News
10.31.2007
Dialogue: Homing Instincts
In a house that accommodates its landscape, where living is about meeting rather than retreating, the architects of UNStudio bring their unorthodox modern language to a country house in upstate New York. Ben van Berkel talks to AN about designing the Villa NM.
The Villa NM connects to the landscape at multiple levels.
christian richters

AN: The Villa NM seems to be the embodiment of a house that “integrates program, circulation and structure seamlessly,” which are the words you used to describe your Mobius House in 1998. Do you think of the endless loop as somehow integral to the way families live today?

Ben Van Berkel: Both the Mobius House and Villa NM have a circular organization, where spaces appear to be non-ending. Both also have a dominant exterior that plays a large part in defining their interiors.

Villa NM, however, is much more accommodating to, and is accommodated by, its surrounding landscape. On the one hand, it reflects this in the mirrored window treatment, and on the other, it molds itself onto the site, both visually and physically. The house follows the landscape and you have a kind of hill within the building.

Furthermore, the transformative aspect of different geometries creates a space with a somewhat indefinable infrastructure. Living, working, and sleeping spaces are all combined in one twisted structure. This twist, which forms the central stair area, is seen as the meeting place in the middle of the house; the area where structurally all the spaces meet and people cross paths.

You say the house is a box with a blob moment in the middle. Did you design the house in plan or elevation? And what role did the site play in this decision to split the box?

Integrating the villa fully into its surroundings was a challenging aspect of this project. The house is designed in such a way that it does not dominate its environs, but rather fits seamlessly into its context. The curves in the form follow the sloping landscape, whilst the color of the exterior is based on the surrounding earth. Windows mirror the environment, providing privacy but not limiting views. This means that at times the house can almost disappear into the landscape, then re-emerge from a different viewpoint. Also, through the use of large window elements, and differing levels, the experience inside the villa is one of truly living within this landscape.

The house really describes how we think about the non-expressive, geometric references you can give to architecture that go beyond the more static and sober box. In contrast, this building is transformative, moving from orthogonal to the twist to the split, and constantly reconfiguring itself. Hopefully, it creates a landmark for us, one moving us towards liberation from static stylistic references.

So tell me how did the blob moment in the middle of the house developed? You have spoken about a “kaleidoscopic” effect and a desire to “fuse the spaces of different durational uses.” What does that mean?

The villa was not designed on modernist geometric principles. We wanted to have a house that was open in its structure but not in the modernist sense of being so open that there is no place to hide.

It works in a serial way. Much the same as serial music or serial painting, it creates a sense of calm. Then there is a kind of resonant repetition that is also found in the surrounding landscape, which can make being in the house an almost meditative experience. The design is not just about geometry or formal technique though, the architecture also creates an experience for the occupants.

It’s all about diagonality instead of the classical modernist notion of a horizontal or vertical relationship. It’s not like one of the those modernist houses, say, the Farnsworth House, that also lives in the landscape but maybe had too ambitious an idea of being a totally modern, clean, healthy, transparent way of living. After a while, people didn’t appreciate those qualities so much.

Clearly the client for the villa was more of a patron than a standard client so what role, if any, did he play in the designing of Villa NM?

The client wanted a house that would belong to the site and reflect the nature of this landscape, both in its design and in the experience of living there. He wanted the villa to be open, to allow for the family to truly live together with each other and with the surrounding countryside.

He felt the different levels of the interior with their open views onto each other reflected the hilly landscape surrounding the site. He was also interested in how the diagonal connections and the openness of the interior space would afford the family a continuous overview as well as provide spaces in which they would be living together.

What was it like for you to work with American builders? Were they comfortable with the idea of the continuous loop and the walls becoming the floor and vice versa. What particular challenges did construction present?

Initially we thought about designing the house in concrete but we tested the local builders on the idea and discovered that it’s not so easy to build a house like this in concrete in America. So we used a combination of steel, wood, and concrete at the same time. For instance, the twist is made of a steel structure inside, finished off in wooden panels, and then plastered so it’s not really massive concrete. It’s interesting how it works: there are equal lengths of steel frame twisted around a beam that literally turn, as if around the points of a clock, a half a quarter at a time. The main frames of the house are also steel filled in with wood.

Charles Jencks recently called this an American house. What do you say to that?

I don’t think that is really accurate, whatever it means. It is a new type of space with a different organizing principle.

In photographs, it really almost disappears at certain times: a house that is almost art. Of course, I am not pretending to make art of architecture. But it is flirting with art.