What Imagination is For:
Architect-Novelist Don Metz
by Donald Maurice Kreis
Bob Dylan was once so taken with a house he saw in The New York Times Magazine that he decided to write a fan letter to its designer, a 31-year-old architect who had just begun to make a name for himself. The year was 1972, Dylan was already well into superstardom, and the "earth-sheltered" architecture he found himself admiring was about to grow wildly fashionable as the energy crisis of the 1970s made the notion of living buried in the ground seem terribly practical.
The architect -- Don Metz of Lyme -- told Dylan to get lost. He has no patience for celebrities who figured him to be a kind of hippie Frank Lloyd Wright.
Metz, who at 59 is the Upper Valley's most successful architect if one measures success by the sheer numbers of projects completed, has built a career around confounding expectations. His earth-sheltered designs placed him on the runway to architectural fame as a faithful yet innovative exponent of lean and stark modernism. Not only did the Times notice, but so did Architectural Record magazine, which named two Metz designs as "Record Houses," the residential equivalent of a Grammy Award. Then Metz seemingly repudiated modernism and began designing buildings in what architectural historians would call "the styles" -- Shingle Style, Stick Style, Greek Revival, anything that looks like great buildings of the past from any era. And if that were not enough to confound and annoy those who regard historicism as a kind of architectural apostasy, on January 1, 1985 Metz walked away his drafting table altogether and spent the next six months writing a successful novel, the critically acclaimed Catamount Bridge.
Another published novel, King of the Mountain, followed. Metz says he has another complete one "in the drawer" and still another in process. Meantime, his architectural practice flourishes and, as he sits in the sunny studio he shares with his friend and fellow architect Geoff Thornton, Metz pores over his hundreds of designs stuffed into filing cabinets and reminisces about his remarkable professional journey.
"I was doing much more radical stuff when I was 25," he admits. "But I don't think I was listening to the client as well. I think at 25 I thought of architecture as an abstract idea -- that somehow the building got to be what it was despite the client or despite the site or despite the budget. That's not the way it works now for me."
This is a cogent explanation of Metz's current architectural muse. In middle age, Metz has discovered what Boston architect Jonathan Hale calls "The Old Way of Seeing" in his 1994 book of the same name. "Many of our most talented designers have no influence beyond a small coterie of designers," Hale points out and, indeed, the Museum of Modern Art's recent exhibit on contemporary houses prompted the museum's architectural curator to sing the praises of so-called Mobius houses and other residential designs that have more to do with mathematical theories than actual living. "Each building need not look like nothing else every built," Hale argues. "The biggest mistake designers make in our time is to think that design is outside of everyday, normal life. Even greatness is not outside of daily life."
Thus, while the latest Record Houses defy gravity and convention, Metz is happy to ignore the magazine editors and show off three recent, local house projects that he says have made their owners supremely happy. None resembles the other in the slightest, and at least two are very evocative of the past: One pays homage to the Craftsman Style of the early 1900s, but with a kind of sparseness and simplicity that almost has Shaker overtones. Another evokes the lush Shingle Style of the late 19th Century, with its long sloping roof and eclectic window arrangements. A third, which Metz fondly refers to as "Big Pink," shows what happens when the palette of the desert southwest meets the streamlined look of 1930s Art Moderne. Clad in desert rose stucco, accented with a purple pergola, this luxurious residence is every bit the abstract "machine for living" that modernist icon Le Corbusier advocated in the 1960s. In this case, the machine might well be a luxury liner, which the house vaguely resembles. But it also has shades of the Spanish colonial mission buildings of Mexico and California. The whole thing is unabashedly, one could almost say gloriously, out of place on an Etna hillside."I don't have a signature style," Metz explains. "The reason is that I feel strongly that the client gets to participate. The client bats last. I need the client to love that building." People ask architects to design their homes "because they think the architect will show them something about themselves."
Here Metz begins to sound like a novelist. It is, after all, the task of the fiction writer to reveal something about the human character that had previously remained unexplored or unarticulated. Considered in that light, the connection between Metz the architect and Metz the novelist starts to become apparent.
Catamount Bridge, Metz's most successful novel to date, is not about architecture. Rather, it is a story of two twin brothers' divergent reactions to the prospect of being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam during the 1960s. The family of whom Metz writes consists of working class farmers and construction laborers from the Upper Valley, a far cry from Metz's own upbringing in Pennsylvania, the son of a businessman and educated first at an Episcopal private school and then at Yale. Eschewing the "write what you know" ethic of the writing professors who would have Metz penning variations on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Metz creates characters and situations in much the same spirit he creates buildings. "That's what imagination is for. I can convince you that I know a lot about Death Valley," the setting of an unpublished novel and also a far cry from his real life, says Metz, or write realistically about the horrors of combat even though he has never been to battle. He designed a Greek Revival home for a state legislator although he has never worshipped Athena and he designed a speech, as it might have been spoken by a grandfather to his long-deceased wife in the comfort of his barn, about the death of a grandson in a senseless war.
An astute reader of Catamount Bridge might well guess that its author is an architect. The title refers to Metz's fictionalized version of the Orford-Fairlee Bridge. A pivotal scene takes place there. Although it does not necessarily require a novelist with an designer's eye to be so drawn to this beautiful arched span, only an architect or maybe an engineer would place the scene inside one of the steel arches. One of the twin protagonists has a nighttime assignation of sorts inside the superstructure, at the very apex of the arch, with the other twin's wife. The two characters who ascend there ultimately have a very innocent interlude, despite their attraction to one another, in a spot that turns out to be unexpectedly cozy, even womb-like in the darkness. A literary critic would note the parallel between the fictional events and the fictionalized setting, a place of unexpected safety and repose in what one would suppose to be a dangerous place to hang out indeed. An architecture critic would say that Don Metz has a refined ability to imagine architectural possibilities. It turns out Metz has never been inside the Orford-Fairlee Bridge, although he does know about the door that would give one such access.
Metz's detractors see a dilettante and an architectural innovator who lost his nerve, but these critics mistake a restless spirit for a wreckless or fickle one. A consistent theme of Metz's career is the quest for the right physical setting to solve the problems of the people who come to him, whether they are fictional characters or clients. Reminiscing back to 1971, Metz recalls that he got into designing earth-sheltered homes not because he had energy efficiency in mind or because he was sensitive to emerging trends but "because I had a site that was a beautiful alpine pasture and I hated the idea of besmirching the site with a building. And then, all of a sudden, I was a bigshot."
The craze may have reached its zenith in late 1979; that year's November issue of the long-defunct Solar Age magazine carries a Metz design on its cover that looks for all the world like a pleasant plot of suburban lawn, but bizarrely littered with a chimney, a couple of skylights and two vents. Images like that are what prompt survivalists to find their way to Metz even now. They get the same treatment that Dylan did.
Linda and Rick Roesch, on the other hand, marched Metz to the top of their snow-covered hillside plot in Etna and posed a request that, to some, would seem as preposterous as a survivalist's delusion: Could Metz create something there that would evoke the California of her youth, evoke the Art Moderne, and be bold enough to remind Rick Roesch, a South Dakotan by birth, of Mount Rushmore? "He paused for a moment," Linda Roesch recalls, "and then he said: Can do." This, she adds, is precisely why they chose Metz as their designer and not other architects they interviewed, whose muses were more contextual and cautious.
According to architect Pi Smith, who worked for Metz prior to founding her own firm of Smith and Vansant in Norwich, a trained eye who has looked at lots of Metz houses can discern certain favorite architectural gestures in a particular way of treating roof lines, a fondness for covered porches linking garage and main house. But she agrees that Metz's "playfulness about space," a "sculptural sensibility" about buildings and the fact that he is "open to having adventures" are what she finds inspiring in her former boss, even if he gets to bring Mount Rushmore to Etna while she is busy with the more prosaic task of persuading folks in Woodstock to restore their courthouse according to her firm's historically and contextually correct design.
Given the hundreds of buildings Metz has created, and the fact that many are in the Upper Valley, if you see a house in the area that looks as if it was designed by someone with some sensitivity to proportion and beauty, there is a good chance it is the work of this architect-novelist. He is not the region's only architect of stature, but he is surely its most varied and, in that sense, its most accomplished. He embodies something expressed at a recent panel discussion on architecture by Louise Hamlin, chair of the Dartmouth College art department, quoting the great Italian architect Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978): "The old builder, knew there were critical points, which have to be worked on more than others . . . . the cornice, window, plinth, steps the same places as always concerned builders in the past. The problems involved are the same as ever; only the answer changes."
Or, to put much the same thought in the mind of Leon Woodard, the wizened grandfather of Catamount Bridge, speaking of human affairs generally: "We see it going around and around, like crops and livestock, seasons, moon. No stopping it. It's Nature, how it comes up, new, the same but different, teasing us to keep on watching, always changing, always the same, starting, ending, starting, ending."