Kaneji Domoto’s architectural career began in 1939 as a fellow at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Arizona. Like other fellows who lived as apprentices, construction workers, gardeners and acolytes at the compound, he embraced Wright’s vision for radically new exurban communities and houses unique to the American landscape. A Japanese-American raised in a family of émigré nursery owners in Northern California, Domoto’s studies were terminated by Executive Order 9066. He and his family, including his young children, were interned in Amache, Colorado. Upon his release, he moved to the East Coast to work as a draftsman and architect, and in 1948, he opened his own office. One of his first independent commissions was Lurie House, in the community of Usonia, NY, founded by a cooperative of young New Yorkers under the leadership of two former Taliesin fellows, David and Priscilla Henken.
I first visited the Lurie House without any particular expectations for what I would find on a wet March afternoon in 2013. It was the architectural equivalent of finding a stray kitten in a rainstorm: the house was cold and damp but to me, invested as I am in unsung works of postwar modern architecture and their material culture, it was pleading to be rescued. The kitten analogy ends here: for the house, “rescue” would mean dismemberment, then substantial reconfiguration. I thought I knew what this would entail.
Of course I underestimated. Architecture is heroic not as a gesture of individual will but because it has to prevail through the work of many hands, work that is in turn undone by time, weather, gravity and a host of other external forces. Modern architecture is especially susceptible, since it aspires to moments that honestly don’t translate into longevity, not least of them spatial continuity between inside and out. Today, the Lurie House, revisited by walk-behind saws, miniature excavators, nail guns, Festools, grinders and a host of other construction equipment, should be able to prevail through its second seventy years of existence. Or more.
My friend photographer Thad Russell agreed to capture my successes and my missteps. More than once, we agreed that the construction site was at least as beautiful as the surfaces beneath which the building’s anatomy would ultimately disappear. Few people would understand that, were it not for Thad’s photos.
Thad, architect and designer Evita Yumul, contractor Bob Boeschel, cabinet maker Yaron Pardo, electricians, plumbers, framers, masons, roofers, insulators and jacks of all trades: they were not my only collaborators. Kaneji Domoto, an architect I never met but whose drawings, writings and photographs were provided to me by his heirs, determined the valence within which I worked. Fortunately, he was more daring than I, juxtaposing idioms and influences, planes and volumes, geometries and views in ways I might not have dared.
At a moment when hyphenated identities are pushing hard to obviate that hyphen and stand on their own, I find poignance in what Modernism’s architectural and design guises meant for a generation of new professionals and practitioners at mid-20th Century. American-Japanese: this inversion was Domoto’s description for himself, his hyphenated identity of choice quietly but clearly restated in the origami and kirigami Christmas tree ornaments he made and sent out each year. In my own case, a 2019 installation project I staged at the Maas Gallery at Purchase College let me try out another hyphenation as author: Widder-Domoto.