Leo Saul Berk's Structure and Ornament: Precisionism. Courtesy of the artist / photo by Mark Woods

The Berk family moved to Aurora, Illinois, in the winter of 1980. It was 10 degrees and the only heating in the house was under the floor, so that's where the family slept, camped out in the living room. Six-year-old Leo Saul Berk went to sleep with one idea of what a house was and woke up with another. Now it's 35 years later, and Berk is a Seattle artist, and he says the house is what made him into one. He has a new body of work about that time, a memoir in sculpture on display at the Frye Art Museum.

The house was built for fantasy, with parts borrowed from World War II Quonset huts and B-17 bombers and walls made of black coal and discarded gobs of industrial green glass. Its shape was a mushroomy dome hunched on the ground like a cover waiting to be lifted to reveal a platter of amazing. The Berks moved in and set down a Hills Bros. coffee can to catch the water that leaked continuously from the roof.

In architectural circles, it's called the Ford House. Flamboyant architect Bruce Goff designed it in 1948 for flamboyant artist Ruth Ford, who lived there and, after a time, hung a sign out front that said, "We don't like your house either."

She and her husband left in the 1960s, and the house changed hands a few times. By the time Berk's parents happened to drive by in 1980, the house was languishing in foreclosure. Their real-estate agent warned them it was impractical. Anybody could see that.

Berk's art is, in many ways, very much unlike the house. Put it on your street and you will not need a "we don't like your art either" sign. Berk is the public artist whose work was selected for the University of Washington light-rail station now under construction. For the last 15 years, he's shown smooth, highly controlled, expensively finished art at high-profile local institutions. (The 2010 Arts Innovator Award for $25,000 helped fund this body of work.)

Berk is not the first artist to respond to the Ford House. In 2008, Stephen Prina made a 35 mm film consisting of five smooth tracking shots around the circular interior of the house, accompanied by original music composed by the architect. (In addition to designing unusual buildings, Goff also composed for an unusual instrument, the player piano.)

Berk made a somewhat similar video—a camera facing upward makes a single rotation around the central dome of the house's roof—that manages to leave out all the weirdness, and the fascination. Instead of Goff's player-piano compositions, Berk gives us Bach, played on the house's grand piano. Apparently, the instrument is painted orange, but we never get to see it.

In helpfully intimate wall labels, the artist writes in the first person about how fragile and delicate the art actually is. He says his large wood-and-resin sculpture based on the red Quonset hut ribs of the house's dome is barely balanced and could fall over. I never would have guessed just by looking at it. The sculpture is commanding and sharp, a monument to the precision and predictability made possible by bringing 21st-century computer design and cutting technology to Goff's surprising and imperfect original.

The first sculpture you see is based on Goff's early plan for his domed roof. It called for a pattern so complex that the hand builder couldn't make it. But using computer technology, Berk made a mini-neo-dome. It hangs on the wall of the museum. The open center of the house's dome roof is a skylight. In the sculpture, the open center is white wall. It's deflating to see wall where sky should be. Goff has been museumized.

The Frye underemphasizes the multisensory pieces that are the heart of Berk's emotional revisitation of his childhood home. (I'm not sure what an earlier exhibition last summer at Milwaukee's INOVA was like.) One video captures an accident of perception. When he went back to the house as an adult, he drew a bath in his old bathtub, which is black, walking away while the bath filled and returning to find the water speckled with calcium deposits. Gross, he thought at first. But standing above the faucet, he caught a view that made the calcium look like stars in the black water, swirling above a globe of gleaming white (the skylight reflecting from above). Berk switched on the camera.

He let the mesmerizing calcium cosmos hover in the frame for a few minutes. Then he reached his hand into the water and pulled out the plug, the everyday human world breaking the spell, underscored by the tragicomic sound of the gurgling water going down. But after he removed his hand, the smooth skylike surface of the water was restored, and the draining water shimmied like a tornado. I felt a new spell cast over me as I was watching. I'll be damned, I thought, if this isn't a magical house with the power to make a hand reach right into the sky. (Now if I could only switch off the Bach. More gurgle, less Bach.)

By 1980 when the Berks arrived, the copper chimney of the house was aged and dulled. To re-create its pristine, Edenic appearance, based on a Life magazine photo of the house in 1950, Berk built a towering, gleaming metal cone that sits beneath a stark spotlight. The effect is chilling, not warming.

A different artwork captures the warmth of the house that Berk repeatedly describes, and which he feels toward this place he clearly loves: a handwoven rug, made by Nepalese weavers based on a thermal image Berk took of the radiant floor where his family once huddled. The heating coils are glowing ghosts in fiery colors against a black background. The hot soul of the house is in full flare.

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Goff's house has no openable windows and few (if any) straight lines. The outside world is drawn in through expansive skylights and the translucent chunks of green discarded glass embedded in the exterior walls. All the naked materials must bring on a drug-like effect. Certain walls are made of coiled marine rope, which for durability is treated with pine tar. Berk makes a sculpture from the rope, and the art emits a great pungency. The spirit of an organic designer like Goff should go up your nose, and in your ears. It shouldn't be limited to looking.

Architectural history has come around to Goff's side. His designs anticipated green building and leave evidence of the alternative modernity-not-taken. The Ford House is now enshrined and preserved, and that's a good thing. But Goff didn't mean it as a shrine, which Berk only sometimes gets across. Goff meant his house as a living place and a place to live. Berk had the rare privilege of seeing its splendor and decrepitude up close, and his best works shiver and emanate, rise up to the stars, and spiral down the drain, giving off that double whiff of grandeur and compost. recommended

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