Maria Cook and Lance Compa were only looking to kill a sleepy Sunday afternoon when they drove 20 minutes south of their home in Ithaca, New York, to see a house that a real estate circular had teased as an “architect-designed modern."
They certainly weren’t hunting for a new house. At the time, they were contemplating a move to Southern California, where Cook grew up and still has family. In any case, they were already living happily in a 19th-century Greek revival in downtown Ithaca, where both are on the faculty at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
By William Lamb / Photos by Adam Friedberg | Printed with permission from Dwell magazine
Still, what they saw that afternoon in September 2004 struck them. Set in a clearing on 14 acres of dense forest, the house is a stark, steel-sided box that at first blush clashes intensely with its surroundings. But Cook and Compa were transfixed by the floor-to-ceiling windows offering an expansive view of a gently sloping hill to the south. When they got up the next morning, they confessed to each other that they had spent the better part of the night thinking about it.
“It was a completely unexpected thing, and I think it was love at first sight for both of us,” Cook says. “And then, shortly after that, the California thing fell through, and at that point, nobody had made a bid on the house.”
“We decided to bring California here,” Compa says. The couple bought the house in November 2004. They kept their house downtown as a primary residence and use the new one as a weekend retreat—though its proximity to Ithaca means they can, and often do, visit whenever the urge strikes.
“The house captured us,” says Compa. “It was the contrast of the design in this setting. This is really modernist tending toward minimal. It’s all straight lines, right angles, steel and glass, and it’s in the middle of this Appalachian forest. At first it’s shocking, but then there’s a reconciliation that takes place.”
For Cook, the appeal was “the light and the quiet, the sense of calm that you get as soon as you walk in the door, and the way the wildlife interacts with the house.” It is not uncommon, she says, for deer or a gaggle of wild turkeys to trot by, peering quizzically at the strange creatures inhabiting this curious glass-and-steel box.
The house was designed in 1999 and 2000 by architects Eric A. Kahn, Ron Golan, and Russell N. Thomsen of Central Office of Architecture in Los Angeles. The idea, Kahn says, was to create “a sanctuary, a place for quiet repose and reflection within nature.” Construction was completed in 2002.
The architects chose materials that set the project apart from both its surroundings and the neighboring houses, most of which were built with liberal amounts of stone and aluminum siding. “We chose metal siding to make a statement about this thing being an artificial, rational construct and to distinguish it from the material of the site and nature,” Kahn elaborates.
Polished concrete floors with radiant heat help keep the house warm in the brutal upstate winters. The trees shed their leaves in the fall, opening up a view of sloping hills to the south and exposing the house to ample light and warmth from the low-hanging winter sun. In the spring, the leaves return to create what Compa calls a “cool summer cocoon.”
The house was designed to accommodate limited mobility, including a floor surface with no thresholds. A pair of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms are hidden behind “wrappers” of Formica-laminate cabinets, closets, and drawers, dividing the 1,620-square-foot open floor plan. The accessible elements are subtle, however, never threatening to overshadow or detract from the overall design.
For Cook and Compa, there was some adjustment involved in moving into a house that had been designed to a stranger’s exacting specifications. They wondered, for example, why there were only three sets of windows that open, and questioned the decision to squeeze the kitchen into a narrow passage between the living and dining areas.
Storage—the overabundance of it—also has been an issue. “We were a little puzzled as to why there’s so much,” Cook says, yanking open one of 30 drawers tucked beneath a counter that runs the length of the northern side of the house. “We certainly don’t use every drawer, and it’s a problem because we put things in a drawer and we can’t tell what drawer. We end up opening every damn drawer in the house looking for stuff. So we have that kind of relationship with the house too.”
Cook and Compa have added a few tweaks to make the house their own. They converted a carport into a breezeway, complete with outdoor furniture. Together with a patio at the western end of the house, it adds nearly 1,300 square feet of usable space in the spring, summer, and fall. Inside, they found a way to show off their collection of ceramic and wood pieces by putting them in the cabinets that ring the western core and leaving the sliding doors open.
Over the past three years, the couple have learned to adapt and innovate, and to appreciate the quirks that make the structure unique. For example, they resisted their initial impulse to tinker with the black, white, and gray interior color scheme.
“We didn’t like the gray at the beginning, but now we do,” Cook comments. “Our first idea was, Oh, we need color in here. But I think one of the points of the house is that the color and the movement and the excitement is happening out there in nature, so the inside has to be more stable.” The professor adds, laughing, “The house teaches us a lot of stuff too.”
For the exterior, the architects chose corrugated Galvalume, an alloy-coated sheet steel. It’s a low-maintenance material with a 40-year projected life span. Just as important, architect Eric Kahn says, is the way it responds to the seasons, gently reflecting the green of the surrounding forest in the summer and taking on a sleek, machinelike look when snow falls in the winter.
In place of tile or granite, the architects installed black epoxy-resin countertops—the kind that should be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a high-school chemistry lab. The material is durable and easy to clean, and it complements the aesthetics of the interior. Durcon Inc. is a leading manufacturer of this stain- and flame-proof material.
A system of cabinets, closets, and drawers is arranged to define distinct living, dining, and sleeping areas that otherwise would blend into one another thanks to the house’s open floor plan. They also serve as “wrappers” around the two bathrooms, maximizing storage capacity while helping to create a sense of order. Clerestory windows above the cabinets draw borrowed light from the exterior windows into the bathrooms, maximizing the distribution of sunlight inside the house.
The water heater and the heating and air-conditioning equipment were installed in the garage and are connected to the house by wires and pipes that run over the carport. Keeping these necessary but noisy items away from the house helps to minimize the ambient noise inside.