By Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA
Principal, SKOLNICK Architecture + Design Partnership
Like so many, I am inspired by the exquisite beauty of the natural environment of the East End of Long Island – the famous light, the land and water, the big sky and breathtaking vistas. Over the last few decades the area has experienced rampant development, which seems to have accelerated even more of late. This has inspired in me an increased sense of responsibility to preserve and enhance the landscape and unique qualities of this natural context. That is why I am so encouraged by the renewed interest in modern design that we’re seeing in residential Hamptons architecture.
“What?” you might ask. “Do you mean those alien spaceships that look like they landed in our serene paradise from some other planet?” Obviously not. I am referring to the simple, modest, and sensitive designs that have emerged recently as a clear riposte to the newer cookie cutter mansions of an anachronistic yesteryear. But before I make the case for modern design, let’s step back a moment to get some perspective.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ARCHITECTURE ON THE EAST END
Historic image of Southampton home courtesy of Dan’s Papers
The Hamptons have always been a crucible of new ideas in architecture. From the simple village and farmhouses of the early years of settlement, through the grand old summer cottages of the Gilded Age, on to the early modernist experiments of the mid-twentieth century, and even acknowledging the regrettable Post-Modern and McMansion periods of the recent past and present, there has always been a marked tendency to consciously view architecture as a vital representation of our culture.
The Pearlroth House, a Modernist design by Andrew Geller, West Hampton, NY
We have looked to what we build for ourselves to convey the current, or even future aspirations of our society and ourselves. Of course, the prevalence of a disproportionate population of culturally aware clients — both those with considerable means and those with more modest budgets but equally progressive ideals — has facilitated and fueled architectural experimentation and exploration. But I would argue that our challenge now is to find a way to realize people’s dreams while protecting what attracted them here in the first place.
SENSITIVE, MODERN, AND SUSTAINABLE DESIGN IN HAMPTONS ARCHITECTURE
Agricultural Field in the East End, photo by Gail Gallagher
The natural environment of the East End is compelling, seductive, invigorating, soothing and inspirational. But it is also fragile. This is why we must get back to the basic ingredients that make for a true appreciation of the natural riches that the area offers. Sensitive modern design need not be cold, alienating, eye-popping or inappropriate. In fact, the best of it is quite the opposite. Through the use of simple, unadorned forms, natural materials, and a respectful and synergistic dialogue between the built and the natural, I believe we can greatly enhance our experience of this very special place.
Architectural design by SKOLNICK, photo by Joshua McHugh
More and more, the clients of our architectural firm are looking to achieve what, at bottom, is really important in life: having a place to enjoy informal living, surrounded by family and friends; celebrating and living in harmony with nature; combining low maintenance with high value; crafting a way of dwelling that promotes the interrelationship of indoor and outdoor experience. In turn, we must respond to these desires by creating homes that touch lightly on the land. They are often very light, airy and open, offering sweeping views of the landscape and interior spaces that flow gracefully into one another. We strive to design discreet places of repose and dynamic spaces of movement and gathering. We hope to enable a variety of experiences especially suited to different times of the day or season. Often, what we seek to achieve is a mix of calm and warmth commingled with unexpected and exciting moments.
Of course, as with any formulaic approach to design, there is a potential danger. Just as the curiously nostalgic aforementioned McMansions — those built to suit as well as those built on spec by developers — have become predictable and repetitive (the Palladian windows, the dormers upon dormers, the multiple flaring or gambrel roofs, etc.), so too can modern houses start to look like just so many rectangular boxes, alternating solid and transparent forms and surfaces in fairly uninspired combinations. In common practice, too often what both of these genres lack is the individuality that comes from capturing something unique about their specific sites and the lives of the people for whom they are designed.
Luxury housing development, photo by George Steinmetz
TELLING A STORY
I believe that all architecture is narrative. That it must have an underlying set of criteria which a good architect can synthesize into a storyline informing the design process and the final result. The wonderful outcome of this approach can be a home which is even more than a representation of the taste and values of the client, but actually becomes an embodiment of their own way of living.
And what better way to pursue these goals than by showing the greatest possible reverence for the timelessness and authenticity of the Hamptons, and for the nature that underlies those characteristics? To this end, our modern houses must conserve natural resources, touch lightly on the land rather than grow heavily out of it, create rather than drain energy, and replace the penchant for big, blocky structures with graceful compliments to the unique qualities of the landscape.