When Pragya Chandra and her husband Brette Esterbrooks found a woods and wetland site in Independence formerly occupied by a dilapidated farmhouse, she wanted to build a new house that evoked her father’s childhood home in India.
She approached Bob Ganser, still with the Minneapolis architectural firm he cofounded, CITYDESKSTUDIO, with the highly specific request. “I shared with Bob the idea of a traditional Indian house that operates around a central courtyard, which is the center of all activity,” Chandra recalls.
Her memories, coupled with Ganser’s design expertise, manifested in what the architect calls a Modern Farmhouse. Designed around a central, main-floor family space and outdoor courtyard turned slightly toward the creek to the southeast, the vernacular shed-like forms reference the shapes and materials of nearby barns and silos.
Above: Designed around a central family space, the house evokes the owner’s memories of India, as well as farm-building vernacular.
Ganser’s unique design solution, in addition to a materials palette of thermal-mass concrete (inside and out), Cor-Ten and white HardiePanel siding (on the exterior), and dark-stained, hand-scraped wood and stained plywood floors, excited the jury that gave him the 2016 Emerging Talent Award. The project also evidenced his “design excellence,” according to the national American Institute of Architects’ jury that awarded Ganser the 2016 Young Architects Award. As for Chandra, Ganser’s aesthetic “spoke true to my sense of good design,” she says. “Bob is classically modern in his forms but has a great sense for unusual materials and applications.”
Ganser was aware by the age of 16 that he would be an architect. (His stepfather was a draftsman, and Ganser was fascinated by the “quantifiable” aspects of architectural drawing.) He completed his education at the University of Minnesota, which inspired him to travel abroad. He was particularly drawn to the work of Le Corbusier, sleeping in one of Corbu’s monasteries and hitchhiking to Ronchamp, France, to see to the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut. He worked at HGA and Snow Kreilich Architects, where he acquired a sense of regional modernism before cofounding CITYDESKSTUDIO in 2004. He recently joined MSR Design in Minneapolis.
Above: The simple exterior is composed of Concrete, Cor-Ten, and white HardiePanel siding.
“I like modernism that’s warm, human, and site-specific, where you can have clean simple materials,” he explains. “I find inspiration in the idea that great architecture results from observing carefully and studying critically the roots of a project in its physical and cultural context, in how it will satisfy the homeowners’ needs, and in the construction methods and materials that will shape it.”
His design process begins with a listening approach that “reveals the meaning beneath the words, the essential qualities” that the client is asking for in a home, he says. His next step is to devise a simple plan. “It’s essential, for me, to develop a refined, simple plan that organizes all the practical essentials into an elegant solution that does more than solve problems,” he explains.
The Treehouse project in Minnetonka, for instance, needed a new, more generous front entry and a reconfigured, more functional mudroom. “By removing the closet that separated these two spaces, I connected an expanded front entry with a new back mudroom, incorporating integral storage so both spaces can work together,” Ganser says. “The mudroom can be closed off from the public entry, via a new pocket door. But when the spaces are left open, the front entry aligns with a new floor-to-ceiling window in the mudroom that offers a direct view into the wooded side yard.”
Above: Ganser reconfigured the entryway and mudroom of this 1980s house in Minnetonka, transforming it functionally and aesthetically.
The design provides a functional solution—the mudroom closets and storage serve both spaces instead of just one—and it raises the quality of the entry experience because it now frames a lovely view and borrows daylight into the spaces. “It was a simple idea that made a huge difference in the look of the house and its functionality,” says the homeowner. “It also gives the house a cleaner and more modern look.” Ganser continued that approach throughout the 1980s home, which he reconfigured to maximize visual connections to the hillside and tree-filled backyard, renovated into a light-filled open plan, and modernized with materials and a color strategy that enhance the home’s dynamic.
Essential in each of his projects, Ganser adds, is the “choreography of light and windows.” In a Minneapolis project he calls Opposite Natures, he transformed a cramped former attic stair into the central organizing element for a new living room and kitchen renovation and second-floor addition. He topped the existing stair with new south-facing skylights and gave it a translucent glass rail. On the main level, he opened up the stair to the adjacent dining room, replacing the wall with floor-to-ceiling translucent glass panels (which borrows light into the dining room and basement below).
Above: The newly light-filled home is now a dynamic and livable space.
When he’s not working with clients, Ganser teaches in the College of Design at his alma mater, presenting students with real-world projects that challenge them to consider architecture’s impact on their communities. He’s also served as a committee chair for the AIA Minnesota/Midwest Home Homes by Architects Tour and the AIA Minnesota Committee on Design; has volunteered with numerous local arts nonprofits; and was a member of St. Paul’s Land Use Efficiency group, helping to promote revisions to the city’s zoning code to allow accessory dwelling units (commonly referred to as granny flats, mother-in-law apartments, or carriage houses) on single-family residential lots.
“As a designer, educator, and volunteer, Bob has constructed a model of practice for all young architects to aspire to,” wrote the jury for the national 2016 Young Architects Award. To his residential design clients, however, Ganser is the deliverer of hopes, visions, and aspirations. “Every once in a while, I am in a space in the house—maybe I’m looking at the concrete walls or walking down a narrow hallway leading toward a window—that evokes the nostalgia of my grandfather’s home in India,” says Chandra. “And I love that.”
Above: The re-envisioned staircase accesses the second-floor bedrooms.
Bob Ganser’s Favorite…
Architectural style Modern (Eclectic / Minimal)
Twin Cities neighborhood University Grove and St Anthony Park
Public Building (local) Guthrie Theater & Walker Library
Design inspiration Keep it simple
City (international) Paris
Building (international) Tough to narrow it down to one favorite. Based only on ones that I’ve personally visited, I’d have to say: Notre Dame Du Haut, in Ronchamp France, by Le Corbusier
Room to Design Any room that is connected to the outdoors
Design Trends Bringing together traditional / historic structures and spaces with minimal/modern design
Material Trends Shou Sugi Ban (burnt cedar wood) charred wood siding
Above: Ganser’s reinterpretation of a 1938 bungalow: charcoal gray with a camel-back addition.
By Camille LeFevre
Photos by Chad Holder, James Schwartz, and Brandon Stengel/Farm Kid Studios