This Couple’s Milwaukee Home Lets Them Live Separately. They Couldn’t Be Happier. - Kanebridge News
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This Couple’s Milwaukee Home Lets Them Live Separately. They Couldn’t Be Happier.

Jason Kuwayama and Leah Busse share a bedroom but enjoy their own space inside the modern property on the city’s Lower East Side

Sat, Dec 23, 2023 7:30amGrey Clock 5 min

Jason Kuwayama hardly ever goes to the front section of the new house he built in downtown Milwaukee’s Lower East Side. That is where his girlfriend, Leah Busse, plays “Call of Duty” in her designated game room—a space filled with her collectibles and art.

Instead, Kuwayama, an attorney, enters through the back of the house and spends most of his time in the main living area, an open, light-filled space with no clutter.

The two sections of the house are separated by a long hallway and an outdoor courtyard.

It is a similar scenario upstairs, in the primary suite: The two share a bedroom, but Kuwayama’s pristine bathroom is down a long hallway, and separated by the laundry room, from Busse’s, which is usually filled with clothes.

This arrangement suits them both well.

“My style is reductionist. I am a bit fastidious,” says Kuwayama, 43, who spent around $1.9 million building the house over 3½ years, finishing in 2021.

“I am a mess monster,” says Busse, 38, who works for a home-building company. “Jason wanted me to have my own space that he didn’t have to see.”

The separation between the front of the house and the back was part of a larger scheme for the house, designed by Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling of Milwaukee-based Johnsen Schmaling Architects to help create privacy in a demographically dense location.

Kuwayama bought the long, narrow—24-foot-wide—infill lot for $35,000 from Milwaukee’s Department of City Development. It sits tightly between two other houses and the setback is right up to the edge of the sidewalk, a requirement of the city aimed at preserving the neighbourhood’s character. Most of the other homes on the street are traditional, two-level structures with pitched roofs built as affordable housing a century ago—and most have the drapes drawn on their front windows to block prying eyes.

Jason Kuwayama and Leah Busse outside their home.

To allow the same privacy as those drapes but still let in light, Johnsen Schmaling came up with an exterior facade that acts as an abstract curtain, with slanted fins made from a hybrid of wood and aluminium. The tightly spaced vertical louvers are installed at gradually rotating angles with various degrees of openness, in part to imitate the movement of curtains and to respond to whether there’s glass or solid wall behind it.

“It creates a sense of mystery,” says Brian Johnsen, whose firm dubbed it Curtain House. The fins also act as a sun-shading device to protect the home from overheating in the summer.

A courtyard, bracketed between the front two-story section and the back two-story section, acts both as a buffer and a source of light, since it is open to the sky. Light comes into the house through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that line the hallway along one side and the rooms (the kitchen one side, Busse’s game room on the other) on each end.

The main living area is open from the courtyard to the big windows and balcony that look over the river in back, also allowing in flood of light. The kitchen has a white island with an induction range and cabinets without hardware that open with a push, adding to the streamlined effect. The pantry is in back of the kitchen, also behind hardware-less doors.

The staircase, which leads both downstairs to the garage entry and a mud room and a cigar room and upstairs to the primary bedroom, has transparent glass panels supporting the tread on the ascending part, making the main floor feel wider and allowing a view of the river. The furniture is modern and sparse: a sea green Room & Board sofa, a glass Noguchi coffee table and a Barcelona chair.

Outside, the terrace is covered in fine grained rock and has a stairway with three platforms that leads down to the river. It has a pastoral feel, with trees and bushes fringing the property.

Kuwayama’s urban, modern, minimalist, open-plan, colour-free aesthetic is partly a revolt against his childhood home, a French chateau-style house in the Brookfield suburb of Milwaukee. His mother liked wallpaper and carpeting. His father leaned toward teak and Midcentury Modern art. The result was a compromise, with lots of small, separate rooms and bathrooms with their own colour (one avocado green, one brown and one pink).

Busse’s taste veers more toward traditional: an old manor with big wood banisters filled with knickknacks, she says. But she says she wasn’t interested in the design of the house because it was Kuwayama’s project from the start. Working for a home builder, she didn’t want to think about house plans when she was at home—and she wanted to move to a house with a big yard in the suburbs, she says.

Living in inner Milwaukee was also a form of rebellion for Kuwayama. He says when he was a teenager, growing up in the suburbs, it was implicit that he wasn’t to go downtown. After studying undergrad at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., he attended Marquette University Law School, right in downtown Milwaukee, and stayed there after he graduated, eventually buying a condo along the north side of the river, about a half mile from his new house.

The couple met in 2014 on $2 taco night at a local restaurant called BelAir Cantina, when Kuwayama and his friend bought drinks and food for Busse and her friend. Busse promised to meet him at the same place the following week, but never showed. A few weeks later, she saw him at a Starbucks. (Locals call the city “Smallwaukee” because running into people you know is so common). Kuwayama retaliatorily ignored her, but she tracked him down and asked him out.

Busse, along with her dog and cat, moved into Kuwayama’s 1,150-square-foot condo in 2016. They liked living together but the space was too small, says Kuwayama. “You could never get away from anybody. You couldn’t separate at all,” he says. He saw the lot for sale and negotiated the price down from $140,000 to $35,000, in part because the land was so difficult to build on, he says. Kuwayama says the city was supportive of his project, allowing variances, because it wants the neighbourhood to remain single family homes.

Milwaukee has been going through a process of urban revitalisation for decades. Once a centre of manufacturing, attracting immigrants from across the world, Milwaukee’s population hit a peak of 741,324 in 1960, making it the 11th-largest city in the country and a centre of brewing beer. The city was immortalised in the TV show “Laverne & Shirley,” about roommates who worked at a brewery there.

Like many Midwestern cities, Milwaukee was hit hard by the recession in the 1970s and 1980s, while at the same time many of the more affluent residents moved to the suburbs. Over a 30 year period, from 1970 to 2000, due to the relocation of industry and competition from emerging markets overseas, manufacturing employment plummeted by more than 77,000 jobs, and accounting for nearly 95% of all job loss in Milwaukee since 2000, according to the City of Milwaukee. The latest census puts the city’s population at 577,000.

In the 1990s, the city implemented its Riverwalk initiative, a 3-mile pedestrian path that goes along the Milwaukee River, connecting downtown to the Third Ward. The city estimates property values around the path have grown by $1.5 billion since 1993 and moves are under way to expand it.

Architecturally, the city hasn’t evolved as quickly. Polish Flat and German Duplex structures—two-family homes with one unit stacked on top of the other—still dominate the street where Kuwayama built his house. Homes in the area have been increasing in value, up around 25% over the past year as of October 2023, according to Redfin. A few blocks away, a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,160-square-foot, 19th century house that was remodeled sold for $254,000 in September 2023, while a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,662-square-foot unit in a newly renovated condo building with a courtyard sold for $612,000 in July 2023.

Kuwayama says the reaction from people walking by his house (captured on security cameras) is mixed: Some love it, others are put off by the fins on the facade. One guy routinely takes dates through their back deck to their platforms overlooking the river. But he doesn’t mind. “I’m committed to the city of Milwaukee,” says Kuwayama. “Being accessible to the community is part of that.”


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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”