Good Eye: Calcutta House

Architects Arlene and Don Matzkin etched the facade with limestone rays emerging from zigzagging lines that suggest ocean waves. (Ben Mikesell/Staff Photographer)

How do you turn the two-dimensional facade of a rowhouse into a three-dimensional work of architecture? If money is no object, you can break up the inherent flatness of the exterior by lavishing it with fine materials and adding bays and interesting openings. But when you're working on a tight budget, you really need to use your wits.

Friday Architects' 1995 design for Calcutta House, which serves people with AIDS, is a good example of how you can take the most prosaic of materials - EIFS stucco - and make it shine. The architects, Arlene and Don Matzkin, enlivened the facade at 16th and Girard Avenue by etching the surface with a large, stylized sunrise. The limestone-colored rays emerge from a trio of zigzagging lines that suggest ocean waves.

In lesser hands, the red-and-cream image - known generically as an "English sunrise" - might have come off as a flat sign that had been arbitrarily pasted onto the front of the building. But the Matzkins, aided by designer Peter Brown, worked the image into the architecture. The rays weave around the second-floor windows and open up to reveal an intriguing third-floor loggia. That covered balcony is contrasted on the ground floor by a deeply recessed porch.

The Matzkins pack a lot of ideas into this low-cost design. Calcutta House was founded by Mother Teresa's Brothers of Charity to offer a ray of hope to people fighting the AIDS virus. The Matzkins' graphic communicates their mission so well Calcutta House incorporated it into its logo. The actual sign with the group's name hangs discreetly below the graphic.

Because the residence was inserted into a block of fine, 19th-century houses on what had been a vacant lot, the architects knew it would be a challenge to make their modern newcomer not look like an interloper.

Though Calcutta House could never match its neighbors' brick and stone details, it cost them nothing to respect the massing and rhythms of the older houses. The recessed porch, in particular, works as tribute to the elegant house two doors west, which features an arched stone portico.

At the same time, Calcutta House's deep porch made it easier to incorporate a switchback ramp into the design. Calcutta House shows that the best way to fit in is to just be yourself.


Just west of the 16th Street corner, Calcutta House is an easy two-block walk from the Girard Avenue stop on the Broad Street subway.