“Concrete has always had a mystical hold on architects,” says designer Christopher Robertson. Visionaries such as Le Corbusier, who used concrete in many of his 75 projects, loved this basic material. Robertson and his wife, Vivi Nguyen-Robertson, his partner at Robertson Design, were also enamored with the amalgam of sand, gravel, cement, and water, and the newlyweds dreamed of using it for their own house. “We just couldn’t wrap our heads around the cost,” Christopher says, referring to the labor-intensive
poured-in-place procedure he prefers. “It’s way more expensive than any other option we considered.”
An eye-opening trip to Naoshima, Japan, convinced the Robertsons to find a way to build their dream. On the 3.15-square-mile island, they visited the Benesse House Museum and the Chichu Art Museum, a series of square, rectangular, and triangular volumes embedded in a hillside, which house installations by James Turrell and Walter De Maria, as well as paintings by Claude Monet. Both museums were designed by architect Tadao Ando and are composed of concrete, a signature material that Ando has used to rich
and evocative effect. The Robertsons were taken with the rawness and mystery of the spaces. “We decided ‘whatever it takes’ after seeing those buildings,” says Christopher.
The couple’s vow had immediate consequences. “We’d already started designing a house,” says Vivi, “but we started over.” Into the trash went plans for a brick residence, which the couple had already revised five times. With their similar tastes, they design as a team, dividing the work equally; for their new house those tasks included interior and landscape design, too.
The Robertsons’ new 2,900-square-foot house is a wooden box that sits on top of a concrete box, with a concrete wall wrapping around it. Inside, the boxiness vanishes and the house resolves into two complementary halves. On one side, a long chute consisting of an interior courtyard, a dining room, Vivi’s office, and the kitchen and living spaces stretches from front to back. On the other side, a white central staircase leads to a split-level landing the Robertsons call “the reading room.” “We needed a place to hang out and for the kids to read,” explains Vivi. When it’s time to head to bed, the master suite is in one direction; in the other, two bedrooms are connected by a bath. One bedroom is currently a nursery for the Robertsons’ new son; Christopher’s two children from a previous marriage share the other bedroom when they visit.
The living space had to embrace many functions, including the comings and goings of a dog and trike-riding children whose favorite route includes the deck beyond the living room. The choice of concrete was a practical decision as well as an aesthetic one—it can take a lot of abuse. “We beat things up pretty easily,” says Vivi. The Robertsons also opted for other durable materials, such as Siberian larch for the ceilings and Austrian white oak for the floors. They deliberately left the wood in its raw state to allow for natural aging, which includes exposing flaws, now and in the future. “If we scratch or stain the floor,” notes Vivi, “we just sand it.”
Imperfection is a driving force in this house, it turns out. “Concrete is uncontrollable,” Christopher notes—a fact he was already well aware of. “You can’t guarantee the results.” The day Christopher and his crew pulled off the framework to reveal the house’s concrete walls, what he saw was at first disappointing. “There were a few hickies,” he says. Vivi could also see that one of the walls was shinier than the other.
But that’s the whole point. “The concrete walls will only get prettier—the imperfections are like a watercolor,” Vivi says. The Japanese have a name for it: wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that accepts transience and the blemishes that impermanence brings. “We don’t have views of mountains or sea here,” says Vivi about Houston, “so we have created what we want to look at.” It’s a microview that’s always evolving. “That’s why we love concrete,” adds Christopher. “It’s a live material and you have to live with the imperfections. They add so much.”