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Verge House

Out of conversations with the clients a few ideas have grown. These concepts direct the formal, spatial, and functional expression of the client’s brief which calls for three en-suite bedrooms, a detached en-suite guest house, an office, a living and dining area, a large kitchen with back kitchen, two pools, a spa, and a rooftop garden. While privacy is paramount spaces must be visually and experientially fluid. And functional—no purely scenographic elements.

The first concept the client calls indoor/outdoor confusion. There is nothing new to the idea of indoor-outdoor space, architects have been blurring the line between inside and outside for decades. We want to blur this threshold too but we also want more. First of all, a threshold is more than just a sill or line, it is a verge beyond which an effect is produced; when we say we are “standing at the threshold” we mean we are on the verge of something that is about to change. We shift and expand this verge, this psycho-spatial edge, via a number of architectural tactics, some common like the retractable glass walls and zealous continuity of materials from inside to out, and some uncommon like the paroxysm of glass, gravel, plant, and cantilevered hanging wall about the living area where the landscape interrupts the house and vice-versa. But these moves are just beginnings, greater confusion waits upstairs.

The second concept is that of the sleeper. By definition a sleeper is either an element on or near the ground that supports a superstructure or it is something unnoticed that suddenly attains prominence or value. Occasionally it is both.

The first definition of the sleeper we see most clearly in the articulation of the massing: as an element the second floor volume neatly stacks on the first, an arrangement reinforced by color.

The second definition takes shape in the first instance as a response to site constraints. The project faces a semi-busy street so we’ve developed an inwardly focused courtyard plan. The house effectively turns it’s back to the street, a move reflected in the comparatively subdued front facade. Despite its restraint a view from the street reveals clues that there is more to the house than meets the eye, like in the way the water of the lap pool reflects light on the wall, in the shadow-casting elaborations of the overhangs, and in the general muscularity of the massing. Approach the front door and inhibition starts to give way; move through the house and into the courtyard and the home’s true, expressive spirit is exposed in an explosion of space, material, and, we hope, minds.

Confusion’s reign upstairs begins with the question, “what do sleepers do?” Our answer is they dream. Hence the second floor is more than a superstructure, it’s a dreamer, or rather it’s an expression of a dream-like logic guiding the transformation of space in which the indoor space of the master suite and office coalesces with the outdoor space of the decks. The nexus of the merge is the tree deck. Here, especially with the doors open, the distinction between “in” and “out” makes much less sense, or to put it another way, the distinction remains but like a boundary recalled upon waking from a dream it resists easy articulation. Dream logic is inspired by the dialectic, for us it’s a way to guide the spatialization of thought. We start with two opposing domains, the indoor master bedroom suite and the outdoor tree deck. Through a series of formal and material manipulations we erase the line of division to create a third domain, the merged indoor/outdoor bedroom/deck. By appending to this merged space a series of ever-more-outdoor outdoor rooms we create a fourth domain, sublated space. In a sublation a theoretical or material construct is both annihilated and intensified through interaction with its opposite.*

Confusion is further conceptualized through the idea of doubling. A doubling maneuver is one in which the architecture is made to both support and intentionally contradict a purported intention, a kind of embodied cognitive dissonance that, in proving and breaking a generative rule, betrays why and how something comes to be. One example of this is the execution of spa deck structure. The stairs climb up the side of the spa deck’s supporting and partially hanging wall and this assembly as a whole serves as the architectural expression of the home’s vertical circulation. In formal terms the piece appears to hover over the first floor. This appearance is deceptive, however, the assembly doesn’t just hover, it nests within the upstairs master suite area while its supporting structural columns pierce the downstairs living area. By subtly penetrating both the first and second floor volumes and partially disrupting the concept of stacking it’s a celebratory perturbation of the first idea of the sleeper, as superstructure over base. Another doubling maneuver is the way in which the charred black Shou Sugi Ban wall of the porch both invites and rejects one’s gaze. It’s an element that is there and not there, a receding blackness/blankness that simultaneously admits and denies entry. In a riff on the idea of doubling we duplicated, or remapped, the first floor to the second floor such that the first floor main area and bedroom ell gets remapped as the 2nd floor master suite ell, the guest house as the upstairs office, the courtyard as the tree deck, the pool as the spa, the front garden as the green roof, and the porch as the spa deck. The movement from roof garden to deck to master suite to lap pool mirrors in reverse the typical suburban movement from front yard to porch to house to swimming pool. This is another instance of the house turning its back to the street.

Speaking of the porch, we wanted the increase in floor area the city’s zoning ordinance permits when a design incorporates a raised porch. We also wanted to introduce a buffer—a physical and psychological transition zone—between public and private and to extend the first floor into the front yard to improve the project’s massing and to better reinforce the concept of the sleeper. But as this is not a quiet street and the idea of socializing in front holds little appeal the function a porch conventionally performs—a place for gathering, for interacting with neighbors and passerby—is largely unwanted. While it is possible to have seating there the porch is not intentionally set up for such use, on the one hand because the floor is repeatedly cut through by illuminated fingers of landscape aligned with windows and doors to create light- and view-slots that penetrate the house, and on the other because the driveway is ramped up in such a way that vehicles drive completely onto the porch on their way into the garage, not something particularly conducive to socializing. There is also no door other than the garage’s opening onto the area. In the end instead of a true porch we create what in the art world might be called an earthwork, a porch-like site-specific artwork the function and expression of which driven by concept rather than use.

We also like the idea of “house as jewel box.” This is another common architectural trope, one that typically results in the house being rendered as a jewel, as a glittering, glassy object. We aren’t opposed to this interpretation per se but as before it is insufficient. To begin with, a jewel box is just that, a box, the jewels are the things inside. In our case the jewel is the shimmering pool. In plan we can see that schematically the guest room and first floor bedroom wings unfold to create a courtyard, conceptually opening what was a closed box to expose the pool; with the walls of glass doors retracted and out of sight what glitters is the water. With the glass doors in place and on display, however, the house glitters too. Thus another doubling maneuver, the house is both a box and a jewel. One more thing: most beautiful jewel boxes have inlays so we inset rich ruddy-brown Jatoba (a sustainable, FSC-certified hardwood) into the white plaster ceiling and stone deck surfaces. We also inlaid the gray stucco of the porch ceiling and walls with a wrap-around white stucco shell. Excisions cut to align with openings in the Shou Sugi Ban wall perforate the porch and shell, improving daylighting while better revealing the shell’s inlaid nature.

* The interior spaces of the master bedroom, bathroom and office wrap around and, through continuity of surface and material, merge with the outdoor space of the tree deck to create an amalgamate indoor/outdoor space. This is the first synthesis. To the side of the tree deck we append an even more outdoor space, the spa deck. We do this because the tree deck feels more indoors-like with the spa deck directly adjacent to it. Through another subversive manipulation of boundaries these three spaces (i.e., the master suite, the tree deck and the spa deck) dissolve into a second synthesis which annihilates or intensifies the initial synthesis depending upon which spaces are perceived as opposing—i.e., is the border perceived to be between A1) the spa deck and B1) the master suite/tree deck or between A2) the master suite and B2) the tree deck/spa deck? To this second fluidic synthesis we append the even more outdoor space of the roof garden initiating a third synthesis, annihilation, and intensification process. Like a threshold that both joins and separates the deck(s) behave(s) simultaneously as boundary and union. The creation of sublated space we conceptualize precisely in this way, as erasing, shifting, and enlarging the perceived line between the domains until the verge becomes inhabitable.

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