true to form

Krupnick Studio redesigns and renovates a Corrales, New Mexico, adobe with respect for the traditional architecture of the surrounding village.

This article first appeared in Autumn 2008 Su Casa

Web-exclusive photos

Recumbent below a canopy of heritage cottonwood trees in Corrales, New Mexico, the recently renovated Krupnick home reveals itself in nested layers like Chinese boxes. You approach it from a wooden gate through the exposed adobe wall that lines the dirt street, walk along a gravelly path, pass through a gate under the shady portal, then cross a fully enclosed inner courtyard to the front door. Inside you find an interior entry hall graced by a plain, rectangular alcove in which rests a simple vase with flowers set into the milky white plaster wall.

The husband and wife team of architect Michael Krupnick and designer Kim Ray Krupnick, self-described “modernists at heart,” found in this simple 1960s adobe a seemingly ideal palette to practice their “less-is-more” approach. The house had been slated for tear down when they bought it three years ago.

Indeed, builder Dan Keough of Dan Keough Custom Homes, who was contractor on the remodel, says the house “was bad news” when he first saw it. “It was kind of scary, but I loved the great room.” A Corrales resident himself, Keough remembers cycling past the home before he became involved with the project: “I loved the massing of that great room. It always caught my eye.”

Today it stands as a showpiece for place-sensitive design that honors the vernacular building traditions of Corrales while incorporating unfussy elegance and a modern floor plan that suits this active family.

Some homes achieve architectural greatness through the tension between elements—steel beams against earthen walls, say, or straight-edge walls taming undulating landforms in the surrounding terrain. Rather than such dissonance, the Krupnicks sought harmony, the sonorous blending of form, materials, function, and location. Like the sculptor who uncovers the shape hidden in a block of stone, their design work sought to reveal the connections between this 40-year-old house, the village around it, and their life as a family.

While the scale of the project might suggest otherwise—they had builder Dan Keough gut the house, for starters—the result shows a light touch. Keough recalls “blowing out” the space inside, even replacing electrical and plumbing systems and removing the original mechanical room.

“We’ve done a lot of remodels,” Mike says, “and we don’t like the feeling that an architect has come in and done the house. We didn’t want to ‘architect’ the place. We believe in community building, helping to create a sense of place through architecture. We try to design not only for our clients or ourselves, but for the neighborhood. Here we wanted to maintain the feel of Corrales and give something back.”

Evidence of their philosophy starts with the unchanged profile of the house, which was built in the mid-1960s and typifies the design aesthetic of that period: it quotes classic New Mexico buildings with its low roofline, deep front portal painted in brown trim, and tall living room box reinforced by a heavy, flared external buttress. In fact, this L-shaped vertical profile calls to mind historic New Mexico churches as well as John Gaw Meem’s Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico. And the lumpy wall surface, which reveals the stacked adobe walls beneath the plaster, seems more like rustic chic nowadays than ’60s inattentive craftsmanship.

Kim, an accomplished painter as well as an architectural designer, was immediately drawn to the “simple composition of one high mass in the living room, then the rest of the house is low and horizontal” when the couple first saw the home. To preserve that low roofline—just nine feet to the top of the parapet—the couple decided to forego air conditioning, which would have necessitated rooftop duct work and a raised parapet to hide it, destroying the proportions of the two main masses.

Kim confesses she also immediately loved that front courtyard. With its nine-foot front wall, vintage hand-carved doors, and circular, pass-through fireplace embedded in a buttress, the court establishes an outdoor living room, a microworld of sun, tree-limb shadow, and a massive cottonwood rooted in its confines. The Krupnicks respected the original intent of this space but added tumbled flagstone, a synthetic-wood yoga deck, and—most significantly, architecturally—a new front entry on the south side so that you enter the home into a hallway rather than straight into the living room on the east wall of the courtyard. A new doorway on the west opens directly into the master suite, which the Krupnicks converted from the former carport, with its own private portal (and hot tub).

Outside, they kept the cars out toward the street, landscaped minimally with permaculture in mind (for instance, directing rainwater runoff to irrigate plants), preserved the 24-plus cottonwoods, and planted a few more. They fenced off certain sight lines while keeping the long view to the Sandia Mountains open, rather than extending the adobe privacy wall the full length of the street-side boundary. The stucco color, a mix-your-own shade of cement, matches the bark of the cottonwood trees; steel trowel work, done in the old style, gives it a hand-worked face. With help from the wavy adobe courses, these walls catch the sunlight in evolving random patterns all day long. Other exterior colors likewise match the hues of earth and vegetation around the property.

Elsewhere inside, the couple “recomposed the interior for flow and simplicity,” Kim says. They reconfigured two bedrooms for their two daughters, Veronica and Destiny, designed a handy and lovely powder room, and created a stunning master bath with a sweet corner kiva fireplace. They restored the original living room loft (which had been removed in a previous renovation), removed a wall between living room and kitchen, and redressed the kitchen with white cabinetry, white tile walls (proportioned in width and height to match adobe bricks), solid-surface counters, minimal upper shelving, and a butcher-block island that wraps on two sides around the gas range. A wide double door of glass from the kitchen and tall windows from the living room offer expansive views of the east-side patio and sprawling yard on the one-acre property. Elsewhere, they added wall-washer skylights, which add bright indirect light to great effect, particularly at the west end of the entry hall by the master suite, where they have installed a Buddha statue at the creamy hall’s terminus.

The 12-foot-high ceiling in the living room and the white-banistered loft again hearken to classic New Mexico churches, but the bulbous fireplace and chimney instantly call to mind the freeform experiments in adobe of the hippie era, though Mike says they toned down the form from its original “Chianti bottle” shape.

The church allusions feel apt, given the time both Krupnicks spent working with the New Mexico Community Foundation restoring historic churches around the state in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The two had met at the School of Architecture and Planning at UNM, Mike as a graduate student, Kim as an undergraduate. Mike was later drawn by the organic adobe architecture of Charles Johnson, who had done the famous Boulder House in Santa Fe and practiced in Phoenix. Mike and Kim moved there, then came back to Santa Fe to design a pumice-crete home, their first independent commission. Next they moved to Florida, Mike’s home state, where they designed several restaurants and helped restore and establish the arts and entertainment and historic district. They also designed several custom homes and a seven-building high-rise urban redevelopment project in Fort Lauderdale and others in Miami and Delray Beach. These were huge, successful projects, “but we were missing the soul of adobe, the spirit of the earth,” Mike recalls.

“And we wanted to build our own house,” Kim adds.

They moved back to New Mexico in 2002, settling into—and renovating—an adobe by legendary Corrales builder Pete Smith. As their family grew, they felt the need for more space and found their current home—the owner at the time had planned to bulldoze it and build a house the Krupnicks felt didn’t suit the prevailing Corrales style. Although the house was a wreck—there was a 12-inch bump through the middle caused by a cottonwood root—they embraced the project.

It enabled them to put much of their design philosophy into practice for themselves. For instance, they have left the land largely intact beyond the zones developed for outdoor patio space; a parking zone out front; a play area with a tree house, trampoline, and other fun-inducing structures; a chicken coop; and a guest house, which includes Kim’s spacious painting studio. Landscaping veers toward permaculture, with minimal irrigation supplemented by trenches and land contouring to guide rain runoff to key native plantings. The couple retained the two dozen cottonwoods that define the lot—even matching the stucco color to their gray bark—and planted more, for shade. Those shady trees are a large part of the Krupnicks’ decision not to install air conditioning or evaporative cooling.

Despite their grounding and professional training in modernism, they recognized that the powerful sense of place in Corrales, expressed and shaped to a large extent by its residential architecture, dictated a modest traditionalism for their new home. Adobes of this period tend toward a certain off-center charm that contradicts the geometric perfection of modernism anyway. As we sit on the courtyard chatting around noontime, the steep sunshine rakes across the lumpy exterior walls, revealing, it seems, a shadowed bump for every adobe brick.

Mike gestures at the uneven wall: “These imperfections are the fun part of the house.”

They also express the organic nature of the place, which seems to have emerged like a natural outcropping on the lot. Kim suggests that the materials—earth, wood, stone—come from the earth and create that connection, which sets up a spiritual bond with the occupants.

Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to place 40-year-old adobe architecture within the vein of organic modernism, a movement that freed mid-20th-century design from the rigid formulas of line and rectangle. This home’s simplicity and modest scale bespeak a restrained intentionality that again suits the Krupnicks’ design philosophy: “We’re interested in how you can have abundance without having too much.” Mike gestures around the intimate front courtyard, “You don’t need more, to be happy. We like to use the negative space, the empty space [as a design element]. It’s like Kim’s paintings. It’s about what’s not in the painting.”

“Line and edge,” Kim cuts in. “This courtyard is my favorite place.” She nods her head toward the top of the high wall, where a sliver of sunlight halos the plaster against a vivid blue sky. “Everything happens at the edge.”

“New Mexico is such a spiritual place,” Mike says, and much of that derives from its architecture. “This house had a life before us, the spirit of the past, and this building will be here 100 years from now. We’ll be gone, but the sense of place shouldn’t be.”

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