February 1, 2012
Living on the Edge
Peter Bohlin has crafted a landscape-hugging house on the border of a picture-perfect nature preserve in Connecticut.
If you plan to reach the Edge House, you would do well to travel in a vehicle with four-wheel drive, especially if you intend to visit in the rain or during winter. Sturdy shoes are also recommended. One approaches this house, set deep in the Connecticut woods, along a winding dirt road that plunges up and down before depositing you not on a paved driveway, but in a small clearing in the woods. On a rise before you will be the house, a curving band of shadow set against a forested hillside. To get to it, you must climb a bit further up, along a grassy access path that is marked by fieldstones only once you’re steps from the door—and even then they’re laid sparsely.
When you finally arrive, you will find a crescent-shaped bar that arcs gently around an open meadow, its far end projecting over an escarpment and out toward a view of the Housatonic Valley (the titular “edge”). The scene is dramatic, but the house is emphatically modest: its single story is faced in inexpensive cedar, and it is set behind an overhang so deep that the front facade has practically no formal elevation to speak of. The building asks you to look not at itself, but at its surroundings.
The house seems especially at home in the Yankee woods—and the same can be said of its architect, Peter Bohlin. Though he was born in the Bronx and retains some trace of that borough’s distinctive accent, he spent his childhood summers in western Connecticut, and in his adolescence, his family moved to this picturesque area of covered bridges. “We lived right next to a stream that fell down a mountainside, with pools and waterfalls,” he says. “I used to fly-fish twice a week. I’m sure that had a great effect on my life.”
Those who cast for trout, and hope to excel at it, must develop a special sensitivity to the subtleties of the natural world—the play of a shadow, the ripple of a surface—that might somehow indicate the presence of their target. That attention to environmental detail is manifested by Bohlin’s architecture, and one can see it realized in a diagram of the Edge House that makes plain the derivation of its curved form: the house mirrors the track of the sun precisely, as if it were some kind of astronomical station. The rear, which is nearly windowless, faces a rocky, wooded incline. “It’s putting your shoulder against the winds of the north; it’s opening to the sun,” he says. “It seemed like a very natural and powerful thing to do.”
One might not expect a design so driven by the natural landscape from Bohlin, a recent winner of the American Institute of Architects’ gold medal who is surely best known, with his firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ), as the architect of Apple’s technically pristine glass-box retail environments. But Bohlin, who practices in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, well beyond the hot glare of the media spotlight, is a decidedly self-effacing man. At 74, he still has the athletic frame of a football lineman and is more of an outdoorsman than a technophile.
He built his first house in this area of Connecticut more than 40 years ago: a double-height bar in green cedar siding, suspended over a boulder-strewn ravine. That house, designed for his parents (it has since changed hands), is barely 15 miles away from Edge House, and is a clear precedent for this newer project, which shares so many of its attributes.
That aesthetic appealed to the clients of the house: Mark Podlaseck, a researcher for IBM, and his partner, Stephen Bryant, a physician. Podlaseck discovered Bohlin while working on a proposal for BCJ’s Siebel Center for Computer Science, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It felt like a modernist vibe, but a little bit rugged,” said Podlaseck. That description also suits the modernist landmark where Podlaseck spends most of his days: Eero Saarinen’s nearby Thomas J. Watson Research Center for IBM, which is also a crescent of a building that works in concert with its landscape.
Podlaseck was in the cafeteria of that building, surrounded by his colleagues, when he got his first look at Bohlin’s plans. “People were like, ‘Holy smoke, it’s got a little bit of that Saarinen feeling to it.’ ” There were others who were not quite so generous. “People in Westchester can’t conceive of a house that isn’t colonial or neocolonial. So they just thought it was crazy.”
Bryant and Podlaseck were looking to move out of a five-bedroom colonial that was far too big for their needs. At least, the house was too big. The grounds were too small for their extended family of pets—in particular, an Australian shepherd named Wally. “His career is 24/7 barking,” says Podlaseck. “So we needed a larger property.” Disturbing the neighbors is no longer a problem, because there are none, and there won’t be any in the foreseeable future. The house is set on a 73-acre lot (purchased from the financier Gerard Louis-Dreyfus, father of the comedienne) that overlooks Kent Falls State Park, land protected from development.
Podlaseck, as an engineer, was particularly excited about the design process, and eager to participate. “He was the guy who, if you sent him a product to look at, he’d send you back three others, which made for a great relationship,” says Nick Snyder, an associate at BCJ who was Bohlin’s deputy on the project. Podlaseck and Bryant were also unusual in their rather conceptual responses to BCJ’s standard questionnaire. “Most clients are interested in how big their kitchen is,” says Snyder. “But we also got, ‘we like to feel like we’re outdoors’ and ‘we really like the sound of rain.’ Those are more emotional responses.”
Those last two demands are most dramatically realized in the master bedroom, which is cantilevered out over the hillside. This constricted space—there is room enough for a bed and nothing more—opens up to a picture window facing the Housatonic Valley. Above is a zinc roof, intended to amplify the sound of rain. The walls are crimped panels of galvanized steel (which is used on both the exterior and interior) that slice into the body of the house like the planes of a constructivist composition. “Pulling the material in makes you feel like the outdoors is coming in,” Snyder says. Podlaseck compares the experience of the space to being in a tree house. “It evokes simultaneous exhilaration and invulnerability,” he says.
The house is defined not so much by that bravura room as by the circulation route by which you arrive at it. Upon entering, one is swept around the curve of the house by a wall of cedar planks stained a vivid shade of red. With floors of maple and plenty of natural light, the central living spaces have the feel of a Scandinavian kindergarten, which is not entirely accidental: Bohlin’s grandfather was a Swedish carpenter, and the firm investigated the colors used in playgrounds while developing the color scheme for the house. They had wanted a darker shade of red for that defining wall, but were forced to change their thinking when they learned that Podlaseck is red-green color-blind; he saw their first selections as either pink or gray.
That red also introduces a burst of energy, and this sense is augmented by the house’s curving profile, which means that there is always an area around the bend that one cannot see. “A lot of our buildings are about revealing, about drawing people in,” Bohlin says. “How you get from here to there very gracefully and calmly.” Indeed, the curve introduces time and motion: there is no single point from which the home can be fully apprehended; instead it insists on a procession from space to space, a path of gradual revelation.
The curve is the dominant theme, but the living and service spaces—a large open kitchen, an open living area, a den with a fireplace, and a second bedroom—are rectangular rooms that sit perpendicular to the bend of the house. Their orthogonal nature is accentuated by timber framing: long beams of southern pine in a standard length—chosen for economy and convenience—that run across the ceiling, directing the eye. “The angle really creates a relationship that emphasizes the curve,” says Snyder. “As you pull around the curve of the house, the lines pull you along to the view.”
It is the idea of architecture enacting a constant state of revelation that binds this somewhat rustic house in the woods with the glass walls and cylindrical stairs of Bohlin’s urban Apple stores. The creative satisfaction of making such spaces—of working through solutions on a small scale—is what keeps Bohlin interested in domestic architecture, even as his firm has become something of a corporate juggernaut, with offices across the United States. “We will never give up doing houses,” he says. “It doesn’t support us, but we get great pleasure from it.” Why stop?