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Terry Brown, Mushroom House Architect, Dies at 53

August 11, 2008

By Jayne Merkel

Terry Brown
Photo © Liz Scheurer
Terry Brown in 1998 at Eden Park in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Terry Brown, an architect with a unique vision and craft-based practice, was killed in a highway accident on June 28 in Rosebud, Texas. He taught at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and practiced from the 3 Horses Ranch near Rosebud, where he had lived and raised Texas longhorns since 2005. He also maintained a practice in Cincinnati, where he resided for more than two decades. He was 53 years old.

Brown earned a B.Arch. from Iowa State University in 1977 and an M.Arch. from Washington University, St. Louis, in 1979. Upon graduating he began a design internship with Aldo Rossi at Peter Eisenman’s Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in Manhattan. He launched his architectural career at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, where he worked for two years before taking a job at Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown in Philadelphia.

He moved to Cincinnati in 1983 to teach at the University of Cincinnati. Later he also taught at Miami University, in nearby Oxford, Ohio. In 1984, he founded a practice with Paul Muller, and then started his own firm, Terry Brown Architects. At first, Brown practiced a rather personal kind of contextual post-modernism. But after a Fulbright Fellowship at the Vienna Academy of Fine Art, in Austria—where, with Professor Otto Graf, he analyzed conceptual pattern relationships between the Viennese Secession movement and the American Prairie School—Brown began to develop a language of his own, drawing on his Midwestern roots.

Mushroom House

Photo © Corson Hirschfeld

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He started using a variety of materials—wood, colored glass, shell, ceramics, and various metals—and crafting them into irregular shapes reminiscent of those in nature. His structures provide a variety of unusual, sensuous experiences in color, shape, sound, volume, enclosure, and texture. Brown designed a bookstore for the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in 1989 (before it moved into Zaha Hadid’s building in 2003), in addition to offices and numerous residences. His own home and studio, the Mushroom House (sometimes called the Tree House) in Cincinnati, built gradually between 1992 and 2006, is the best known, and has been widely published.

People often commented that his work was like nothing they had ever seen. His projects were controversial, but he was respected by critics and revered by students. “Terry believed it was an architect’s responsibility to invent solutions for clients that they didn't know were possible, to transform their ideas of what a house could be. Somehow, he made it seem simple to embody the movement of music and nature within a built environment,” explains architect Leslie Clark, who studied with and later worked for Brown. 

His work was exhibited at the National Building Museum, Contemporary Arts Center, and Architectural League of New York, among other venues. It also was featured in books and periodicals worldwide, including RECORD (“Terra Cotta: Past to Present,” page 110, January 1987, and “Record Interiors: The Contemporary Arts Center Bookstore,” page 94, Mid-September 1989).

Brown is survived by his wife of 31 years, Jean Kimball Brown; his parents, Walter and Rosie Burdick Brown; and two brothers, Scott and Gary Brown.

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