Architect recalls Vt. vernacular

MIDDLEBURY — Architect Turner Brooks grew up visiting the Ferrisburgh home of family friend Clement Hurd, illustrator of the beloved children’s book “Goodnight Moon.” Brooks still references the whimsical illustrations today when describing his own design work.
“There’s an incredible, strong juxtaposition of the intimate and the infinite,” he said during his recent lecture at Middlebury College, pointing during a slide showing to one of Hurd’s drawings of the bunny’s cozy bedroom with the lone window displaying the infinite night sky.
Brooks, the third in the series of Middlebury College’s 2010 Cameron Visiting Architects, has worked to partner the two extremes in a number of the homes and buildings he’s designed in the years since those childhood visits, which he described as nearly magical.
“We’d leave Grand Central on a train late at night, go to sleep, and wake up in the Vermont landscape,” he recalled.
Like Hurd, Brooks went on to study architecture at Yale University. Also like the architect-gone-illustrator, Brooks found inspiration in the Vermont landscape. After graduating from Yale in the ’70s, Brooks returned to Vermont and started his first architecture practice in Starksboro, where he still lives for part of the year.
Brooks worked with a group of local carpenters on a number of design/build projects in the ’80s, including the Peek House on Monkton Pond. The 1,600-square-foot home features the curved walls and narrow-to-expansive spaces that Brooks loves to design.
As a young architect, Brooks found inspiration in the “clunky, vernacular” homes, shacks and trailers that sprinkle the Vermont countryside. He preferred the fishing shanties and sugarhouses — shapes that he calls “anthropomorphic” — to the modern skyscrapers “that looked like renderings” that he worked on before relocating to Starksboro.
“Why the trailers? They are not great, special things to live in, but they looked like vehicles that were moving across the landscape,” Brooks said. “And to me, that makes sense in this landscape that is essentially an agricultural landscape.”
Brooks has designed more than 20 homes in Vermont, 13 of which are located in Addison County. Most of these homes are small, ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet, including the Chaffin house, a house in New Haven that was built on giant sled runners and towed by the owner’s tractor to different parcels of land.
“It’s an appropriate thing for Vermont that you are in a cozy and contained space,” he said. “At least, that’s what I thought.”
In the mid-’80s, Brooks moved back to New Haven, Conn., to work as a professor of architecture at Yale, a position he still holds. Since his time in Vermont, he has worked on a number of high-profile projects, including the design of an institute for high-functioning autistic children in upstate New York and part of the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale.
For the medical library, Brooks was hired to create a space to display the 600 jarred brains collected by Dr. Cushing, an innovative brain surgeon in the early part of the 20th century. The design that Brooks came up with revolved around the notion of what he calls a “canyon of brains.”
“When you leave it, you have to wonder whether they all start conversing with each other or not,” he said of the brains, floating in amber liquid, that line the walls of the small, underground chamber that was completed earlier this year.
Brooks told those in the crowded college classroom that he hopes to continue working in the museum and archive realm, though he never wants to lose touch with his first love — home design.
“I love doing houses,” he said. “I never want to stop.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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