Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Ramp

An initial step in residential design is for the client to give the Architect a ‘wish list,’ or project program. One of my roles as Architect is to respond to, and further develop, this program.

An important requirement of the PLUShouse program is that the house be on one level, with no stairs. It was quickly determined by the size of the lot that a 2,000 s.f. house with a 2-car garage could not fit on the buildable portion of the lot. The viable option was to locate the garage below the house, with an interior stair from the garage to the house. To comply with the ‘no stair’ requirement, an exterior ramp could connect the garage/street level with the upper living level.

With ramps on my mind, I considered the use of an interior ramp as well. A ramp can provide vertical separation without the use of stairs, and also provide physical, auditory, and emotional privacy, and ease in negotiation.

Ramps have been used in architecture throughout history, from ancient to modern times. The pyramids in Giza most likely used ramps for placement of material. The Carpenter Center in Cambridge, Mass., designed by Le Corbusier and completed in 1963, has an exterior ramp which connects two streets. The ramp curves up from one street, bisects a building while providing access to the building, then descends down to another street. This ramp not only provides urban circulation and building access, but the ramp becomes an experience in and of itself - an architectural promenade.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in1959, is perhaps the most well known ramp. I recall my mother taking my sister and me to the Guggenheim when we were young –I do not recall the art we saw at the Guggenheim, but I do remember running up and down the ramp.


Ramps can be experienced in art as well as in buildings. Consider Medieval paintings, before 2-dimentional perspective was developed, as well as surrealist art, which deliberately denied true perspective. The lack of perspective in these paintings presents a similar feeling of a ramp, this time visual instead of practical. 

Ramps can be powerful images and experiences, and it is this emotion that led me to consider the experience of ramps for the PLUShouse. The exterior ramp in the PLUShouse will provide an initial orientation to the landscape and to the views. The interior ramp will present a gradual unfolding of the house.

Shaped like a boomerang, the interior ramp rises a total of 3’-2” over a distance of 22’-6” - a 1:7 ratio. Ascending the interior ramp from the entry, the kitchen is exposed to your left. The kitchen countertop is 36” high in the kitchen, but while on the ramp, (which begins 38” lower than the kitchen level), the height of the countertop will vary. There are no upper cabinets, and views of the San Francisco Bay open up as you ascend the ramp. 

The experience of the interior ramp is further layered by the addition of cabinets to the back side of the kitchen cabinets. These cabinets face the ramp, and are lower than the kitchen counter, providing bookshelves, storage, and surfaces for art display as you journey along the ramp.

While the left, or south side of the ramp is open to views and to the public spaces, the area to the north side of the ramp is private. This is the location of the guest bedroom and bath. A ‘thick wall’ between the ramp and guest suite, together with the level change generated by the ramp, allow physical as well as emotional privacy between owner and guest.

Ramps are different from stairs. It takes a longer time to get from point to point on a ramp, and more space is needed to build a ramp than a stair. But a ramp provides more than a way to get from one point to another - it provides an experiential sense of movement, a continuity between spaces, and an ease in negotiation. A ramp can ultimately provide a unique dynamic and sense of perspective - an architectural promenade.

Lindy Small