For Students

Three Michigan Architects: Part 2—Robert Metcalf

Metcalf, Metcalf residence

Robert C. Metcalf, Architect, Metcalf Residence exterior, Ann Arbor, MI, 1952-1953, Photograph by Galbraith Photography, Courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library

Robert Metcalf’s architecture practice has realized some of the most important and recognizable modern buildings in Michigan. Born in 1923, Metcalf is a native of Ohio. He began his education at the University of Michigan in 1942, though his studies were halted during World War II. After serving in Europe, Metcalf returned to Ann Arbor and finished his degree in 1950. He worked as an apprentice to George B. Brigham and began teaching architecture at the University of Michigan. He served as dean of the architecture school from 1974 to 1986, and taught at the university until he retired in 1991. Metcalf began his own practice in 1953, and over the next six decades completed more than 120 projects in Ann Arbor and the Detroit metropolitan area.

This exhibition presents fifteen modern houses designed by Metcalf that span his career from 1953 to 2008, highlighting many of his iconic houses. Each project selected exemplifies Metcalf’s modern aesthetic: straightforward design that resulted in functional, minimalist spaces for living.


A signature element of a Metcalf-designed home—from the architect’s first commission, the 1953 Crane House, to his 1975 Huebner House—is its placement within its landscape. Most of the topography of Ann Arbor can vary greatly even across a relatively small parcel. Metcalf’s pared-down, minimalist rectangular houses are sited at points in the landscape that transition from a rather flat area to an inclined slope in the terrain. An example of this is his 1955 Forsythe House, where the two-story house is nestled into the hillside.

In Metcalf homes like this, the front façade reads as a two-story structure, while the back façade visually reads as one floor. The upper floor of the house—with windows on all four façades—contains mostly public spaces (living room, dining room, and kitchen) along with one or two private spaces (bedrooms). The first floor or main floor of the house comprises fewer public spaces (the entrance vestibule and possibly a den) and more private spaces (bedrooms, bathrooms, mechanical room, and garage). This floor has only two to three façades with fenestrations (windows and doors). Formally, the house is a flat-roofed rectangular form that visually projects out from the natural contours of the landscape—juxtaposing the manmade with its natural setting.

Metcalf’s siting of his houses is ideologically closer to the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright than the pervasive minimalist aesthetic of mid-century modernism in America. The visual reference to Wright allows us to understand Metcalf’s interest in the domestic architecture of Greene and Greene—noted Arts and Crafts architects based in Pasadena, California, from 1894 to 1922. This is evident in Metcalf’s use of materials for the homes’ interior public spaces—wood-clad walls and ceilings, tile floors, and custom-designed interior wood screens—sometimes metal—that act as visual room dividers. The employment of these materials within the homes provides aesthetic warmth while remaining formally austere. Furnished mostly with classic mid-century furniture by companies such as Knoll and Herman Miller, Metcalf’s interiors bridged the ideological as well as the aesthetic gap between the American Arts and Crafts and modern architecture movements.

While Metcalf’s career is mostly equated with the flat-roofed aesthetic of modern architecture, he has intermittently employed low-pitched roof profiles on numerous homes since the early 1950s. From the 1960s on, many of Metcalf’s houses had a variety of roof profiles, including A-frame profiles that, while normative, were stripped of any historical references, thus maintaining a modern, minimalist appeal.


Joseph Rosa
UMMA Director

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

Three Michigan Architects: Part 2–Metcalf is the second in a series of three consecutive exhibitions, with subsequent presentation of domestic work by George Brigham (July 19–October 12, 2014). Part 1 of the series presented the work of David Osler (December 21, 2013–March 30, 2014). 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–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 image from the top: Robert C. Metcalf, Architect, Botch Residence color rendering, Ann Arbor, MI, circa 1957, Courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library Third image from the top: Robert C. Metcalf, Architect, Metcalf Residence, interior (living room), 1952-53, Courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library​

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