It’s notable when a marriage lasts more than 20 years, but a residential architecture firm not powered by the entanglements and synergies of a married couple? It’s unusual, to say the least. Small firms driven by two principals tend to disband and reassemble with others (or as sole practitioners) during the typical lifespan of practice. But Robert Linn, AIA, and Keith Moskow, FAIA, are still going strong with Moskow Linn Architects, 21 years after Linn joined Moskow’s young Boston firm.
Their enthusiasm for the work remains unchecked, and like a simpatico married couple who really like one another, they finish each other’s sentences and bound off each other’s ideas and thoughts. “We’re interchangeable,” Keith jokes. “We’re not your typical uptight architects.”
What keeps this union fresh lies in the variety of interests the architects share, and their love of creative tangents that keep the five-person office challenged. The mainstay of the firm is residential work—a mix of “urban interventions” and weekend homes on the Cape—but there’s always some other project going on the side as well.
From the firm’s inception, the partners have pursued conceptual design competitions as a means of sharpening their skills. They’ve enjoyed the research aspect and the creative charge such projects brought to the firm culture, even if they never saw a hammer or a nail.
And yet, a number actually have been built—to critical acclaim. The firm’s winning design for Massport’s 9/11 Memorial at Logan Airport is a beautiful, resonant beacon. And “Ice Chimes,” a pavilion the firm was asked to conceive for Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, is a clever sound sculpture. Intended to lure visitors to the Conservancy’s parks and gardens during the winter, it creates icicles that chime as they melt. After a year in place, the piece has since moved to Keith’s alma mater, Dartmouth College.
More of these urban intervention projects are in the flat files than on building sites, however, which has caused some soul searching at the firm. “Eventually, so much paper architecture becomes unfulfilling,” says Keith. One answer has been to compile and author a series of books on architecture—about houses in Martha’s Vineyard, architectural follies, and sustainable design. Architecture committed to paper in a book is perhaps more durable than “paper architecture.”
At a certain point, though, the firm began to yearn for more architectural “explorations” that result in built work, and they decided to take matters into their own hands. “We ended up finding fewer competitions that piqued our interest, so we started to create our own projects,” says Keith.
The first sui generis project was Swamp Hut in 2008. The template derived from a number of ideas the partners had been kicking around for years—for rescue housing, resort housing—a kit of building parts that would rest lightly on the land. The site was a swampy 10 acres in Newton, Mass., of which only 1/8th of an acre was buildable. The land, which belonged to Keith and his siblings, was not accessible by vehicle, so the partners had to carry materials in by hand.
Three months and many small injuries later, the project was complete. Four teepee-like “huts” appeared atop a platform—two huts were for sleeping, one was for bathing, and one open-air hut served as dining pavilion. It was the perfect pared-down retreat for the architects and their families—elemental, for sure, but uplifting in its immersion in nature’s simple pleasures. It won a host of design awards and captured the imagination of the mainstream press.
Best of all, it brought mind and hand together for the firm—design and build. Yes, the Swamp Hut project is itself a kind of architectural folly, like the ones the partners wrote about in their “Contemporary Follies” book for Monticello Press. But it also serves a tangible purpose—it’s folly and function at the same time.
The experience of designing and building the huts was a powerful one for the partners—especially the intense focus on one project and the physical remove from a conventional office setting. Additionally, it was useful in raising the national profile of the small New England firm.
Keith and Robert were hooked. They wanted to design and build more of these creative projects, but the model was unsustainable—they had self-funded the huts, something they could not keep doing. What’s more, they wanted to share the experience with others. “The process is like architectural improv,” says Robert. “Doing it ourselves took some of the mystery and fear out of the construction process for us. We gained the confidence that, by hook or by crook, things will work out. It’s given us a greater maturity about construction.” This was something, they thought, all young architects might find beneficial.
With the goal of streamlining the Swamp Hut experience and opening it up to others, the partners decided to start a “school.” They would charge just enough to cover supplies and some tasty catered meals for the week-long program. The venue was a 100-plus acre farm in Vermont, which suggested the name for the initiative, “Studio North.”
Studio North was not accredited, and the partners had no backchannel supply of students from architecture schools; they just sent out some brochures and applications, and made a few calls to architect friends. Miraculously, it worked.
“We had five people show up the first year, even with no track record,” Keith recalls. “We commend them for their leap of faith. They came from all over—Virginia, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island—and took a bus up north with us.”
As it turns out, there are plenty of architecture school students who need and want a built project in their portfolio. The example of Swamp Hut and its accolades lent the program an air of legitimacy, and the application process is a fairly breezy affair.
“We’re not terribly exclusive,” says Robert. “We try to make sure there’s some knowledge or interest in architecture. Most of them have not had much construction experience. And the vast majority are seeking to understand how design thinking can come together in construction. All wanted to see something actualized. Quite a few had never held a hammer before.” Quips Keith, “They learn pretty quickly from digging foundation holes that’s why you stay in school.”
Studio North’s first effort in 2011 yielded Chicken Chapel, “a home for a growing flock of barnyard fowl.” Other farm outbuildings followed in subsequent years: Rolling Pig Pen, Birch Pavilion, Consumable Sugar Shack, Woodland Retreat, Viewing Structure, and last year’s Mobile Sauna.
Rolling Pig Pen
Consumable Sugar Shack
Individually, the projects garnered some encouraging press, but the better magic happened with the partners’ thought to bundle them and submit them as a collection of “Seven Rural Interventions” to awards programs. They won a bunch of them—from the Boston Society of Architects, AIA Vermont, and others.
Now the program is at a crossroads. The seven-year itch has hit, and the partners are looking to reinvent the studio, preferably in a less remote environment. “Seven is kind of a biblical number,” says Keith. “We’ve established the kit of parts for the program. We’ve done it a number of times and sort of have it nailed.”
“So that’s the time to stretch it,” Robert says, completing his partner’s thought. “We’ve determined we need to rethink this,” Keith continues.
The firm has its eyes on MASS MoCA—the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass. “What this museum has done is revitalize a town that was in need of revitalization. We want to add a student project to North Adams. Our vision is for a new ‘Studio North Adams’ that mixes urban and rural aspects,” says Keith. The partners are writing letters and making phone calls again. Given their track record, it’s hard to imagine anyone would say no.
In the meantime, Studio North is taking a hiatus this year. And that’s OK, because the firm has plenty of projects in the works that actually promise to pay the bills. They’re most excited about an affordable, green development called the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport, Mass. The scope is ambitious—48 units of housing, shared common space, and community gardens, all intended to operate at net-zero. The site is a brownfield contaminated by coal ash and years of use as a salvage yard. Cleanup has finished and design development is underway.
White House, Red House
The counterpoint of urban and rural work has also played out in the firm’s bread-and-butter practice of single-family residential. Robert has recently completed an urban house for himself and his family on a busy street in Cambridge, Mass. Dubbed the White House, it’s just a stone’s throw from a house the firm designed for a client several years back, called the Red House. Both houses back up to Fresh Pond Reservation, a wildlife sanctuary, green space, and reservoir for the city of Cambridge.
Red House. Photos: Eric Roth
Robert flipped the typical plan to take advantage of the scenic views and to insulate bedrooms from street noise. “The living space is on the upper level and bedrooms are on the lower floor. The land slopes away, so the bedrooms are actually bermed into the hill. Triple-glazed European windows help isolate sound and make the house perform better.”
Just three years old, the house has attracted coverage in the media and lots of attention on the street. “It’s such a busy road, the house has high visibility. We did give it many of the characteristics of existing houses on the street—but with a modern take. We love it there and feel like we have the best house in Cambridge,” he says.
White House. Photos: Trent Bell
Roughly around the same time, the firm completed a weekend house for a client in Orleans, a seaside town on Cape Cod. It, too, is a modern take on the vernacular houses in the area. Fitting in and honoring the buildings already in place is important to the firm. Says Robert, “Like most architects, we’re really interested in building something that feels right on its site. Wherever the project is, we want to understand what the constraints and opportunities are, and then design something contextual that elevates that context.
Orleans House. Photos: Jane Messinger
“On Martha’s Vineyard, for instance, it’s about the long views as you move through the progression from the car to the bedroom. On more urban projects, the major concern is about scale. Underlining both is the theme of energy efficiency, high-quality envelopes, and making the buildings beautiful and functional at the same time.”
“We don’t do McMansions,” Keith adds. “These are our interpretations of what a house should look like in America.”—S. Claire Conroy