For Students

Three Michigan Architects: Part 1—David Osler

David Osler, Architect, Mundus Residence exterior, Ann Arbor, MI, 1978; Greg Hursley, Photographer; Courtesy of the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library

David Osler’s domestic, institutional, commercial, and civic buildings represent some of the most distinctive and recognizable modern architecture in Michigan, predominantly in Washtenaw County. Born in 1921, Osler is an Ann Arbor native and graduated from the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Design in 1943.  Returning to Ann Arbor after World War II, he worked in the architecture office of Douglas D. Loree, Architect, and in 1958 opened his own practice. While his earlier work was mostly residential, each decade saw Osler’s firm receive larger commissions until he retired in 2008. However, throughout his career Osler continually received commissions to design modern houses that reflected his minimalist sensibilities.

This exhibition presents eight domestic projects that span Osler’s five-decade-long career from 1958 to 2008, highlighting a minimal design aesthetic that features crisp, clean, impeccably composed geometric lines and forms. Each project exemplifies his modern mid-century architectural vocabulary, as he designed houses that physically and visually embrace their natural settings.

Osler’s elegant domestic designs employ highly compositional rectangular floor plans that illustrate a strong sense of how public spaces (kitchen, dining, and living rooms) relate to private spaces (bedrooms and bathrooms). The public spaces are envisioned as one contiguous form, with large spans of glass that visually open the house to its outdoor setting. The more discreet private spaces are contained and collectively located adjacent to one another at either end of the house or on different floors.

While most of Osler’s minimalist domestic designs feature flat roofs, depending on the topography of the site, some dwellings have asymmetrically sloped roofs as well as exterior balconies that project outward from the façade. An example of Osler’s exploration of sloped roofs and their sectional characteristics can be seen in his 1982 Henri House. The seating area of its vast living room is simply defined by a recess in the floor plan that creates a conversation pit at the base of the fireplace. In contrast to this, a steeply sloped ceiling surface rises up to meet the fireplace wall. Completing the overall composition are two open-truss beams that engage the ceiling plane, flank the fireplace, and visually define the recessed conversation pit.

While numerous architects of the twentieth century designed within the tenets of the modern movement, Osler brought a unique compositional aesthetic to all his projects. This is visible in his domestic projects, from the overall exterior proportions of the houses to their interior spaces, as well as window fenestrations on the façades. These homes were built mostly of wood-frame construction and clad in a variety of materials from wood-siding to brick and galvanized sheet metal. Yet in Osler’s hands, this vocabulary of normative building materials was transformed into beautiful details and simple, elegant surfaces that embody his minimalist sensibilities. All of his dwellings showcase crisp, folded forms that heighten a house’s geometry and its sense of materiality. Hence, even a simple rectangle designed by Osler becomes a beautiful composition—and a timeless example of modern domestic architecture in the Midwest.


Joseph Rosa
UMMA Director

Nancy Bartlett 
U-M Bentley Historical Library
Head of the University Archives Program

Three Michigan Architects: Part 1–Osler is the first in a series of three consecutive exhibitions, with subsequent presentations of domestic work by Robert Metcalf (April 5–July 13) and George Brigham (July 19–October 13). The series will culminate in Fall 2014 with a symposium, as well as the publication of Three Michigan Architects: Osler, Metcalf, and Brigham—both of which will explore the importance of this circle of Ann Arbor-based architects, situating their regional body of domestic work into the larger context of modern architecture in the U.S. that developed on the East Coast and West Coast from the 1930s to the 1980s.

This exhibition is part of the U-M Collections Collaborations series, which showcases the renowned and diverse collections of the University of Michigan. This series inaugurates UMMA’s collaboration with the Bentley Historical Library, and is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Lead support for Three Michigan Architects is provided by the University of Michigan Office of the Vice President for Research.

Second and third image from top: David Osler, Architect, Henrie Residence exterior and interior; Jackson, MI, 1982, Courtesy of the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library.