenly lunging for my throat, as an elegant and normally nonviolent lady from around the corner tried to throttle me across the dining table. It was all in fun (I think). But the gesture summed up a widespread feeling around town about the striking new residence nearing completion a couple of blocks away, next door to the Maine Center for Contemporary Art. Categorized by its designer as "progressive Arts & Crafts," the house in question puts me in mind of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School, with strongly horizontal lines, a richly expressive use of wood and other natural materials, and a confident, even assertive physical presence.
Everyone seemed to agree that the house, taken on its own terms, is beautiful. The question, voiced in different ways by many folks in town, was "What the hell is it doing in Rockport village?"
To this, of course, Eric Allyn has an answer, couched in terms of the evolution of the local architectural vernacular and the specific setting we're talking about. But to me, the more interesting question is a broader one: How does this very young man, just shy of 33 years old, find himself winning commissions from Maine to California, designing everything from a controversial trophy home to my own little cottage in the woods?
There seldom is a neat answer to such questions, but in Allyn's case there are plenty of clues. He recalls that his father, a commercial fisherman, helped him to see the differences in local building styles, to appreciate the things that made some old houses more interesting or more alive than others. One of his school pals was the son of acclaimed architect John Silverio, and as a boy Allyn often visited the Silverio homestead, which features a detached studio just a few steps from the compact main house. By his sophomore year at Camden-Rockport High School, when the subject of future careers came up, Allyn had decided he wanted to be an architect.
"The guidance counselor told me I should probably think of something else to do," he remembers. "My math scores weren't high enough. So I focused on art for the last years of high school, then on rebellion for the first years after that."
The Doherty House, Rockport.
En route, Allyn was visited once more by the old spirit of rebelliousness. In his third year at U.M.A., he became "a little dismayed" by the prevailing direction of academic architecture, with its emphasis on training students to design contemporary commercial buildings (thus giving them, in theory, the best shot at finding employment in the real world).
The prospect left Allyn cold. "I was starving to work on houses," he says. In Silverio's one-room studio, he was able to do just that. And he's been doing it ever since - with forays into other human-scale projects ranging from playhouses to "tiny renovations and additions" to redesigning a rotting Adirondack chair.
Certain patterns can be discerned here, even in this abbreviated biography, that might be taken as signature Eric Allyn qualities. The first is a habit of disregarding conventional expectations - whether minimum math scores or acceptable styles for a house in an old Maine village. The second is the guts to stay true to his own intentions. And the third - born of the first two - is a penchant for attracting, at least in small circles, a degree of intriguing notoriety.
The Storin House interior, Camden.
In fact it was inspired to a degree by the first structure Allyn built with his own hands, a miniscule cabin nestled under a prominent, high-pitched, shingled roof at the end of a forest trail.
As with the original, Allyn designed my house around a simple post- and-beam frame with 4x4 posts and 4x8 rafters, all spaced on four- foot centers. Structural insulated panels (a sandwich of foam insulation between two layers of plywood) wrap the frame, with holes cut through for windows, doors and skylights. The interior contains no load-bearing walls and consequently has been left mostly open, with soaring loft spaces providing a partial second story. The exterior, clad in cedar shingles and unfinished board-and-batten pine, is given a little punch by a built-out front porch and the simple but pleasing detail of exposed, tapered rafter tails. All in all, effect is not quite rustic, not quite contemporary, definitely not neo-hippie or Contractor Modern. Allyn describes it simply as a Nordic-influenced, year-round woodland cottage. My neighbor, artist Maria Irrera, says, "It feels like you're on vacation, only it's your regular life."
Whatever it is, it's exactly what I was hoping for. And this, more than any particular style or construction method or design trope, makes it a characteristic Eric Allyn house.
The most striking thing about Allyn's career to date, when you step away from the man himself and glance over the full range of his work, is the seeming absence of connective tissue linking any given house to any other. In this he differs from his mentor John Silverio. A Silverio house looks like a Silverio house. It's a great, timeless look, perfect for the Maine environment, and people who want that look seek him out.
There is no comparable Eric Allyn look. His recent designs are all over the board. Besides my own little place and the "progressive" house in Rockport village, these past couple of years have seen Allyn designing a classic bungalow in St. George, a large Japanese contemporary home in Carmel Valley, California, a traditional Arts & Crafts cottage, and what he describes as a "summer compound" for his own family on Randall Pond in Brooks, in the heart of Real Maine.
"I intentionally have no one style," he says. "Good design knows no style. At the same time, I can find valid things to draw from in just about every architectural movement. I want to work in all styles."
Later, apropos of the Rockport house, he expands a bit: "When I'm designing, I always look for an opportunity to let the building become as expressive as it wants to be, no matter what style I may be working in."
Putting pencil to paper on a new
This rather koan-like pronouncement seems to summarize much of Allyn's thinking, where the architect-client relationship is concerned. He warms to the subject. "The best clients come to you and say, `This is my program, these are my needs.' They give you an architectural direction and then set you free. The people who get the best houses are the ones who approach the project in a spirit of freedom and trust. And on the other side, the designer must be very responsible in accommodating the clients' needs. The better projects combine a sense of freedom with a purity of intention, which is only possible when clients are honest about what they need and willing to go for that."
Who are Allyn's clients, then? Where do they come from, how do they find their way to his little studio in Rockland? According to Allyn, one hundred percent of his business has come by way of word-of-mouth. (That's true in my case: two friends in the building trade recommended him over dinner. "Eric's the man," one said, while the other sagely nodded.) So far, says Allyn, every house he's designed has brought him further commissions. In the last couple of years, as his clientele has spread to the West Coast, he's been forced to consider how large he wants his practice to become.
"And the answer is, not too large. I want to stay personally connected to every single project. I want to make my clients happy. And I feel I can do that by encouraging people to explore, to be creative, to be open to something totally original that was designed just for them."
Something totally original: that does describe my new cottage, and it certainly describes the house in Rockport village. And so for the sake of closure, let's hear how Allyn responds to the critics (would- be stranglers among them) of that noteworthy building.
"I'm quite happy with that house," he says. "I think it says a lot about standing for your own direction, but still working within existing architectural tradition. I consider that house to be progressive Arts and Crafts. It uses conventional Shingle Style materials and techniques - all the craft, the workmanship that went into that building, it's really just beautiful. The design plays on transparency and mass; there's no other building like it, anywhere. And I think for that house to be sitting in a beautiful Maine setting is completely appropriate. Maine has always been an independent- minded state."
What's more, he points out, the notion that Rockport village is architecturally homogeneous is completely off-the-mark. In just the immediate environs of the new house one finds structures as diverse as a Greek Revival captain's house, a little gray cottage by architect Bill Sepe, a traditional cape, a steeple-less former church converted to a private residence, and the "giant vinyl-clad box" of an art gallery (which was itself the object of controversy and litigation not many years ago).
The Lambertson House, South Thomaston.
No one can accuse Eric Allyn of building houses that look like other houses - not even other Eric Allyn houses. I speak only for myself, but my house is proving to be a lot of fun to live in. It looks cool, it fits the surroundings, and it just works, whether I'm alone here or hosting a pack of my son's unruly teenage friends. My guess is that the Rockport house works, too. It's certainly interesting to
look at. Ten years from now, nobody will remember what the neighborhood looked like without it. At which point, maybe it'll be safe to have brunch in that town again.
For more information, visit Allyn's website at: www.housesandcottages.com/
- By: Richard Grant