To Feel like a Kid Again: a Conversation with MJ Neal

David Plick — 

Today, if you drive around the Bouldin neighborhood in South Austin, practically every street has a house that could be on the cover of Dwell magazine, but in 2002, when MJ Neal was finishing up his award-winning Ramp House on W. Live Oak, it was a completely different atmosphere.

“There were people starting to jog again and feeling safe to walk in the neighborhood,” Neal told me. “We were trying to provide opportunities for people to reconnect to the community at large, not just isolate themselves in their separate houses. Although the neighborhood still had its rough areas, this atmosphere was much different than when I moved to Bouldin in the very early 90’s and my truck was getting tagged with gang graffiti.”

Clearly, this was a vibrant, transitioning South Austin neighborhood that had a much different relationship to downtown and the rest of the city than it does now. “This part of Austin was the suburbs when it was originally platted in the late 1800’s, but I could see that it was changing rapidly. Now, it’s only a twenty-minute walk to downtown. Subsequently, one of the main design ideas was to create a suburban-urban hybrid dwelling, showing people how they might utilize the lots differently than their original intention, one that was more in tune with the proximity of the CBD and how the neighborhood might evolve into the future.”

Today, MJ Neal’s Ramp House continues to be one of Austin’s most significant architectural structures. In many respects, Neal’s work set the tone, and the standard, of the neighborhood’s new lifestyle. “We didn’t want to put these gargantuan projects in the neighborhood that would overwhelm the area,” he said. “But they were the most contemporary in Bouldin at the time.” While the Ramp House stood out as unique in 2002, and received criticism because of it, many other innovative houses found their home right along side it. Neal’s new contemporary homes had rooftops with views of downtown, and were designed to interact with the community. They had a symbiotic relationship with the landscape, the street, and the city.

Not only did MJ Neal live in the Ramp House after it was built, but it also produced one of his favorite compliments his architecture ever received:

“This house makes me feel like a kid again.”

MJ Neal spoke to me about Bouldin, Austin development and the disastrous trend of “remuddling” homes, engaging the senses, and how he’s inspired by the sun and the clouds.

TVOA: How did you first across the Ramp House site and project?

MJ Neal: We had a design/build development company. We were one of about three groups that started developing in Bouldin at that time. I had lived in that neighborhood since 1990 and saw how the neighborhood was starting to change, and there were many infill lots that were in the area. That particular lot for the Ramp House actually had had a house on it before. There were a few remnants of foundation left, some structure that had been on that site.

TVOA: How did the site itself influence the design?

MJ Neal: It was a really constricted site: 45 to 48 feet wide and 130-135 feet long. Also, the two adjacent houses being so close led to us inverting the living spaces, with the bedrooms on the first floor and the kitchen and living room on the second floor. Having those spaces on the second floor allowed us to open up and get some nice views of the landscape and feel expansive, while allowing the bedrooms to stay on the first floor where they can be private.

There is a layering that takes place from the street to the garden to the house and on through the interior. There was a direct relationship with the house and the garden; the front garden being the mediation between the public street and the private house.

We found value in utilizing the existing landscape elements like one amazing very large and old bush at the front side. We went to great pains to weave the trellis through this bush, a species that you can’t find anymore in Austin; I thought it was important to keep it.

TVOA: Is the bush still there?

MJ Neal: I’m not sure if the previous owners kept it. They reworked the landscape and did a butcher job on that and the house itself. That bush, along with an existing tree acted as a canopy as you entered (Later, MJ Neal discovers that the tree is now cut down and the bush trimmed back).

The whole idea behind the house was that it was supposed to engage the senses in different ways. It was a very specific set up so that when you walked up the sidewalk you stepped on the crushed gravel. You felt the crushed gravel under your feet, and also heard the sound of it, you started to hear a bit of the water, and as you moved into the house, you entered your own world. I lived in that house for a while and every morning my wife and I would get our coffee, walk down the ramp, open the front door, come out and sit on the front bench. We could say hi to people on the street and look at the fish in the pond and enjoy the front garden. The garden was a seasonal thing. We had poppies in one season, color coordinated with the house. In another season there would be melons. We had tiny, delicate red roses, sage, lavender, and there was one strip of grass that was cantilevered at one end, a political statement about the environment. There was a symbiosis that was happening between the landscape and the house. It, the garden, created a threshold from public to semi public to private space. It was all orchestrated and thought about.

TVOA: What was the idea behind the ramp?

MJ Neal: The ramp is the vertical circulation element. I was playing with the fourth dimension in conceptualizing the house. It’s about playing with time and engaging the fast-paced nature of how we all live today. I wanted people to come into the house, sit on the bench, take their shoes off, put house shoes on; it becomes a meditative thing, a ritual as you come into the house. As you move up the ramp, that really slows you down. It’s not like traversing a stair as you move from one level to another very quickly; the nature of the ramp itself, the size of it, forces you to slow down. We are so overwhelmed with data, speed, and immediate gratification today that we need to be slowed down so we can recognize ourselves.

TVOA: You mentioned before that the previous owners did a butcher job to the property. To what extent are owners of architecturally designed property responsible for upholding the project’s vision?

MJ Neal: There’s a lot of gray area in that. The work that comes out of my studio has a tremendous amount of care. I understand people need to alter something for whatever reason, or they want it a certain way—the way they live that might be different than the original intention, but they need to be respectful to the project itself, and if you are going to do something with the project, make it better than it was before. If one has respect for it, and tries to understand the project and its intent, then you can probably do something to it that makes it better. But often times that’s not the case. The previous owners of the Ramp House changed the landscape and destroyed the symbiotic relationship. I’m sick just thinking about the fact that they ripped out the 20-foot-long exterior Ipe bench. It’s fine to change things, but it is not fine to disrespect the design of the house, the intent from the beginning. I understand that work will always become altered, but it should always be the goal to make it better.

I’ve seen the same type of scenario around Austin for many years with all these remodels. There were some extraordinary houses in Austin and then all of a sudden people started buying and altering them; for example, ripping out amazing, thick set tile bathrooms from the 40s with incredible craftsmanship, beautifully done and worked just fine, and replacing them with tile from Home Depot thinking they’re making it better. They have no idea that they’re “remuddling” the house, and not paying any respect to it, the land around it, or the community. They just want to flip these things to make a buck.

TVOA: You mentioned engaging the senses in the work that you do. What are some inspirations for this and how might it work?

MJ Neal: The sun, the sky, clouds, cast shadows, how all of this interacts together and how it changes minute by minute, the birds and their song, the smell of flowers, plants, and herbs, the list goes on.

Many times I’ll set a scenario up where elements within a design will work together as an assemblage, say a window, a screen, and a particular surface, like a floor or wall (the wall and floor having specific material qualities, texture, color, etc., and if you want to get really into it so does the screen (is it wood slats, is it perforated metal…) and the window (the glass could be a tint, or color…) anyway, the idea being, an effect will happen as the sun moves around and engages the assemblage differently according to time, weather conditions (sunny, cloudy, rainy, etc), and position of the observer, but, the exact effect cannot be predicted, and that is the important aspect of it, knowing something will happen but being surprised by it never being the same. This brings an immediacy to the space, or in other words, as one of my clients put it, “Every day the house unveils new gifts.”

Specifically, in the Ramp house, one of the scenarios would be the vegetation on the east side with the lattice (and original planting of passion vine), and the colored acrylic panels set into the shelves (the shelves being painted in a specific way to emphasis a planer condition, note that the shelves have now been painted differently so this dimension is destroyed), regardless, there is still a strong effect as the sun rises and moves through the house casting shadows and colors on the adjacent surfaces, ramp, floor, walls.

Another example I mentioned while we where talking earlier, the compressed gravel approach to the entry, the gravel has been removed I believe; one steps off the hard concrete surface of the sidewalk onto the gravel and hears the crunch, fells the small granules of gravel under their feet, passes below the large bush, I was telling you about, and wild Irises, also removed, actually all the landscape and hardscape has been altered from the original and so the intent has been altered, but I digress. You can see how a scenario, many scenarios are set up for the opportunity for something to happen, for ones senses to be engaged.

There is also the play of memory that enters into it as well, but I won’t go into that.

By: David Plick

2 responses to To Feel like a Kid Again: a Conversation with MJ Neal

  1. Great discussion on a great work of architecture.

  2. Architecture is considered to be a commodity or a product that people may do with what they wish. It is commonly presented and it’s value based on square footage, number of room types, location and is bought and sold like any other product. The notion of Architecture being more than the sum of it’s quantifiable parts is somewhat intangible, so the idea of embracing and becoming a steward of architect’s vision is a distant priority to most owners, who are most likely removed from the creative process. Americans move quite frequently, so successive owners know little if anything about the architect’s original intentions and simply see a place and impose their own lifestyle vision upon a place like a painter does upon a blank canvas. The new owners may not know that beneath the blank canvas is a masterpiece.

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