Beyond the Basic Box
A house is always a storehouse for the imagination, but sometimes it can take surprising turns as a container. Here are several particularly evocative design approaches to stoke your own fires of invention.
Cave. Early houses were caves of course, but here’s an example of a modern house built into a hillside in the spa town of Vals, Switzerland, that gives cave dwelling a contemporary twist. Talk about
a seamless transition between house and site – here the house is the site! Designed by Bjarne Mastenbroek of SeARCH, and Christian Muller Architects
to preserve the pristine alpine landscape, the house is primarily accessible
through a tunnel from a nearby wooden barn. The great cutaway oval is courtyard, light source, and connection to the hillside, framing views of the
valley below without blocking sight lines from above (photography by Iwan Baan, courtesy ArchDaily). You can see the entry barn beyond the lip of the oval, above; and the entrance from the tunnel is behind the blue tub. And you can even experience the home yourself: it rents through the website Villa Vals — I’m adding it to my bucket list!
Bridge. A clever solution for a difficult site like a small ravine is to treat the house as a bridge. An early modern example is the famous Warner or “Bridge House” in New Canaan, Connecticut of 1956 by John Johansen, which
straddles the Rippowam River near Philip Johnson’s Glass House (photo by Robert Damora courtesy Philip Johnson Glass House). The H-shaped plan puts the living-dining room on the bridge at the center; the four corners
contain the kitchen and bedrooms (image courtesy Faustian urGe). According to Gwen North Reiss, who interviewed the architect in 2010 when he was 94, Johansen considered the bridge not just a site solution but an important metaphor of transition and renewal. She quotes him: “The bridge represents in mythical forms the leaving of one region familiar to you…Throw yourself on a bridge and you are separated from time and space and then you find your way down to another reality hitherto previously unknown to you.” The barrel vaults in the roof are also evocative and follow the line of the stream (rivulets, perhaps?). More recent versions of the bridge-as-house can be found in the
work of Cutler Anderson Architects in Washington State, as shown here, where spanning the site made it possible to avoid “culverting the stream” (photo courtesy Cutler Anderson). Another way to go is to use bridge
stanchions to allow for a longer span, as shown in this house by Adelaide, Australia architect Max Pritchard (photo courtesy Max Pritchard Architects).
Tank. The water storage tank is especially compelling as a container. A quick Google search produces a variety of tanks that have been converted to houses,
like this very vivid one in Thorpness, England with its tall red storybook gable and long white chimney — like something out of a Dr. Suess book (photo courtesy Armchair Travelogue). This round concrete tank in an industrial
section of London is being converted to living quarters by the designer Tom Dixon, who added the windows and the wood siding and has plans to construct an elevator (good idea! photo courtesy Daily Mail).
The talented Max Pritchard used a 50 year-old concrete water tank as the base for this delightful house overlooking Adelaide. According to the Pritchard firm
the basement and a bedroom level (with windows punched into it) were built within the tank, while a new upper level containing the main living areas and
master bedroom follows the shape of the tank with a semicircular wall of glass — like a large bay window — to capture the sweeping views of city and sea.
As these structures demonstrate: design is about turning limitations into possibilities.