Thursday, March 24, 2011

Don Hisaka: The Cleveland Years

Don M. Hisaka residence

A while back, I wrote about a more recent piece of this region’s built history – this house, built by Don Hisaka as his personal residence. The structure, an AIA honor recipient in 1970, is located at 14300 Drexmore Road, in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

The Cleveland Artists Foundation is presenting an exhibit of the structures designed during Hisaka’s time in Cleveland – 1960 – 1985. The show opens tomorrow and runs through May 21. After that date, the exhibit will travel to the Cleveland Clinic, and then, in January, 2012, to the Mansfield Art Center - a structure designed by Hisaka.

Full disclosure: I’m curating the CAF’s next exhibit, set to open June 3 and running through the middle of July.

Seven of the structures in the exhibition are in the greater Cleveland area. What follows is a look at four of them.



Don M. Hisaka residence

I wrote about the first structure, Hisaka's personal residence in Shaker Heights, back in 2009. The label from the Cleveland Artists Foundation exhibit provides more detail:

Don Hisaka's home received a national Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. The 1970 AIA jury stated: "An interesting and difficult site, the desire to relate to adjacent homes, the need for outdoor privacy, the need for a reasonable amount of living space, and an obviously austere budget have all been brought quietly and with great delicacy into handsome balance."

The two-story home is located on a triangular corner lot in Shaker Heights. Although it is a contemporary design in a traditional neighborhood, its roof-line geometry blends with homes on both sides. In conforming to strict setback requirements, Mr. Hisaka had to place his family's home in the furthermost corner of the site.

Four connected blocks-three living units and the garage- almost completely surround a private courtyard. Inside the house is a world of space, light, and serenity. Every first-floor room has floor-to-ceiling glass walls and overlooks the courtyard.

Architectural Forum, July-August 1969, devoted four pages to the Hisaka residence. A comment: "Even though the neighbors cannot look into the Hisakas' court, they can tell it is there, and perhaps they realize that the scheme of additive units around a court solves some of the basic problems of housing in the suburban setting. It shows one way to enjoy private outdoor living space and large glass areas - without living either in a goldfish bowl or behind a stockade."

Exterior walls are rough-sawn cedar, stained to blend inconspicuously with the trees.

The Hisaka residence was one of the homes featured in the Fortune article, "When an Architect Builds for Himself" (November 1971)

The Gund Residence, also designed in 1965, was featured on the cover of the catalog for Cleveland Goes Modern. The house is located on the south side of Major Road, between Riverview Road and Oak Hill Road, in Peninsula, Ohio. The site is not visible from the road.

The Cleveland Artists Foundation, in the exhibition label, describes the challenges the site and the client presented to Hisaka and the manner in which he addressed them.

The clients chose a heavily wooded site, south of Cleveland, amid slopes and ravines. Then, in discussing a holiday & summertime retreat with Hisaka and Associates, they talked about a home with large decks and an international style “treehouse” floating over a densely wooded site. They wanted a view of four small, man-made lakes and asked not to destroy a single tree.

Hisaka’s solution places two stark white cubes on an expansive wood desk. The entire structure is perched on concrete stilts, and a glass-enclosed bridge connects the two-story wings. After the house was completed, the client allowed one tree to be chopped down. As a result, three of the four manmade lakes on the property and broad expanses of forest are visible from the interior of a light-splashed home that gives its residents a sense of living outdoors.

Giddings Elementary School

Giddings Elementary School, completed in 1970, is located at 2250 East 71st Street, Cleveland, Ohio. The exhibition label describes the reasoning behind this Brutalist design.
The award winning Giddings Elementary School in Cleveland has three stories of classrooms surrounding a skylit courtyard. Here exterior windows are minimized to discourage vandalism in a modern structure that replaces a burned-down 19th century schoolhouse. The new school turns inward toward the courtyard, which is enlivened with greenery, a prominent staircase and a two-story glassed-in core housing offices and a library. The mustard brick exterior steps down in one- and two-story levels to harmonize with the scale of traditional wood-frame houses in the neighborhood.

When built, square lintels topped the entrances - one is seen off-center here - not unlike a brick piece of stonehenge. They have since been removed, to the aesthetic detriment of the space. The band of paint, eight or nine feet high, around the bottom of the building has not helped the appearance. The architect can accept some responsiblity for this - graffiti in this situation is almost an inevibility, and it must be painted over, as chemical and mechanical means of removal either pollute or damage the brick - it should be considered as part of the design process.

Eric Johannesen, in the authoritative Cleveland Architecture, 1876-1976 selects this school as one of the best examples of its type. The text (page 233) illustrates the atrium described above and an entrance, before it was altered.

I can't speak to how well the building does or does not function as an educational institution. It's worth keeping in mind that the design was a product of the times, and that the lack of windows on the exterior was meant to reduce distractions. Natural light was to come from the atrium.

The presence of this building in the neighborhood could be improved by the replacement of the missing brick lintels. Compared with many other building restoration projects, the cost of this is low. Perhaps those involved in mounting the exhibition would consider donating the work and materials to accomplish it.


Interior, University Center Atrium, looking south. Photograph taken in 1980 by Clay Herrick. Used courtesy of The Cleveland Memory Project.

Don Hisaka's University Center for Cleveland State University was completed in 1974. The structure, which was located on the north side of Euclid Avenue at about East 22nd Street, is described, in an object label in the exhibit as
[A]n L-shaped building which joins the plaza on two sides. Lecture rooms and public functions, located on the lower three floors, are accessible to students and outsiders. Offices are on the upper three floors. Lounge and dining facilities are on the second floor, handy to the enclosed bridges which, connecting with library tower and classroom buildings, create an all-weather campus.

The oblique wall at the entrance on Euclid Avenue is an invitation to pedestrians from Cleveland’s main business area, only a few blocks west.
Unfortunately, while the structure was visually stunning, it was also quite unusable. It was demolished in 2008.


Don Hisaka's buildings shaped, in their way, the built landscape of the greater Cleveland area. While they're not as old as the structures we usually call "historic", they've clearly had an influence. Take his house, a better answer to a skinny triangular lot in Shaker Heights than the usual boring duplex. Look at Thwing Center, at Case Western Reserve University, which brings together two historic structures. Take a look at Giddings Elementary, which might be seen as a fortress to protest those who wish to learn, while still bringing in plenty of natural light.

The exhibit, Don Hisaka: The Cleveland Years, opens tomorrow - Friday, March 25, and continues through May 21. An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 pm.

The Cleveland Artists Foundation is located in the Beck Center, at 17801 Detroit Road, in Lakewood, Ohio. A catalog has been published to accompany the show. More information on Hisaka's work can be found in the CAF catalog Cleveland Goes Modern.

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. While striking, the architect's buildings fail in being places that relatable to a human scale. The CSU University Center was a stunning statement, but it proved to inhosiptable, unflexible and uninviting.

    The house in Shaker - and I remember the ruckess it created when it was going up - is an interesting use of the lot, but it is a fortress built in a community that has worked for 60 years to break down social barriers.

    Giddings school? Riot proof; a school should be inviting and inspire - this building instead symbolizes what education has become - heavy, soul crushing.

    When it comes to buildings that one notices, over time Hisaka's they are not buildings that people embrace. Hisaka was an architects architect - but I don't think he ever considered how people perceive and approach architecture and then come to embrace it.

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  3. I agree with a good part of what you say. My intent with this post is to address the history here.

    You'll hear no disagreement from me with regard to your assesment of the CSU University Center.

    Giddings Elementary is difficult. I agree with your perceptions of the exterior. The interior, from the photographs I've seen, appears a light-filled space, one that would be a good place to be a student. The question is as to how one reconciles this with the message that the exterior conveys, or even if the two can be reconciled.

    Function is more important, alas, than form. I'd rather have a building that I can do good work in but that, from the outside, makes me say "meh" than one that looks great on the outside but provides a lousy workspace. Perhaps the issue here is that much of the community does not set foot in the school, so their only perception of it is from the exterior - and that this perception cannot be addressed.

    As for Hisaka's personal residence, it just doesn't feel to me the way it seems to feel to you. This may be partially because I'm a relative newcomer to Shaker Heights, so I didn't witness the public sentiment to its construction first-hand.

    I can see how one might get the "fortress" vibe from the Hisaka house. I can see it, somewhat, in the form of the structure. The nature of the long, skinny triangular corner lots in Shaker Heights, combined with the setback requirements is such that one ends up without any bit of yard that might be considered private. We considered a house on one such lot - 14170 Onaway. If we had purchased it, we would have used a hedge, probably of significant size, to give us privacy and to allow our children space to run around safely.

    At the same time, however, when I walk or drive by the Hisaka house, especially in the evening, I don't feel like I'm looking at a fort. I feel the opposite, like a voyeur, like I might catch a bit more of a glimpse than I'm really entitled to. The large windows give more of a peek into the house that one might expect for a structure built so close to other houses. Perhaps this was Hisaka's attempt to reconcile the issues you describe.

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  4. Christopher -

    If you look at Richard Campen's Ohio Architecture book, you'll find several images of the Hisaka's house as if was back in the 1969-70 era. The cedar siding was was a very dark brown, and the interior was very white. While it is an excellent example of that era, it just seemed to go against the grain of what our parents were trying to accomplish in Shaker, which was the opening of opportunity for everyone. This house just hunkered down, and reminded my mother of the shacks that the hobos would building down by the tracks in her homes town. "Well it sure is modern." It was more curiosity. This is a house that would have been more at home in a different location.

    Still Hisaka's story is one that should be told, and his builings are farm more interesting than the cookie cutter office buildings along 271.

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  5. I took another look at the house in Ohio, An Architectural Portrait. The one exterior photo there has the same problem as most of the other photos I've seen of the house - it makes a point of excluding the context. I'm not saying this to disagree with your statement - rather, just that without the context of the surrounding houses, it's hard for me to visualize. I would love to see some period photos of the house with its neighbors, if you have any, or know anyone who might. I would find it most insightful, as would the other readers, I think.

    I can see, in the context you describe, it could be seen very differently. It's valuable history, and I appreciate that you took the time to explain it to me.

    I think part of the reason I feel so strongly about this house is because of how it compares with the other houses being built in Shaker at the time. A good portion of them are bland at best - houses that could fit into any similar suburb being developed at the time. They don't have the architectural distinction or character that the city was built on. As I see it, at least Hisaka was trying to do something interesting - but isn't hindsight always 20-20?

    Again, thank you for helping me to better understand the historical context here.

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