A Splendid Bricolage of East & West

The Cullinan House

Ben Koush. Photography Jack Thompson. Art Direction Michelle AviƱa.
September 03, 2013

Architecture Michael Landrum. Interior Design Garrett Hunter. Landscape Design Sarah Lake.

In the early 1970s, architect and Rice professor Peter Papademetriou scandalized the city’s architectural establishment by candidly describing Houston’s rough-and-tumble physical appearance in its first architectural guide, Houston: An Architectural Guide, 1972, and later in articles he wrote as a regional correspondent for the magazines Progressive Architecture and Domus. Ever since, modern Houston has been a compelling case study for the evolution of the contemporary American city. Its architecture, unlike that of neighboring Dallas, San Antonio and Austin (limestone, O’Neil Ford and Lake/Flato), has historically been less regionally focused and more cosmopolitan in outlook. John Staub, Houston’s great architect of the 1920s, for example, spent much of that decade pushing what he called “Latin Colonial” architecture, which was all the more wonderfully perverse considering that Houston had almost no citizens of actual Latin descent at the time. 

Which brings us to this new house designed by Michael Landrum. Like Houston, it is perhaps best described as a splendid amalgam of the traditional and modern. Landrum, a San Antonio native, has worked in a wide-ranging mode since his arrival in Houston some 20 years ago. If his work has any single underlying theme, it is surely “multifarious variety.” According to architectural critic Stephen Fox, Landrum’s designs “never lack bravado,” and this certainly applies to the house he designed for Zuzette and Greg Cullinan in Spring Branch, a few blocks north of the monolithic IKEA. Amid a sea of earth-toned, one-story 1960s-era ranch houses, the street elevation of the two-story, mostly windowless, black-painted Cullinan house — a tense mass of interlocking cubes — makes no effort to fit in. As for that black paint, Landrum explains they initially wanted to use shou-sugi ban, a traditional Japanese method of charring and then oiling cedar clapboards to make them more weather resistant. However, this was a house with a strict budget, so textured, painted Hardie siding would have to do. And while that traditional and labor-intensive method is now most associated with Japanese architect Terunobu Fugimori (whose twisted and crooked buildings look like homes for the strange creatures in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films), Landrum opted instead for the austere and lofty profile of the 1920s-era Bauhaus box.

According to Zuzette, the desire for a design that looks recognizably modern was the result of her husband’s fond childhood memories of visiting his great-aunt, the philanthropist Nina Cullinan, whose modern house was designed by the great Houston architect Hugo V. Neuhaus Jr. in 1953. At the time, Miss Nina’s exquisite house was unusual for Houston because it was designed around a central courtyard; it, along with Neuhaus’ own internally focused house (built on a deluxe property sandwiched between Bayou Bend and Rienzi) and Dominique and John de Menil’s courtyard house designed by New York architect Philip Johnson, provided a new planning strategy for suburban architecture where mostly solid walls face the street instead of curtained-off picture windows.

At the Cullinan house, the complementary minimal landscaping was designed in collaboration with Sarah Lake in San Antonio. Curved fingers branch off from the dark-colored gravel driveway to provide extra guest parking spaces. The drive continues past an external, freestanding wall of geometrical Hardie-panel cutouts that surrounds a large courtyard, planted sparsely with Mexican sycamore shade trees. A pivoting gate opens to a covered loggia that runs along one side of this courtyard and leads to the main entrance of the house. Vertical fluorescent light fixtures with pastel-colored plastic covers affixed to the loggia’s columns seem purposefully lifted, in an egalitarian gesture, from the budget Dan Flavin-esque installation at the Goode Company Taquería on Kirby. In the rear of the house, a set of sliding glass doors centered on the dining-room table opens out to a cruciform-shaped plunge pool. 

The interiors of the house balance delicately on the narrow divide between art and kitsch. They were designed in collaboration with the talented Garrett Hunter, a young Houston interior designer rapidly making a name for himself. Hunter’s predilection for mixing modern art and furniture with carefully curated antiques as well as junk-store finds (both Hunter and Landrum are close to being hoarders) recalls the late great interior designer Herbert Wells, who came to Houston in the late 1940s and shocked genteel society with similar pairings. Hunter also shares Wells’ courageous, some might say slightly frightening, use of color. The ceilings of the house and undersides of the exterior soffits are painted various shades of lavender, as are the kitchen cabinets. The cabinetry in the laundry room and ground-floor powder room is painted a glossy tangerine orange. Zuzette points out a happy accident that occurs when sunlight from an adjacent window in the laundry room reflects on the brightly colored paint and fills the room with a James Turrell-like glow. The backsplash and range hood in the kitchen are clad with mirrored glass, and the counters are made of a stone with a pronounced, oversized tortoiseshell pattern of veining. Lighting is not the standard recessed cans but rather ultra-cheap, exposed porcelain sockets with big globe-shaped hanging bulbs. Discreet track lights are also deployed to light specific artworks on the walls.

From their former residence, a townhouse in the Rice Military area, the Cullinans brought only the heavily carved wood furniture that came from China, Nepal, India and Mexico. The modern upholstered pieces were acquired especially for the new open spaces of this house. The Cullinans have a formidable modern art collection that makes the interiors zing. Zuzette, who is Cuban-American, grew up among Latin American artists, and her parents were early investors in Houston’s Sicardi Gallery, which is nationally known for representing modern art of the Spanish-speaking Americas. She recalls that when she was a child, these artists often visited and stayed at her family home. With these memories as an impetus, the couple has for some time seriously collected the work of Latin American artists, including pieces by Pablo Soria, Julio Grinblatt, Pablo Siquier, Leon Ferrari and Ricardo Lanzarini.

All in all, the house is a happy mixture of high and low style, precious and egalitarian, Eastern and Western, Anglo and Latin, old and new. Just as Houston’s white-hot dining scene is best characterized as new Creole, so is the design of this house and many of the other significant recent buildings in Houston. We can only hope to see more of these mixes in the future. They truly seem to represent the complex vitality that characterizes this city.