Publication - Malcolm Holzman

Visit Manitoga, the House, Studio and Woodland Garden of pioneer industrial designer, Russel Wright (1904-1976). Tour Dragon Rock, Wright’s experimental home which he built onto the rock ledge of an abandoned quarry while masterfully orchestrating the surrounding landscape into a series of outdoor rooms of varying character and delight.


By Malcolm Holzman, FAIA
Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates

Russel Wright's mid 20th century designs transformed the appearance of the American home. His objects were exceedingly popular in their day, and they have become sought-after decorative arts items today. Most frequently, his objects were generated in large quantities for mass consumption, reaching every corner of the country. Occasionally, however, he designed singular items for testing the development possibilities for new visions.

Dragon Rock, his home and studio and the focus of RW's design energies for three decades, represents one of his few efforts that were intended to be unique. Sited on Manitoga's hilly woodland adjacent to an abandoned quarry, it was conceived as an experiment for total living. RW owned the property for more than a dozen years before starting construction of his residence and studio, providing ample opportunity to contemplate the terrain and examine the vegetation. When ready to build, he knew every inch of the land: the hillsides, trees, paths, potential views, the quarry, and where the sun and moon rose and set through the year. RW selected the intersection of the north side of the quarry and a hillside because it combined the two most dynamic elements, one made by hand decades earlier, and the other shaped by natural forces over centuries. This location drew plentiful sunlight that could animate the architecture and enrich the landscape.

RW was fascinated by certain topics for his entire career, returning to them many times in his creations. The knowledge gained from making domestic objects can be perceived and appreciated at Dragon Rock. Here, he enlivened edges, dramatized openings, and selected colors for contrast or compatibility in a manner similar to designing an exceptional vessel. He was able to explore these concepts at a scale that was not possible in his other undertakings. His artistry was enhanced by the challenges of building with stone and timber, accentuating vistas, and bringing the manmade and natural environments together.

Even half a century after Dragon Rock's conception, these themes are still abundantly evident: RW chose not to obliterate the junction between the quarry and the hillside but straddle it to encapsulate this special edge in the main spaces of the house-the living and dining areas. The south-facing glass surfaces serve as an environmental screen that provides shelter from inclement weather yet still allows the enclosed spaces to be part of the exterior. The flagstone flooring extends beyond the house to form a terrace, while the granite wall containing the fireplace connects with the stones at the bottom of the large cliff. RW takes unusual care with the masonry to insure that the patterns are compatible with, but different from, the naturally formed stone surrounding the house. The use of trees throughout the house, including the uncut cedar trunk supporting the main roof and the evergreen needles imbedded in paint surfaces, ties the structure to the site.

RW had a penchant for combining colors, shaping surfaces, precisely defining angles, developing forms, and making lively edges. His curiosity about these topics appears in the design of many different objects: cups, pitchers, bowls, and plates. Testament to his success is the fact that these items, crafted as investigations in RW's individualized style, are now collectors' treasures. But only at Dragon Rock-conceived and constructed to optimize his typical expressive manner-was RW ultimately able to synthesize his design interests into one combining the manmade and natural environments.

Malcolm Holzman is founding partner, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, in New York City. He has designed notable public buildings in twenty-five states; held endowed chairs of architecture at several universities, including Yale and the University of Texas; and received numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects, Pratt Institute, and Tau Sigma Delta, among others.