They say your home is a reflection of your identity—and if money allows, you can reshape your house (through a new coat of paint, a kitchen remodel, a second story) to more accurately reflect the person you are, or hope to be. But what happens when the relationship goes the other way—when a house transforms a human into a particular sort of person? Seattle sculptor Leo Saul Berk, 42, believes the house he grew up in is the reason he became an artist.
From ages 6 to 13, Berk lived with his family in the Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, an architecturally significant, highly unconventional home built in 1948 by architect Bruce Goff—an influence of Frank Gehry’s, known for using salvaged materials. More captivating sculpture than practical living space, the house consists of a domed round central structure that resembles a squat pumpkin and contains the common rooms, flanked by two smaller half-domes (each a bedroom). A chimney cone, clad in copper, pierces the center of the main building and pokes through the roof. The center dome is braced by distinctive red steel Quonset hut ribs, which meet in the middle to form a 25-foot diameter circular skylight that serves as the spectacular centerpiece
of the home.
The Ford House, where Berk grew up
For years, Berk slept underneath that skylight, on an indoor balcony—a disk that hovers above the circular, sunken kitchen and dining area. (His older brother had claimed the only nonparental bedroom as his own.) Every day, he’d awaken and look at the nexus of red ribs high above him, as if peering through the slats of a horizontal Ferris wheel. By the time his family lived there, in the early 1980s, the roof leaked terribly, and Berk recalls the sound of drips landing in the coffee cans placed around the circumference of his makeshift bedroom. “Hearing the rain drip into the cans was a nice sound for a kid,” he recalls. He keeps one of the orange Hills Bros. cans, slightly rusted, in his Georgetown studio.
“I’ve never tried to relate how being inside architecture feels—that would be a setup for failure,” Berk says. “But I’m interested in the limitations of trying to convey what architecture feels like.” Since 2011, he has been reinterpreting elements of the Ford house
as sculpture—artwork that helped earn him the prestigious Betty Bowen Award from the Seattle Art Museum in 2013. This month he presents the entire body of work, The Uncertainty of Enclosure, at the Frye Art Museum.
“I can’t make a successful piece about the whole house,” he notes, “but I can make a successful piece about small parts of it.” Often he recreates sections using different materials, or on a different scale. He has bent wood veneer into a miniature version of the spiral wood ceiling of the dome, crafted a polymer silhouette of the house’s stacked-coal wall and built a copper cone resembling the chimney. He created a wall sculpture using the thick hemp Navy surplus rope Goff incorporated into the ceiling design, slathering it with the same pine tar preservative that gives the house its notable campfire smell. Berk’s first idea for a piece based on the house was a wool rug, the pattern of which mimics the copper piping of the radiant-heat floor, which emanated an uneven warmth. He has a strong sense memory of lying on the floor and moving his boyish body around to find the toasty spots.
Having started his artistic path as a ceramist, Berk’s previous sculptural work was concerned with giving form to mysterious underground spaces (the Quecreek Mine, a Mayan cave in Guatemala, Saddam Hussein’s spider hole). “My work was about the psychology of underground spaces—and how those shape us,” he says. “So it was a natural progression to how this house shaped me, and how houses can shape who you become.”
The Goff-inspired pieces stem from both Berk’s childhood memory of the house and the return visits he has made as an adult.
The current owner, architectural historian and preservationist Sidney Robinson, has welcomed him to stay and experience the house anew; Berk says his long talks with Robinson have germinated many pieces. “I go back and see it in both a new way and the old way,” he says. At the Frye, he’ll reveal two new works, both based on unrealized plans Goff had for the Ford house—a 30-foot-tall wind chime of sorts suspended from the Frye’s rotunda, and green spherical forms half-submerged in the reflecting pool, the latter a nod to Goff’s thwarted plan to embed green glass marbles in the floor.
While growing up in a sculptural house may have inspired Berk’s early artistic calling, making work directly referencing the house has caused another fundamental shift. “The whole project has been transformative for me,” he says. “Reconnecting with the place has steered my life in a completely different direction... I’ve become an architect,” he says, seeming a little stunned to say it out loud. He’s not speaking figuratively. While his artwork has always been architectural, Berk recently decided to stop trying to earn a primary income from art and is joining a local design-build firm (Plum Projects). While he doesn’t have an architecture degree—neither did Goff—he has remodeled his own house, designed remodels for friends, and had an intense sort of apprenticeship at the Ford House. “In a way, it’s the culmination of this show,” he says. “It couldn’t feel more right.”
See The Uncertainty of Enclosure, Leo Saul Berk’s complete body of work based on the Ford House. 5/30–9/6. Free. Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave.; 206.622.9250; fryemuseum.org