Photographer Ben Rahn Explores the Resilience of Triangular Houses

Born of a neolithic search for shelter, the triangular building was utilized as storehouse, stable, and shrine. Mostly forgotten by the early 20th century, enough precedents survived to trace the lineage of a revival. Finding new use as a base for recreation, the A-frame became one of the most recognizable (and malleable) building forms of the 1950s–70s, typifying an era of optimism, abundance, and play.

By the 2000s, there was a growing interest in purchasing surviving postwar A-frames as they were swept up in a current of rising appreciation for midcentury modernism.

From its earliest history, the A-frame accommodated great variety. To those looking closely, postwar designs drew together multiple interpretations within their angled walls, while at the same time evoking both the unpretentiousness of a vernacular hut and the studied purity of modernism. The inherent restrictions of the form present an alluring challenge within an appealingly clean arrangement of line and plane.

Amagansett, New York, 1958. Photography by Ben Rahn. 

1. Site: Amagansett, New York, 1958

Standout: One of the Atlantic Ocean–fronting houses architect Andrew Gellerdesigned here in the 1950s and ’60s, the entire structure, sans insulation or heat, is preserved intact by the original owners’ children.

Sag Harbor, New York, 1965. Photography by Ben Rahn. 

2. Site: Sag Harbor, New York, 1965

Standout: Originally built from a kit into a hillside, a seasonal clapboard getaway was stripped to its Douglas fir structure and clad with a combination of yellow cedar roof shakes and red cedar trim to become a year-round residence.

Seattle, Washington, 1968. Photography by Ben Rahn.

3. Site: Seattle, Washington, 1968

Standout: On the end of a pier in Portage Bay, a floating, converted music studio features a dozen 4-foot-square skylights above its cedar siding.

Long Island, New York, 1972. Photography by Ben Rahn.

4. Site: Long Island, New York, 1972

Standout: A 1,500-square-foot house is surrounded by a half-acre of woods, ensuring total privacy despite its floor-to-ceiling glazing.

Mill Valley, California, 1953. Photography by Ben Rahn.

5. Site: Mill Valley, California, 1953

Standout: Originally built by Wally Reemelin, an industrial designer at the University of California, Berkeley, for San Francisco Chronicle architecture writer Ken Pratt, the 1,200-square-foot house was renovated by architect Michael Sands shortly after its 2011 purchase.

Fire Island Pines, New York, 1965. Photography by Ben Rahn.

6. Site: Fire Island Pines, New York, 1965

Standout: The retired couple that has owned this dune-side home for nearly 40 years cleared the surrounding scrub growth and poison ivy, hauled topsoil in, and planted indigenous pines, sassafras, and pepperidge trees along with non-native Japanese maples and blue spruces.

Whistler, British Columbia, 2016. Photography by Ben Rahn.

7. Site: Whistler, British Columbia, 2016

Standout: Scott & Scott Architects’ contemporary take on the classic weekend cabin for a snowboarding Vancouver family features a structure of locally sourced materials that prevents snow accumulation.

Big Bear, California, 1963. Photography by Ben Rahn.

8. Site: Big Bear, California, 1963

Standout: Removing the second story of a 2,000-square-foot house during its 2015 renovation created the 28-foot-high ceiling from which an Isamu Noguchi pendant fixture hangs on a pulley system.

Images and edited text from The Modern A-Frame, a 248-page volume, photographed by Ben Rahn and with an introduction by architectural historian Chad Randl, appear courtesy of Gibbs Smith.

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