Modern architecture is uncomfortable to some people. It may be perceived as a discordant collection of stripped-down lines and planes, devoid of any warmth or soul. Going against conventional ideas of the way things should look, it is most often accused of being “cold.” Proponents, on the other hand, see modernism as a way of thinking that allows for infinite possibilities of form. They find beauty in its logic, order, and elemental purity.
Coty Sidnam, of Sidnam Petrone Gartner Architects, is one such visionary. Her recent house in Ketchum, a meticulous and focused application of universal principles of design, elevates the spirit of those who experience it.
At first glance, the house is modern in an obvious way: its flat roof, aluminum storefront windows, and geometric façade immediately identify it as nontraditional. However, further scrutiny reveals grand themes and studied details, all designed with rigorous, seasoned professionalism—and erudite exuberance.
Sidnam and the owners found in each other an enthusiastic like-mindedness that propelled the project forward. A salon of ideas was exchanged, intelligent choices were made, experimentation was encouraged, and theory was put into practice. The owners came to the table steeped in experience with modern architecture, and with considerable understanding of its concepts and origins. As Sidnam explains, “The issues of modernist thinking can be found in many traditional buildings that investigate the nature of space, opening, wall, surface, edge, entry, progression, materials, daylight, etc.—buildings like John Soane’s house in London, Katsura in Japan, and the Pantheon in Rome.” Sources for the owners’ inspiration ranged from Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie to Eero Saarinen’s Deere and Co. headquarters to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The owners charged the architects with the task of designing a house that appeared weightless and ethereal. They wanted five bedrooms, high ceilings, clean lines, and comfortable and generous spaces, all within as few square feet as possible. Three sets of sketches and schematic models were presented, and the scheme that was ultimately chosen originated with Bill Petrone. Sidnam and Sandra Aranguren-Langstrom developed the idea into a drawing set with Petrone’s input and critique.
The result, referred to as the “tube held aloft” scheme, is explained by Sidnam as “the juxtaposition of and intersection between a heavy, grounded form and a section of tube that can be seen to extend infinitely.” North and south window walls blur the difference between inside and out, and smaller, punched openings on the east and west sides provide views and light while maintaining the integrity of the solid tube. Formally, the plan is straightforward and logical. The concrete base contains utility areas and the exercise room. Public spaces in the loft-like top level have the best views. The kitchen, dining and living areas, defined by subtle level changes, occupy a single rectangle of space. The entry and most important private spaces, such as the master suite and family room, are located in the vertical concrete fin. The negative space piercing through the center of the building contains the magnificent stair—a sublime shaft of glowing, green light. >>>
For the most part, the elements of this house are stylistically neutral and easy to grasp. Sidnam says, “I see modernism, at least in its purest form, as almost an absence of style . . . as the expression of basic, architectonic ideas. It could be found in a primitive beehive hut or in a glass house by Mies [Van der Rohe].”
In the midst of the didacticism are specific moments of discovery and joy. Shoji-like panels and a heavy, suspended sliding door can connect or separate the master bedroom from the sitting room and living room in any number of combinations. Small panes of colored spandrel glass appear periodically in the clear glass window walls. A series of interior windows are arranged enfilade from the master shower through the master dressing and bedroom, to the north windows in the master sitting room. Sidnam explains: “We really wanted that whole suite of rooms to be a single space, with divisions that either transformed or described subspaces or gave privacy without touching the edges. The divisions might be seen as objects in the space which, by their placement, formed subspaces.”
The “road to nowhere,” a long, narrow, unadorned hallway to a glass door on the lowest level, is a particularly delightful surprise. Anomalous bits of structure such as steel beams and columns periodically show themselves, the welder’s marks left on to pay homage to their origins. And, ah, the glorious stair. One could spend hours just sitting there. It’s like breathing underwater.
Once the initial scheme was chosen, Alan Gelet of Engelmann, Inc. and Dick Purdy of Purdy & Associates Engineers became integral members of the design development team, consulting with trade contractors from the design table in New York to make sure things would work and fit within the budget. They explored materials, methods, and techniques for achieving the desired visual and functional effect. Every detail was examined ahead of time (the owner references the architect’s “complete, but complete” set of drawings). Due to this free exchange of ideas in the design process, the project came in under budget and on schedule. There were few changes in the field—a remarkable feat, considering the means of construction.
Minimalism, clean lines and weightlessness, the hallmarks of modern architecture, are not achieved merely by leaving off embellishment. Sidnam’s partner, Eric Gartner, explains a critical difference between contemporary and modern: “Contemporary seems to me a real-estate term that allows for a stripped-down, and often inexpensive, design and building solution for a client who doesn’t like traditional but may not be well-versed in architecture.” That these particular clients fully realized the specificity and effort required in this endeavor was fortunate; for in this house, as in many modern houses, simplicity was complicated.
Experience with the unique challenges presented by modernism may seem hard to come by in this valley, but Gelet and Engelmann’s Ben Berntson had previously sharpened their innovative skills in several modern houses. Pat Garrett of Garrett Construction erected the concrete and steel, and Mike Brown of Mike Brown Construction supervised the framing and exterior finish. Details were anticipated at the beginning stages, and Gelet credits Garrett and Brown’s precision as being instrumental to the success of the finish.
Although there is virtually no symmetry in this house, well-considered proportion governs the arrangement of things—both predictable and unexpected. With no trim to make a transition between one material and the next, all intersections are necessarily fastidious. Materials always have a distinct beginning and end. Tile layouts in the bathrooms were determined by the projected placement of plumbing fittings, and the absence of visible fasteners required that attachments be made from behind. Gelet explains, “Almost everything had to be built backwards. Try scheduling that! Alignments and details had to be considered at every turn. This was a no-tolerance house.” >>>
Materials—their selection, application, treatment, and interaction—were paramount. Concrete, a common material in modern architecture for its visual gravity, strength, and malleability, forms a monolithic base under “the tube” as well as the vertical volume that visually holds the tube in place. Fiber cement board, a material typically used for construction rather than finish, covers doors, the fireplace, and walls inside and out. This cool gray surfacing was researched and purchased from different manufacturers to achieve subtle color variations when required. (Berntson is now the Valley’s foremost authority on this material and its idiosyncrasies.) Most of the cabinetry was made from ApplePly plywood with birch veneer, and the floors are mainly birch as well. A creamy limestone covers the counters, walls, and floors of all the bathrooms. Together, these materials contribute to a calculated, harmonic rarity of color.
Experimentation with materials was relished by both architect and builder. Sidnam explains, “We, like so many architects, delight in materials and the search for new ones. Materials are very seductive, great fun, and extremely useful.”
For the kitchen cabinets, Sidnam and Jim Taft, of Taft Design Works, researched ways to mount matte acrylic on wood without mechanical fasteners. This led to a company in New Jersey that makes custom sheets of color-backed acrylics. Sidnam calls the result “an out-of-focus, abstracted version of the wood that is both stable and consistent.”
Innovative installation, not always unproblematic, sometimes led to conflicting warranties when the prescribed procedures had to be modified to accommodate interfaces with other materials. In general, however, everyone was willing to take some calculated risks in the name of intrepid ingenuity. Gelet admires Sidnam’s pursuit of original uses for nontraditional building materials: “Coty has access to so many materials that none of us had ever worked with before. It’s amazing what other people bring to this valley.”
The luminous center stair contains perhaps the best examples of material experimentation coupled with excellent craftsmanship. The stair itself, an austere birch construction with blind joints and fasteners, was built off-site by Bill Amaya. Each run was flawlessly installed in a single piece. The stair is held away from the walls just enough for it to appear to float. Minimal aluminum handrails, designed by Sidnam and constructed by Mary Garrett, fade away in their simplicity. Sidnam found large sheets of an untried fiberglass product called Panelite to cover the walls (the milky-green, plastic-like material was designed for use in computer circuit boards). Again, there are no visible fasteners: Amaya devised a method of adhesion that employs epoxy paint and a 3M product similar to double-stick tape. On most of the stair, drywall backs the Panelite, but it was left off at the entry to expose the aluminum structure behind.
On the north wall, frosted glass panels pour light into the library and a lower bedroom behind the stair. Steen Sorensen of Glassmasters fashioned a blue-green glass platform with nearly invisible, clear glass railings to bridge the space from dining room to office at the top level. The bottom of the bridge contains cathode tubes—the only source of artificial light in the stair. A skylight above, with no visible means of support, allows the sun to dance upon the Panelite. The effects of the light are both haunting and intoxicating.
Photographers know that there is a magic moment inside buildings near dusk or dawn, when windows seem to dissolve and the outside becomes indistinguishable from the inside. Something similar happens in this stair, where, at various times of day, there is a wonderful confusion of transparent and opaque, solid and void. The Panelite is somewhat reflective but not mirror-like, in the way a perfectly polished marble floor in an old hospital puts a soft focus on the objects it echoes. At night, the green glow from within the stair couples with a seemingly random arrangement of recessed ceiling lights in the living area to produce a positively celestial mood.
With consistent vision, the core team of owners and architect executed the interior appointments as well, applying the tenets of modernism on another level to complement the architecture. In commitment to the uncluttered lifestyle required by a modern house, everything has its place. One feels a quiet calm in this beautiful environment. Soft surfaces of carpet, upholstery, and blankets have analogous color and texture, becoming large, neutral swaths that help to highlight more intentional pieces of furniture, painting, and sculpture. A Le Corbusier chaise longue is an easy companion to a steel-and-glass coffee table designed by Aranguren-Langstrom and built by Dennis Proska of Blackrock Forge with Amaya and Glassmasters.
This house is indeed architecture in the grand sense of the word, but does it really “fit”? When asked about his views on modernism in the context of a mostly traditional place, Gelet says simply, “It’s something different that also happens to exceed the norm.”
When evaluated in terms of specific location, the house is integrally related to its surroundings. The concrete base nestles into the sloped site. Openings are oriented to take in the spectacular views in big gulps. With input from the owners, Wells Rawls of All Seasons Landscaping mimicked the hill across the road with native trees and shrubs, tall grasses, and sagebrush. In the fall, the grass lies down in great billowing swirls. As Gelet says, “It feels like the sea.”
Sidnam sees the house as contextual on a larger scale: “The big gesture and the house’s individuality are particularly Western in attitude.” The owners elaborate: “The Valley and the West are wide open—as is our house. Sprinkled in the Valley are other modern houses, most of which feel like open windows to the splendors of the West and the Wood River Valley. Ours is an invitation to the great outdoors, while feeling cozy and secure inside.”
To understand modern architecture is to appreciate its beauty. In his book, Vers une Architecture, the Swiss-born giant of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, says: “The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and plastic emotions; by the relationships he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.”
In this house, the team of architect, owners, and builder demonstrated a shrewd comprehension of modernism—from the scale of the “tube” to each simple door hinge. In the end, they invented a house that, in the words of the owner, is “beautiful and worthwhile—what we feel is a usable piece of art.”
Gretchen Wagner developed her passion for modernism at the Yale School of Architecture. She produced this piece for Sun Valley HOME at the same time she was producing her second daughter, featured with her on the Contributors’ Page.