Michele Haskell / Courtesy Times Herald-Record
It had been called this generation’s Glass House, a modern marvel of materials, machinery, and magic. But less than a year after its completion, the Villa NM lays shattered in the Catskills, destroyed by a fire on February 5. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Sullivan County Fire Coordinator Richard Martinkovic, who oversaw the rescue effort, said he expects to know more within a week or two.
The house, which sits on a small rise in Sullivan County about 115 miles northeast of New York City, enjoyed expansive views of the verdant, hilly landscape, which the architect Ben van Berkel of UNStudio in Amsterdam embraced in his design. In October, he told AN how this approach influenced the design:
|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.|
Martinkovic said that a number of issues conspired against the house on the night of the fire, beginning with the fact that it was not reported until it was “a glow in the sky.” “It’s not very busy out there,” Martinkovic explained. “It wasn’t like someone smelled some smoke in the house and called us. It’s what we would call a ‘full-working fire.’” The Times Herald-Record, the local newspaper that first reported the blaze, described it as “a roaring, smoky fire with blue and orange flames.”
Martinkovic said other problems confronting first responders were an ice storm that night, which made the house harder to access, and its construction materials, which made it more susceptible to fire. “There wasn’t a lot left for the fire department to save,” he said. Contacted by AN, the owner declined to comment.
As the first U.S. project for UNStudio, the house has received lavish attention in the architectural press, and beyond. Aaron Betsky, director of Cincinnati Art Museum who has also written extensively about the firm, called the loss of the Villa NM a tragedy.
“It was especially innovative in the way it traced the cycles of daily life as it looped through space, like a domesticated version of the turbine twist at their Mercedes Benz headquarters,” Betsky said fondly. “It’s very sad and responded so well to the site like Frank Lloyd Wright crowning the brow of the hill but twisting to take in even more.”