by Afra SafaFeb 09, 2023
When a man-made structure takes shape in nature, it falls under two possible categories; existing in harmony with nature or disparity. The building either becomes a part of the site or remains a guest. Therefore every building constructed on a natural terrain follows the same storyline - reconnecting to nature, use of natural materials, consonance between humankind and nature and the 21st century’s favourite buzzword, sustainability. With this formative set of principles primarily derived from its precedents that appear to remain in harmony with nature, organic architecture seems to be the first preferred approach to build in sensitive geographies. While this has been a recurring pattern, the newest addition to this category by San Francisco-based Fougeron Architecture seems to go in the opposite direction. Suspension House in California, as the name suggests, is suspended between two serene Californian hills.
Nestled in the creek overlooking a waterfall, the house at once is a radical approach to constructing across a creek. Though structures spanning across creeks and cliffs, such as The Twist by BIG, are an exciting and interesting case for architecture, building over a valley or pass is still rare. In fact, in the state of California, it is no longer legal for homes to be suspended over a creek. For the American architects, the chance to remodel an existing structure that is both rare and can no longer be replicated was a unique opportunity. With the goal "to reconnect this structure into the environment while best utilising the exceptional site for the clients," the project was conceived. Through the woods, a walkway with a glass railing and stone wall on either side paves the path to the built structure from the site entrance and further steps down to reach the main entrance to the house.
In the first stages of interventions, the architects proposed to remove the columns that supported the old structure and replace them with I-section beams drilled into the cliff. The structural system thus developed allowed the stream below to flow seamlessly and gave the opportunity to create a new suspended volume from the main frame. Abiding by the strict guidelines on how to use the existing building, this structural intervention enabled the new home to follow the exact outline of the existing house and decks as required by bylaws while allowing the creation of new spaces. With the new structure equipped with three rectangular volumes - the main block, one stacked above and the other suspended below - Anne Fougeron's architecture studio had created additional areas to make new spaces.
Anchoring the structure to the cliffs, the second floor becomes the main area comprising the living room, dining room, kitchen and multiple deck spaces overlooking either side of the creek. Suspended from this space is the first floor with the guest suite and utility rooms. The newly added volume is placed over the first floor and hosts the bedrooms and more deck spaces. In accordance with the column-beam structure, the spatial layout of the house remains minimal and mostly open. "By opening site lines and using transparent materials, floor-to-ceiling windows, see-through floors and open-concept outdoor spaces such as floating staircases, the natural water features are visible from the front and back of the house," shares the architects. While aiming to maximise the visual connectivity between the surroundings and the building, the architects have integrated floor-to-ceiling glass windows into the facade design. Though the attempt upgraded the potential views of the mountains and waterbody from indoor to outdoor, the outdoor to indoor views frame the private spaces of the house and curiously raise the questions of privacy.
Reflecting on the influence of modern architecture, which is evident in Anne Fougeron’s designs, the interior design embraces minimalism. In the colour palette of black and white, the furniture and fixtures adorn the heaviness of black while the floors and ceilings remain white balancing the contrast. Between the interiors and exteriors, the house aims to be an ethereal structure with a Swiss window system and partially reflective glass that hopes to mimic the reflections on the water.
Extending to the architectural saying of “it is all a matter of scale and proportions”, the visual impression of the Suspension House nods to the same. While the patterns in lines and faces are repeated, the proportions between the open and closed spaces create the language for the whole building. The scale of the windows on the third floor in comparison to the first and second make the third floor appear larger in the context. With the structural clarity reflecting on the residential design, the contrast between the sleek steel columns and thick slabs juggles the heaviness of industrial materiality. This diversity in the dimensions of the vertical and horizontal members extends to a rather distorted perception of depth in the elevation. With an unbalanced form, the steel structure doesn’t aim to emphasise one particular detail but the house as a whole. While relating the structure to the environment, the architects seemed to have approached the renovation architecture along the lines of international style and modernism. However, an intriguing detail that takes shape in the residence is the use of the colour white as a feature. Amid the reflections of the tree on the glass and dark coloured nature of structural members, the white walls and slabs draw the silhouette of the house in the context.
Though very different from the conventional residential architecture on the cliffs, the Suspension House appears to be a rather radical and experimental approach. Using a material palette that is completely contrasting to the surrounding spaces and the monochromatic use of neutral colours against a green backdrop point to the building’s need to be identified. Within the unique architectural choices, the suspension house neither remains in harmony with nature nor dominates the site. While the linearity and geometry of the exteriors may remind one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. The architecture of the Suspension House is designed “to deepen the home’s connection to the environment, creating a place where our clients can live immersed within an exceptional landscape,” states the architect. Though the connection to nature is subjective, the house reflects consideration of the client's needs. However, structural intervention seems to be the crucial point here. Anything built on such a sensitive site would appear unwelcomed or unnecessary with respect to the serenity and impeccable beauty of the context. While most discourses mention architecture should be a part of the site, some structures tend to become a foreign body, sometimes initially and sometimes over the course of time. When discussing the multiple scenarios that bring design and nature together, can architecture be respectful to nature even when its stands in disparity with the site?