by Emily Lind BakerAs a boy in southern Georgia, Travis Price made tree houses. Now, the avant-garde architect lives in an adult-size one he built for himself, overlooking Rock Creek Park.
By chance one day he spotted a wooded lot for sale in Forest Hills, next to the park. Price, who lived in Takoma Park, Maryland for nearly eighteen years and raised his two children there, seized the opportunity to design a new house that was right both for him and the location. It’s nestled among the trees, floating just above a steep slope, with a copper wall facing the street and a glass wall facing the trees, opening the house to the outdoors.
Price house, from the back. Photo by Ken Wyner, kenwyner.com
Outside the front door is a city block where the neighbors all know one another. Outside the back window wall (and sometimes in front too!) are deer, foxes, owls, and woodpeckers, among other wildlife. Price loves his location “in the center of D.C. and in the forest,” close to the Metro and to the park.
Price’s approach to architecture builds upon his undergraduate degree in western philosophy from St. John’s College as much as his master’s degree in architecture. He recalls his time in graduate school in New Mexico and the “wild gang of creative people out there in the ‘70s,” working together on green projects. Inspired early on by the passive solar design of the ancient U-shaped houses in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, he remains committed to a mix of “ecology, technology, and modernity.” His architectural practice, his teaching, and his writing all focus on what he calls the “spirit of the place.”
Moving from New Mexico to New York City, Price worked on solar and wind-powered housing projects in the 1970s. One of these featured the first wind turbine in Manhattan. This was controversial at the time, particularly with Consolidated Edison, which was not then accustomed to having power from alternative-energy sources returned to the grid. The publicity around the subsequent lawsuit from Con Ed brought Price to the attention of the Tennessee Valley Authority, for which he designed a notable solar office building.
In his current work, Price sees a “big pent-up market for avant-gardism,” clients who are looking for not just contemporary architecture, but for something avant-garde. The materials he uses do not necessarily cost more per square foot than traditional ones, as many people suppose.
His firm, Travis Price Architects, designs many kinds of structures: houses, apartment buildings, museums, churches and synagogues, restaurants, both in the U.S. and internationally. The practice currently consists of about seven people. After working with larger teams, Price prefers the smaller number now. He also has his own construction company so the firm can do both design and build if it wishes. Pictures of many of the firm’s buildings, including Cleveland Park houses and Kafe Leopold in Georgetown, are online at travispricearchitects.com.
Is it different to build a house for oneself? Not really, says Price. He asks the same basic questions he would of any client: How many rooms do you want, what is your budget? The main difference is that you “can take big risks” when you are the client. With any client, he first wants to know the client’s “story.”
“Everything has a cultural story embedded in it,” Price says. And that is what he wants to elicit in his work and his teaching. He works with the “ethnosphere” — “the sphere of human imagination.”
Sensitivity to the location and the right way to build there is key for Price. In building on slopes, for instance, one cannot “do steep and cheap.” Preserving the trees is a must. His view is that you have to play by the rules, and that you should be able to have the house you want within those rules. Since his Forest Hills lot was next to Rock Creek Park, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts had to approve the plans. Price’s presentation emphasized the poetry of the design and the use of natural materials, his “ode to Rock Creek Park.”
Front view of the Price house. Photo by Ken Wyner, kenwyner.com
Price has built or renovated a number of houses in Forest Hills. With its eclectic mix of architectural styles, the neighborhood appeals to him as one that can welcome the avant-garde as well as the traditional. He noted that there are excellent examples of different twentieth-century styles to be seen here. He has also worked in Cleveland Park and enjoys the challenge of working within the external constraints of a historic district.
“Designing in the spirit of a place doesn’t have to be literal,” he says. “History is best defined by change, not imitation… Don’t imitate the past; don’t wreck the past.”
Reflecting on the variety of house styles in Forest Hills and Cleveland Park, Price notes that modernism is about proportions and spatial relations, not just outward appearance. “Twenty-first century modern is very different from twentieth-century modern” or even mid-century modern. Twenty-first century modern is “more interpretive.”
Price house interior. Photo by Ken Wyner, kenwyner.com
For some years, Price has taught in the School of Architecture and Planning at the Catholic University of America, as well as lecturing at many other institutions. At CUA Price developed one of the fields for the master’s program, the Cultural Studies/Sacred Space Concentration, which he directs. His “Spirit of Place/Spirit of Design” workshops have taken student-faculty teams to build projects in such culturally diverse places as Katmandu, the Amazon, and the west coast of Ireland.
Thoughts for future projects around Washington range from more houses in Forest Hills – Price loves working with slopes – to boathouse villages on the Potomac. He would also like to do more apartments and commercial buildings here. Judging by the art and artifacts he has brought back from his past travels, there will be more trips to inspiring places of the world.