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Fire Destroys UNStudio's VilLA NM

February 12, 2008

By Joanie McNair

Correction appended March 06, 2008

Located near the border of New York’s Sullivan and Delaware counties, Kenoza Lake is a sleepy Catskills hamlet where activity all but stops during winter. The seasonal quiet was broken on the evening of February 5 when fire engulfed VilLA NM, the first American building completed by the Amsterdam-based architects Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UNStudio.

VilLA NM
VilLA NM

Photo © Christian Richters (top); Times Herald-Record/Michele Haskell (above).

The VilLA NM as it appeared. (top). A fire gutted the residence on February 5 (above).

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In a neighborhood where most residences date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, VilLA NM was one of Kenoza Lake’s newest structures—and certainly its most daring. Despite its relatively modest scale, the design is a bold ensemble that, in turns, cascades down a hillock and projects from it, its rectilinear volumes arranged around a twisting midpoint reminiscent of UNStudio’s earlier Mobius House. The house featured a hybrid structure of steel studs mixed with wood rafters, joists, and studs, plus a concrete deck and foundations; the exterior skin was prefabricated contoured steel panels and gold-tinted glass.

Covering VilLA NM for Record Houses 2007, RECORD deputy editor Suzanne Stephens wrote, “not only does the new prototype assume a more complex spatial relationship to the land, it creates quite a different interior environment.” The house’s propeller-like pivot point expresses itself in the interior stairwell, and rooms taper like fins.

New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff stated that the house combined the “intellectual rigor” of computer-aided design with “a blend of play and eroticism that is a welcome relief from the puritanical tone that has infected the world of contemporary high design.”

On Tuesday night, according to Sullivan County officials, neighbors observed the glow of the blaze and reported it to the local file department. At the point of detection, says Richard Martinkovic, Sullivan County fire coordinator, VilLA NM had already neared total conflagration—and significant ice accumulation on the property’s narrow, curving driveway, prevented crews from arriving on site more quickly. The destruction of the residence, he says, “makes it that much harder to do a fire investigation. Nobody was in the structure when it started, and we have no eyewitness account of where it may have started.”

Martinkovic adds that, to his knowledge, VilLA NM did not have a hard-wired fire alarm. Approximately 1,500 structure fires take place in the county each year—this statistic includes everything from minor appliance fires to blazes involving entire buildings.

Art Hawker, a member of the three-person Sullivan County Fire Investigation unit assigned to VilLA NM, says that his team will be working with an insurance company-provided electrical engineer to determine the cause of fire. He adds that arson has become less frequent in recent years, although “at this point we’re objective and will keep our minds open to any and all possibilities.”

Asked whether or not he will consider rebuilding VilLA NM, the homeowner declined comment.

Correction: The name of Sullivan County Fire Investigation member Art Hawker was misspelled in the original version of this story. RECORD regrets the error.

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