Gort Scott shows controlled architecture with The Rock in the Canadian mountains

The Rock is a private residence perched and part of a rocky outcrop overlooking a lake in Whistler, growing as an array of choreographed levels prioritising views to its hilly site.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Nov 11, 2021

London-based architectural firm Gort Scott has designed The Rock, a private residence in concrete, timber and glass that sits as an extension to its spectacular surroundings of a mountain resort in Whistler, Canada. Seemingly growing out of the extrusive volcanic rock, the residential architecture weds elements of brutalism, modernism, and Passivehaus, emerging as a striking, palatial structure, oriented by three concrete chimneys and staggered geometric volumes that hero vistas to its commanding site.

Generously comprising six bedrooms and a two-bedroom guesthouse, The Rock unravels as a series of landscaped levels cut into and built out of the rock. Gort Scott also designed the expansive, high-end interiors as well as the house's bespoke fittings. Elevating its essence are underground spaces that include a cinema room, a gym, a wine room, as well as utility and service areas, which nestle into the rock.

The dwelling sits as an extension to its spectacular surroundings, growing out of the mountain | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
The dwelling sits as an extension to its spectacular surroundings, growing out of the mountain Image: Rory Gardiner

In an interview with STIR, Joe Mac Mahon, project architect, and Jay Gort, director of the British architectural firm best known for their exemplary residential projects, discuss The Rock being conceived as an architectural extension to the Canadian mountains, and the challenges faced while designing atop a rocky outcrop overlooking an inland sea.

Jincy Iype (JI): The Rock emerges as a stunning example of contemporary architecture, revelling in its powerful personality. What can you tell us about the house's essence, being influenced by its strapping landscape and the concept it bases itself on?

Jay Gort (JG): The new-build family home is the winning design for an invited competition to build an exceptional contextual design in the Canadian mountain resort of Whistler, perched upon a distinctive rocky outcrop above Alta Lake, across which it enjoys beautiful views of the surrounding mountain range. Our proposal sought to reconcile several contradictions: expansive views and living spaces that maintain a sense of intimacy; maximising inhabitable areas along with preserving an understated public appearance. The design henceforth evolved from a sensitive site analysis involving a deep appreciation of the site's natural beauty, which was explored at the outset, along with observing changing weather conditions and times of the day.

The Rock is mainly dressed in concrete, timber and glass | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
The Rock is mainly dressed in concrete, timber and glass Image: Rory Gardiner

Fundamentally, we wanted to capture the sense of walking up to the top of the crest, on the edge of the lake. The interior spaces recreate the original experience of the mountainous site, forming a powerful journey from the cavernous, atmospheric basement up to light-filled living areas. A series of changing horizons and different views gradually reveal themselves as you make your way to the top of The Rock.

We were particularly inspired by a passage from Frank Llyod Wright's 1932 autobiography – "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together, each the happier for the other,” which became the founding principle of the design. The building metaphorically grows from the rock, and this is expressed through a refined palette of locally sourced materials, with board-marked concrete piers rising up to support the upper levels made from prefabricated timber construction to Passivhaus standards.

Primarily built from concrete, The Rock is spread across stepped levels and volumes | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
Primarily built from concrete, The Rock is spread across stepped levels and volumes Image: Rory Gardiner

JI: Please elaborate on the challenges faced to perch the dwelling on distinctive rock, and how you overcame them.

Joe Mac Mahon (JMM): We had to respond to the challenging topography and the unique qualities of the extraordinary and powerfully natural site. The prow of the rock was sacrosanct, so we cut down into the ground behind it, excavating by hand. Bespoke window detailing permits the concrete walls to appear running uninterrupted from outside to within, maintaining the continuous dialogue between architecture and landscape, without sacrificing internal comfort. The result is an interior design that feels truly connects to the landscape, in tandem with being fully protected from extreme weather conditions.

JG: We were conscious of the building's impact on the wider community. The architecture is careful to not disrupt the existing architectural vocabulary of traditional pitched-roof buildings.

  • The geometric, controlled design relates architecture, landscape, and the individual | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
    The geometric, controlled design relates architecture, landscape, and the individual Image: Rory Gardiner
  • A staircase inside the multi-level residence | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
    A staircase inside the multi-level residence Image: Rory Gardiner

Divided into several smaller elements, the residential design fulfils the client's ambitious floor area requirement without dominating the site or the neighbouring dwellings. Both the architecture and the planting strategy ensure that the neighbours' existing views of the lake were retained. Working to avoid visual dominance over the public lakeside park below, the contemporary architecture highlights and frames the remarkable rock crest with a new form which is as much a sculpture as the building. At all scales from strategy to detail, and from interior to exterior, this building demonstrates innovative ways of relating architecture, landscape, and the individual.

The ceiling and walls of the spaces near the entrance are constructed from smooth concrete | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
The ceiling and walls of the spaces near the entrance are constructed from smooth concrete Image: Rory Gardiner

JMM: To respond to extreme weather conditions, we utilised highly insulated concrete walls; a structure necessitated by the rocky site. These board-marked concrete walls are left exposed for their thermal mass, which modulates the extreme diurnal temperature variation, minimising the need for mechanical heating and cooling. The building fabric employs timber stud insulated structural wall and roof panels, along with triple-glazed windows.

The terrace and swimming pool | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
The terrace and swimming pool Image: Rory Gardiner

Key passive building systems include exterior roller shades, offering solar protection to the south and west-facing windows. These motorised blinds limit heat gains during temperature spikes in the summer months. High-level vent windows are also designed to quickly dissipate heat in the evenings after warm days. The flat roofs work extremely well in winter, with snowfall collecting and then acting as a thermal insulator, helping to keep the house warm.

JI: Who are the clients and what was their brief, and what was your creative approach to designing?

JMM: The house was designed for a private client with a passion for architecture, as their primary residence. He carries a real connection to this site, had spent holidays in the area with his family and eventually bought a plot of land, wanting to build for himself, something unique, striking, modern and homely.

The open plan living space is planned as split levels | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
The open plan living space is planned as split levels Image: Rory Gardiner

We wanted there to be real reciprocity between the landscape and the building and felt it was essential to visit the site. We spent five days camping there. We would be up there first thing in the morning and well into the night - sketching, drawing, listening to the sounds, looking at the way the light fell through the trees, identifying particular viewpoints - really trying to understand and imbibe the site, to soak in as much as possible.  

Simple, choreographed lines and a warm, muted colour palette dominate the interiors | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
Simple, choreographed lines and a warm, muted colour palette dominate the interiors Image: Rory Gardiner

Our design process draws on in-depth consultation – finding richness in existing contexts to develop characterful and innovative responses – coupled with a commitment to direct and lasting relationships with clients. Our approach to all our projects remains the same - the relationship to context is key. That does not necessarily mean we want the building to blend in or sit comfortably among its surroundings. It is really about the process of looking closely at a site and trying to reveal its unique qualities.

JI: How are materials and colours explored within the dwelling's context, and what influenced these choices?

  • Conceptual sketch | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
    Conceptual sketch Image: Courtesy of Gort Scott
  • Conceptual sketch of the study (top); and the music room (bottom) | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
    Conceptual sketch of the study (top); and the music room (bottom) Image: Courtesy of Gort Scott
  • Conceptual sketch of the stepped levels of the interior | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
    Conceptual sketch of the stepped levels of the interior Image: Courtesy of Gort Scott
JG: The exploration of materiality, construction and craft was a crucial part of the project. Given the house has such a complex geometric aesthetic, we felt a simple, calming palette of materials as appropriate. We used locally sourced materials, including board-marked concrete and timbers such as hemlock, oak and walnut. Playful moments were introduced using colour, with bedrooms painted in a range of soft pinks, greens and blues. In addition, pigmented timber furniture has been integrated into several spaces including burgundy cabinets in the main hallway and a full-height dark green veneered wall in the kitchen.

The exterior is expressed as a concrete base, that grows from the rock to support the living spaces floating above, which are clad in cedar saved from a previous forest fire, painted black, to harmonise with the surrounding dusky forests.

A series of changing horizons and different views gradually reveal themselves as you make your way to the top of The Rock | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
A series of changing horizons and different views gradually reveal themselves as you make your way to the top of The Rock Image: Rory Gardiner

 JI: What are some aspects of sustainable design The Rock enjoys?

JMM: Environmental sustainability was another important consideration for the client. The 980 sqm building responds to the existing topography and woodland, meticulously planned to avoid tree clearing and to minimise rock cutting. Overhangs reduce solar gain in summer; exposed thermal mass modulates diurnal temperature variation, and the roof garden increases biodiversity. In winter, the roofs trap snow which then acts as a blanket to increase the home's thermal efficiency and ground source heat pumps provide hot water and underfloor heating all year round.

Some rooms are all wood, while others like this are completely concrete | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
Some rooms are all wood, while others like this are completely concrete Image: Rory Gardiner
Some pockets seem to draw inspiration from Le Corbusier's concrete aesthetic | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
Some pockets seem to draw inspiration from Le Corbusier's concrete aesthetic Image: Rory Gardiner

JI: Which part of The Rock did you enjoy designing the most?

JMM: Certainly, the series of spatially-fluid, open plan living, kitchen and dining spaces, which is the culmination of the interior journey from the entrance to the rock peak, where glimpsed views through dense trees give way to panoramic views across Alta Lake. The kitchen and dining room boast of tall ceilings, while the living room floor rises to give a more compressed ceiling height that frames and releases to the expansive views through full-height glazing on the north and south. From the living spaces, it is possible to step out onto the crest of the rock and onto terraces overlooking the lake that catch the evening light from the west.

These subtle changes in levels and lighting demarcate zones within the space, including a library. The deliberate use of a refined material palette permits shadow and light patterns to imbue these overlapping spaces with an array of different atmospheres that engage the senses and cosy up the spaces orientated around the rock.

A quite corner inside the residential design | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
A quite corner inside the residential design Image: Rory Gardiner

The size, scale and positioning of windows and overhangs were prudently judged to frame the distant mountain views which were done by triangulating the mountain peaks back into key positions within the living spaces. The main rooms were developed and refined through a combination of digital and physical modelling. We used a series of large-scale physical models to perfect the materiality, proportions and play of light and shadows, going so far as to make a full-scale outline mock-up using tape and string in a square adjacent to our office, to help us make some final decisions on the geometry and proportions.

The light-filled, timber clad bathroom displays a Japanese style aesthetic | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
The light-filled, timber clad bathroom displays a Japanese style aesthetic Image: Rory Gardiner

JI: Can you give us an experiential walk down of the residence? 

JG: The idea of movement throughout the home is carefully choreographed as we wanted to capture the essence of climbing up the rock. If you climb five steps, the view can be completely different, the placement of pines altering. These views of the serene lake and the top of the Whistler mountain were driving factors.
However, we were also keen on incorporating moments of pausing and dwelling, of centring and contemplating. The series of interconnected spaces is like a collage. The spacious yet snug dining area, kitchen, and living room are all on different levels, relating to the existing topography, placed in an open plan that renders the spatial typology fluid.

03 min watch The Rock, Whistler – a private residence in Canada, designed and delivered by Gort Scott | The Rock by Gort Scott | STIRworld
The Rock, Whistler – a private residence in Canada, designed and delivered by Gort Scott Video: Tapio Snellman; Sound and music by Adam Lieber

Project Details

Name: The Rock
Location: Whistler, Canada
Area: 980 sqm
Architect: Gort Scott
Project Architect: Joe Mac Mahon
Design team: Jay Gort, Fiona Scott, Joe Mac Mahon, Andrew Tam, Sarah Cook, James Powell, Rebecca Stephens, Nadine Coetzee, Tom Hamilton, Adam Walls
Collaborators: Kat Sullivan (building technician), Equilibrium (structures), MCW (building services), Hapa Collaborative (landscape), GVH Consulting (geotechnical), JRS Engineering (envelope), Alka Pool (pool), Millson (AV), Eos Lightmedia (lighting)
Contractors: Dürfeld Constructors (main contractor), Leon Lebeniste (joinery)

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