The House That Fell To Earth
Out of this world and darkly romantic, the first private home designed by architect Daniel Libeskind is a spaceship for two.
You come upon it from below—a gleaming chocolate-and-plum-colored crystal nestled on a pillow of New England hillside. Acres of scraggly woods have been cleared away, leaving a few ancient oaks, a low stone wall, and a vast cascading meadow. The house sits in a fold of the slope, tucked away beneath the crest. At first blush it looks too low and cramped for an adult to enter, like the den of a particularly stylish Hobbit. But its stature is deceptive, as with almost everything else about it. The first private residence designed by Daniel Libeskind is at once modest and palatial, private and theatrical, inviting and aloof. It’s a little enclave of exhibitionism stowed out of sight. “You don’t need to impress with size,” Libeskind says. “You can keep it modest but still make it a spectacular place to live.”
As you climb the steep driveway, the stainless steel panels, which get their color from a soak in a chemical bath, take on a dappled look, darkening nearly to black or bleaching to a pale violet, depending on how the sun glances off each angled surface. A line of rough flagstones leads to an opening in the shell. The exterior skin folds over to form one side of the hidden entry porch; a wood-clad interior wall pushes out past the front door to form the other. Even before reaching the threshold, the visitor is standing simultaneously outside and in.
The house is a ravishing objet, balancing the exuberant and the analytical. And while its bristling protrusions offset the air of comfort, the owners accept that architectural brilliance imposes certain rigors. Libeskind designed the weekend retreat for an art-world couple who live in New York and who wish the house to be known but not where it is or who lives there. Yet it’s difficult to separate the space from its inhabitants. To start any project, Libeskind likes to say, you must first fall in love with the client. For an architect who has weathered the rough-and-tumble process of planning the new World Trade Center site, Berlin’s Jewish Museum, and a mammoth shopping center in Switzerland, this tiny project offered a chance to focus a complex work of architecture around a single, intense relationship. This time he didn’t have to navigate teams of developers or committees of bureaucrats—only two kindred spirits who rewarded him with a congenial combination of practical requests and expressive freedom. “We told him we wanted a place to sleep, to eat, and to cook, and all we would ask was to make it extreme,” says one of the clients.
A work of life-size origami, the house is a continuous ribbon of wood and steel, folded 18 times so that walls tilt like errant eaves or jut out toward the landscape. One of its 36 sharp points comes so close to stabbing a tree that a squirrel could step onto the roof. The interior comprises just 2,000 square feet—except that none of its rooms are, in fact, square, and the number doesn’t do justice to the concatenation of tight and suddenly open spaces, divided by partitions that list and turn. It takes a while to orient yourself in the unpredictable terrain. A ramp slides down from the entrance to the high-ceilinged living room, whose floor slips beneath a glass wall to a covered outdoor deck.
Libeskind looks around the acorn-colored interior and quotes Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space….” It’s his way of saying that even a small house can feel ample if it’s imaginatively designed and graciously inhabited. (With his penchant for optimism, he has forgotten the remainder of Shakespeare’s line: “…were it not that I have bad dreams.”) The architect has furnished the assiduously asymmetrical space with a trapezoidal table, a jagged kitchen counter, and a sofa conceived for people with pyramidal behinds. Even the plumbing fixtures have crystalline contours.
The clients knew they wanted Libeskind after they visited his tragic masterpiece, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which translates collective sorrow into an intricate composition of voids, diagonals, and tilted planes. It may seem like an odd leap from the Holocaust to a private home, but they were interested in the architecture of outsize emotions. “I find his architecture incredibly romantic—we were moved to tears,” one of them recalls. “The house is meant to be very emotional.” To Libeskind, interpreting a people’s pain in concrete and zinc is different only in degree from understanding a couple’s need for intimate seclusion. “You have to have a lot of empathy to design a house,” the architect says.
If the forms are avant-garde and idiosyncratic, the feel is one of romantic luxe. The carpet is woven rush and lavender—the friction of a footstep releases a little puff of summer scent. And a suite of flamboyant George III chairs offsets the architecture’s contemporary rigors (the furniture “is as extreme in its way as Libeskind is,” notes one of the owners). But perhaps the most luxuriant feature is the dark-stained oak that panels the interior in masculine slabs. Libeskind worried—unnecessarily, as it turns out—that it would make the house gloomy, but the couple had in mind Richard Neutra’s and John Lautner’s redwood-lined midcentury houses in Los Angeles, and the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California, a cliffside hideaway where a cozy room cantilevered over the Pacific can run more than $2,000 per night.
It’s ironic that a house inspired partly by a hotel should be so stingy with its hospitality. The only guest accommodations consist of a Murphy bed, which swings down to fill a miniature basement vestibule. The place extends an equivocal welcome: Please come, but not for long. Ambivalence permeates the design, which treats privacy as sacrosanct and passé at the same time. A sliding door seals off the only bedroom; it vanishes behind a pleated wall like a secret chamber, yet the walls of the room are glass, so the sleeper lies in full view of the grounds on one side and the kitchen on the other. The bathroom, too, is semipublic. The walls part like a slit skirt, revealing a sharp-angled pit sunken in the concrete floor—the bathtub. (The toilet, mercifully, gets a door.) Withdrawn from the outside world but open within, the house has a built-in sexiness. Every surface is luscious, every glimpse tantalizing, every wall a swoon.
To grasp the contradictory threads braided into the design, it helps to cite two telling assertions. “This is not an architectural statement,” says Libeskind. And “This is a Glass House for our time,” remarks one of the owners—a reference to Philip Johnson’s austere 1949 landmark in New Canaan, Connecticut. Both Johnson’s and Libeskind’s works are burnished retreats pierced by light and nature, and both put the inhabitants’ private lives selectively on display. But where Johnson’s see-through box became a social hub and the celebrated site of daylong aesthetic discussions, Libeskind’s discourages leisurely get-togethers. And where Johnson pushed the basic geometries of modernism to their rationalist limits, Libeskind has designed a work of expressive complexity. He objects to Le Corbusier’s dictum that a house should be “a machine for living.” Rather than impose its order equally on everyone, Libeskind’s house is an organism that grows out of—and that reinforces—its residents’ quirks and tastes.
“It’s a weird house,” one member of the couple says proudly.
Not many people would want to spend much time here. Fewer still will get the chance.