New York

Joining rectilinear forms with a twist, UNStudio’s VilLA NM, in upstate New York, captures the landscape in gold reflections

By Suzanne Stephens

The client, a New York–based developer with a young family, had a clear goal: a weekend house “as exciting as anything by Neutra and Schindler.” With VilLA NM, he got it—in spades. The flat-roofed, taut, planar house in upstate New York, designed by UNStudio, of Amsterdam, both evokes its predecessors and pushes their architectonic qualities into a new realm.

Photo: © Christian Richters
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Whereas the Modernist structures of the early-to-mid-20th century emanated from simple rectangles that seemed to float above a grassy lawn or perch on a craggy cliff, something else is going on here. If the south elevation brings to mind Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) coupled with Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1949), or the stepped massing to the north harks back to Schindler’s Lovell House (1926), then what about that curved middle section? While the original architectural paradigms define the box-on-a-rock category, this villa is a box-on-a-rock-with-a-twist. The singular insertion of what UNStudio principal Ben van Berkel calls a “bloblike moment” causes “a simple shoe-box shape to bifurcate into two separate volumes, one clinging to the northern slope, the other detaching itself from the ground to leave room underneath for a covered parking space.” Not only does the new prototype assume a more complex spatial relationship to the land, it creates quite a different interior environment.

The client and his wife, both aficionados of current design and art, encountered the work of UNStudio, headed by van Berkel and Caroline Bos, at the Museum of Modern Art’s 1999 Unprivate House exhibition. There, the couple (who themselves are very private) were drawn to the display of the firm’s attenuated Möbius House, built in Het Gooi, the Netherlands, in 1998, and inspired by the Möbius strip, the single-surface topological model. As van Berkel recalls, “They were fascinated by the way the design wove together living, working, and sleeping activities in a continuous movement.”

Photo © UNStudio; UNStudio's Ben vanBerkel

The client found 2 acres on a hilltop that commands spectacular views of rolling pastures and forests with no other houses in sight. Both he and his wife, who are originally from Russia, welcome changing seasons and wanted to watch turning leaves and falling snow while inside the house. The architects happily responded with what they called a “viewfinder dacha”—a 3,600-square-foot villa, which dramatically embraces the surrounding landscape through expansive glass walls.

But more unexpected are the swooping interior spaces forming the core of the house, which you first detect as you approach the front door and carport, tucked under the cantilevered bedroom wing: Here, the exterior wall of the south end lifts up in a gentle curve to meet the soffit above the entrance.

UNStudio: Evolution of Space, featuring the VilLA NM among other projects, is on view at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, CT until May 4, 2007. The exhibition was originated by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt, Germany.

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