News
10.07.2009
Home Range
Freely adapting from the languages of vernacular, art, and modernism, three new houses achieve a contemporary sophistication, where visual stimulation and creature comforts both settle in with ease. Alexandra Lange pays a visit.
OBRA Architects' Centrifugal House features a shade pavilion made entirely of cedar garden lattice.
Courtesy OBRA Architects

Context is not always fixed, and not always what you expect. A West Village carriage house that’s had the same view since the Civil War may get ultra-2009 neighbors in the space of a year. Shelter Island, often thought of as an enclave of traditional architecture, has waterfront streets where some houses were built in 1970, not 1870. And the Hamptons? Shingle Style is open to a wealth of interpretations. 

These three houses, all completed within the last year, and all by up-and-coming New York City partnerships, treat their respective contexts with respect but preserve a questing spirit. There’s no blank-slate modernism—Christoff:Finio hoped to save the historic back facade of the burnt-out carriage house before adjacent construction did it in—but also no maintaining-property-values historicism. None of the architects want to admit a regard for the vernacular, but it creeps through in more abstract ways. There’s a utilitarian aspect to the carriage house befitting its historic supporting role. Both East End manses have the square footage and wood siding of the typical spec house. But their plans twist and turn to make the most of their physical context, the landscape. 

“They told us, ‘We want you to work in the vernacular language of houses in Southampton, the Shingle Style, maybe Shaker architecture,’” Pablo Castro of OBRA Architects said of his Centrifugal House clients: an investment banker and a film editor. “It was an uncomfortable moment for us. We’re always trying to run away from the idea of style.” The architects were given a program that kept growing and a budget that was static. While the clients had started small, they soon realized that for resale, the house had to maximize the potential of its five-acre lot. They ended up with seven bedrooms, a four-car garage, and 8,000 total square feet. 


TOP: Board and batten siding plus gables respond to the client’s demand for a sense of the vernacular, but their articulation is sleekly modern. ABOVE: A porch carved out of the facade is angled toward views of a neighboring agricultural reserve. below: Highly composed shafts of light add richness to THE interior.
 

COURTESY OBRA ARCHITECTS

 
 

Castro and partner Jennifer Lee turned to an early idea they had for the site, “the excluded middle,” a court between house and guesthouse that would channel views toward a neighboring agricultural reserve. They mashed this up with the narrow gabled communal houses of the Shakers and the oversize shingles of a Robert A.M. Stern, cranking the bar into the shape of “a donut somebody had taken a bite out of,” said Castro. “We still liked the idea of a vacant place where anything can happen. The house surrounds a void and spins out”—the centrifugal force—”toward the view.” 

The clients liked everything but the curve, so the donut became faceted, with oversize dormers breaking the difficult geometries of the roof (and, to my eye, referring to the “vernacular” of the Venturis). Because of the budget, interiors had to be kept simple, but you catch a glimpse of the Shaker in the play of light on the white walls of the long, turning hall upstairs. The odd angles and extra planes created by the insertion of the dormers increase the possibilities for such effects, and the corridor, which hides the next door or window around each turn, is full of surprises rather than a long march. The house also has three custom soapstone fireplaces, hearths that add another geometry and focus to rooms that stray from the rectilinear. 

Outside, OBRA Architects returned to shingles in search of a single material for roof and cladding (copper was their dream, but too expensive). “We wanted one material, one surface to give it integrity as an object,” Castro said. They ultimately chose cedar, board, and batten for the vertical walls, and shingles for the roof. Cedar was also used for the pool house, a double set of right-angle barn-like buildings, one solid, one roofed and sided in off-the-shelf garden lattice. Castro jokes that it is a “freckle machine,” but it’s also another twist on the requested traditional Hamptons architecture. 

While suburban style has become fairly common on Shelter Island, you can tell from the street that the one thing the YN-13 House is not is a cookie-cutter, shingles-on-steroids McMansion. If that’s context, Michael Morris and Yoshiko Sato of Morris Sato Studio want nothing to do with it. The houses across the street from their two-acre Shelter Island site are the ambitious architecture of an earlier era—Norman Jaffe’s 1972 three-house development, in which one is Corbusian, one Wrightian, and one has the over-scaled shingle roof that came to be Jaffe’s own calling card. “That’s the one we like the best,” Morris said. For their own site, on which they are constructing two 6,000-square-foot spec houses, “we decided to make contemporary forms of our choosing, and to have them fuse into the local ecology by being part of that fabric.” 


Above: The bleached cedar siding of morris sato studio's YN-13 house “fuses into the local ecology,” which includes a 1972 house by Norman Jaffe, while deep cuts bring light and breezes into the interior.
Courtesy morris sato studio

Boulders unearthed on the site will become retaining walls, and the windows that pop and pock the bleached cedar siding are oriented toward particular points of view and times of day. “In the center, we have a large cut in the volume, so what would be the darkest part of the house has direct sunlight coming in,” Sato explained. The four corners of the main floor all have doors that slide open (an oblique reference to Japanese shoji screens), allowing the landscape in and natural convection to cool the house. “That is a reference to vernacular buildings. There are systems that are useful to understand from the past, rather than stylistic ideas,” Morris said. The floors, made of Kota Brown limestone, will also retain and radiate heat, with their cleft surface suggesting a rougher natural terrain and a certain 1970s au naturel aesthetic. 




top and above: Windows pop and all four corners of the house have doors that slide open like Japanese shoji screens.
courtesy morris sato studio

 
 

Like the sliding doors, the vernacular Morris and Sato reference is Japanese. The exterior siding is an adaptation of the shitami-bari used on traditional urban houses in Kyoto and Kanazawa, which Sato translates as “downward-facing boards.” The horizontal cladding combines with vertical strips, allowing Morris and Sato to integrate the module on the house’s facade with that of the standing seams on the turncoat stainless steel roof. Rather than looking like a gable, the pitched roof folds down into the house on some sides, creating the illusion of Cubist-inspired flattening. YN-13’s closest neighbor will be their so-called Soula House, which serves as a gateway in the way they have developed the land, bringing the houses closer together and leaving the rest of the site untouched. “There’s a critique of individual houses centered on one-acre lots,” Morris said. “We imagine the site as a proto-urban thing, the buildings working together.” 

Christoff:Finio’s carriage house is another exemplary object within its landscape, though a minimum urban dwelling with a footprint of 20 feet by 20 feet and two floors. The architects even shaved a little more off that miniscule square footage to create an “urban garage,” a sliver of space behind a screen of flat steel ribs, each twisted 90 degrees, to provide a useful landing strip for bikes, bags, and garbage, and also a zone of privacy for a front door that originally opened directly onto Charles Lane.

The carriage house is owned by photographer Jan Staller, who lives and works in an 1860 townhouse on Charles Street that now neighbors Richard Meier’s third glassy residential tower and Asymptote’s first. Christoff:Finio had designed a penthouse and terrace for Staller to preserve his view once the Meier building was underway, so when the carriage house was gutted by fire, Staller asked them to build a two-bedroom rental unit between the existing party walls. As he now had a terrace, he no longer needed the 12-foot sliver of backyard, which was turned into part of the architects’ brief for the rental. 


TOP: The street-level glass wall of christoff:finio's carriage house is protected by a screen of twisted steel ribs, with a niche for bike storage. ABOVE: The rear facade is clad in eight-foot-long slate shingles. below: a wall-mounted kitchen extends outdoors into a sliver of backyard.
 
jan staller
 
 
 

“What was fun for us was designing this tiny little house, but making it feel bigger,” said Martin Finio. “We took the terrazzo-ground concrete on the first floor and extended it out into the yard.” The wall-mounted kitchen also runs seamlessly from indoors to out, with teak cabinets and stainless-steel countertops. The windows are big, but for the sake of privacy (as much for landlord as for tenants), they start at the floor and extend up only four feet. The back wall is covered in unusually long slate shingles (more typically used for roofing), three feet by eight feet, which turn into operable louvers for the upstairs bedroom windows. The wall is really only visible from Staller’s townhouse, and Christoff:Finio wanted to give him something interesting to look at, as well as refer to the clapboard siding more typical on a small house. “When you get direct sun on it, the cleft edge picks up light like a line drawing,” Finio said. Since it was to be a rental, the interiors are sturdily generic: white walls, white bathroom, gray tile. 

“What’s the vernacular of New York City?” Finio asked. “It’s always frothing and rebuilding. When we started building this project, we had this large glass opening on the front facade at the second level looking out at a brick warehouse. That came down, and Asymptote’s glass started up.” In other words, neighborhoods can change, tastes can change, and so can architectural context. Curtains are forever.

Alexandra Lange

Alexandra Lange is a journalist, architecture historian, and teacher based in Brooklyn.