by Jerry ElengicalFeb 03, 2023
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)