A mechanically adept house in the San Juan Islands marshals space and light to foster communal bonding
by MAYER RUS / photographs by JASON SCHMIDT
The idea of building a house with massive automated shutters and a semi-detached bath pavilion with a lift-off roof didn’t faze Tom Kundig. Feats of mechanical derring-do are the Seattle architect’s stock in trade. But when his adventurous client, photographer Carol Bobo, insisted the project be designed around the concept of a communal experience, all bets were off. This was an entirely different kind of radical.
“What Carol described scared the heck out of me—eating together, sleeping together, bathing together,” Kundig recalls. “That kind of social agenda was remarkably uncomfortable at first.”
Fortunately, the architect (a principal in the firm Olson Kundig) and his client had a long history upon which to draw. In the mid 1990s, he designed a striking Seattle house of concrete and steel for Bobo that essentially launched his career and ended up propelling him onto the national stage.
“Carol is a thinker and a risk taker. She’s very intuitive. Every move is fundamentally important to her—the same as an architect,” Kundig says. “She does the emotional homework to try to understand what you’re doing as a designer, and she supports it.”
That spirit of trust was put to the test when Bobo issued the challenge to create this unconventional second home for her on the rugged coast of Lopez Island in Washington’s San Juan archipelago, hard by the Canadian border. On a spectacular clifftop perch overlooking Puget Sound, Bobo envisioned an intimate retreat where family and friends could gather to enjoy abundant natural splendor and engage in such antique pastimes as conversation and reading. Private bedrooms and bathrooms were not part of the picture.
Conceptually and logistically, the plan Kundig devised for the home radiates off a communal room—what he likes to call the property’s magic spot. In that voluminous space, six steel mobile seating and sleeping units cluster around a pivotal fireplace fabricated from a large steel pipe. The nod to childhood memories of campfires and sleeping bags is clearly intentional. Sliding walls can shut out the kitchen and hallway to heighten the cloistered effect.
Realizing that some guests might be uncomfortable with shared quarters, Bobo reluctantly tacked on a single bedroom, divided from the main house by the garage. “You have to make a choice to separate yourself. That’s a powerful message—there are actually cars between you and the group,” she says.
Kundig designed the house to embrace a site blasted by wind, sun, rain and salt spray. Even the roof echoes the oblique angle of the wind-whipped trees. “Nature is a very rational force. It responds to protect itself and survive against the elements. A house should do the same thing,” he explains.
“Conceptually and logistically, the plan for the home radiates off a communal room—what Kundig likes to call the property’s magic spot.”
In another gesture to nature, the house is clad in corrugated weathering steel, which reflects the colors of the landscape as it ages and rusts. Moving walls and shutters, both mechanical and manual, create a series of layers that alternately protect and expose, effectively transforming the home’s character from introverted to extroverted. The moving parts conjure an ever-changing interior drama of shadow and light.
The ultimate coup de theatre unfolds in the bath pavilion, connected to the house by a short alfresco walkway. With the touch of a button, a motor raises the roof up to an angle of nearly 90 degrees. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors pivot open to further erase the boundary between indoors and out, while dual soaking tubs advance the intended social dynamic.
“This sounds very anti-architecture, but I always have the urge to simply be outdoors,” Kundig confesses. “I have fond memories of hot tubs in the snow and outdoor showers when I was a kid.”
Indeed, Bobo enjoys bathing in the rain, as well as under the stars in the waterproof pavilion. On cold winter nights, she fills the room with steam before raising the roof. “Bring a friend and a glass of wine, and you’re done,” she says. “Before you know it, you’re chatting about things you’d never tell anyone else.”
The drama of the sybaritic bath experience notwithstanding, subtlety and sensuality are the hallmarks of the house, according to interior designer Janice Viekman, another longtime Bobo collaborator.
Oak floors more than a century old were salvaged from North Carolina barns. On the ceiling, 80-year-old fir scaffolding planks acquired from a local Seattle stucco company bear the marks of decades of exposure to weather, plaster, cement and lime. Pillows on the smooth, clear-finished steel sit/sleep units were hand sewn using antique French linens and centuries-old Balinese songket textiles, adorned with metallic threads and mica chips.
“It’s a quiet kind of luxury. The magic of this place comes from the quality of light combined with the beauty of the materials and the exquisite subtlety of the details. You don’t necessarily recognize what it is, but you sense it,” Viekman says.
Quiet, of course, is precisely what Carol Bobo cherishes about her idiosyncratic getaway: “I slow down as soon as I hit the island. I’m not interested in computer connections here. I want to read poetry or watch a great film, to be present in the moment rather than anticipating the next email.”