Ocean Therapy

PROJECT Private Residence, Southern Gulf Islands, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Gates_Suter Architects
TEXT Matthew Soules
PHOTOS courtesy Gates_Suter Architects

It’s not difficult to understand why Gates_Suter Architects were preoccupied with site conditions when designing this house in British Columbia’s Southern Gulf Islands. Their client spent years searching for the ideal location to situate his getaway retreat. He circumnavigated each of the Gulf Islands in a kayak, scoured most of them on bicycle, and the beauty of the oceanfront property that he settled on is hard to overstate. The land slopes gently down from its quiet access road through a thick forest and then opens to a wild grass meadow. Voluptuous sandstone cliffs drop from the meadow into roiling water thick with bull kelp. An expansive view overlooks the San Juan Islands, and beyond to the mountainous Olympic Peninsula. Part of the site’s indelible allure is its fauna. Large pods of orcas are daily visitors. Traversing deer have worn paths into the grasses, and seals rest on the sandstone formations. And all of this a 20-minute floatplane ride from downtown Vancouver.

When Joanne Gates and Peter Suter, who is also an associate at Patkau Architects, started working with their client, the latter’s aspirations were clear: he wanted a one-bedroom house that sat sensitively within the site, suitable for entertaining. As an art collector, he needed large surfaces for hanging work. In response to theseintentions the architects have chosen to act simply and decisively. As a mostly unarticulatedsingle-storey bar, the house is a minimalist counterpoint to its context. To get its siting just right, they tested different locations by laying out tape and pegs on site with the client. The result is a precise inhabitation of the edge at which the land begins to slide toward the ocean, offering views over the house upon approach and a remarkable connection to the sea from within.

The plan is divided into three distinct linear strips. A more enclosed and cellular program is pushed up along the north wall. A central strip is framed by large expanses of white drywall for art display. And a southern band is subdivided by a concrete mass that separates the bedroom from the home’s focus–the large and open entertaining space for living, cooking and dining.

The project’s catalytic power resides in its ability to experientially thrust inhabitants into the site by framing its context so emphatically and then minimizing and obscuring the boundaries and definition of that frame. In this manner, the house achieves a higher-order resonance that is subtle yet perceptually powerful. The entirely unobstructed southern glazing combined with the home’s shallow cantilever projects its interior into the space of the ocean. However, it is the detailing of the glazing that achieves something close to the sublime. By running the glass past the floor and ceiling planes with reveals that conceal the top and bottom mullions, the edge of the frame is ambiguous, an ambiguity that is heightened by the selection of dark-stained oak for the floor of the entertaining space. The tone captures the sky’s blues and greys and visually fuses the floor with the ocean. This type of operation occurs throughout the design in various forms. The columns along the east and west edges help define the limit of the house, but of them, the two closest to the water quietly blur those edges by extending beyond the constructed ground plane to land in the earth. The emphatic rectilinearity of the terrace is itself a datum against the meadow, but the simple absence of a guardrail powerfully connects it with the site.

It goes without saying that site conditions are part of the standard set of primary categorical considerations that inform the typical design development of a building. While “form follows function” is a prevalent credo, “form follows context” is certainly its less alliterative parallel. But architects tend to value the determinative role of context in varying degrees that depend on the site conditions at hand. While context is almost always a factor, it’s usually more so in certain types of sites. What broadly can be called the “natural” site is one such typology. That this predisposition itself exists reveals something about our constructed notions of the “natural” versus the “artificial.” What version of site-responsiveness emerges in natural settings extends this revelation.

Considering domestic architecture in ostensibly natural contexts, two archetypal projects can be seen as framing the range of predominant modes of site responsiveness. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater as a form of organic symbiosis and natural mimicry at one end, and at the other, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House as a form of minimal counterpoint to and frame of nature. The degree to which this Gates_Suter project is minimal and distinct locates it closer to the Miesian end of the spectrum. That their strategy of site-responsiveness–a kind of embrace of architecture’s inherent artificiality–is so successful in perceptually heightening the characteristics of the site, is a useful reminder in a culture increasingly devoted to buildings that more or less mimic nature, that it is possible to find the nature we appear to crave through the apparatus of the seemingly artificial. CA

Matthew Soules is the Director of Matthew Soules Architecture (MSA) and an Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia.

Architect Team Joanne Gates, Peter Suter
Structural Fast + Epp Structural Engineers
Landscape Client/Gates_suter Architects
Interiors Gates_Suter Architects
Contractor Gaines Enterprises
Building Envelope Spratt Emanuel Engineering Ltd.
Area 2,500 ft2
Budget Withheld
Completion 2008