Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer
 
BALANCING ACTS CANTILEVERED HOUSES

WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY

There is a fresh wave of contemporary architects who have little fear of heights - or gravity. They are tempted towards houses and buildings that push themselves outwards into space and touch the void, so that they float in the air itself. Dramatic cantilevers – as these projecting, elevated spaces are known - fly in the face of gravity and frame extraordinary views of landscapes or the ocean, while also lending a real sense of drama and excitement to the architecture of a home. Along the way, they may also help to maximize the space available on a site and help with orientating a building towards sunlight and the views. No wonder, then, that in recent years we have seen the rise of a new generation of houses that make the very best of these balancing acts.

Advances in engineering and a better understanding of the opportunities to make a statement home - even on some challenging and sometimes exposed rural sites – have helped bring this new breed of houses into reality. But they also have quite a pedigree of classic modernist and mid-century houses behind them, including the gravity defying work of John Lautner, who liked to test his engineers to the limit with pioneering Californian houses perched upon a cliff edge or anchored to a steep hillside. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater famously pushes itself out over a running stream in Pennsylvania, while in Ireland Scott Tallon Walker created an extraordinary pavilion in the early 1970s – the Goulding House – which floats in the treetops above the steady flow of the River Dargle. 

The new breed of cantilevered homes have a good deal of engineering know-how that helps to bring a definite sense of drama to their design. The award winning Balancing Barn in Suffolk is one of the most enticing of these, designed by Dutch practice MVRDV for Living Architecture – a curated collection of contemporary holiday and weekend homes that looks to inspire interest in modern architecture. The Barn, clad in shiny metal shingles, makes the most of the undulating topography in this rural spot with half of the thirty metre length of the single storey building suspended over a sudden drop in the level of the land. The living room is positioned right at the end of the cantilever, complete with a glass floor for savouring the distance to ground level below. MVRDV have even hung a swing off the tip of The Balancing Barn.

‘There’s something very basic about a cantilever which captures the imagination,’ says writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, who co-founded Living Architecture and was a key part of the team that commissioned the Balancing Barn. ‘It defies something we generally have an intuitive sense of in a building, namely, how is this thing supporting itself? The cantilever defies that expectation. We aren’t sure if it will stand up, it make us insecure, but in the process makes us appreciate security all the more. It threatens us, but in a lighthearted way, a kind way – like slightly scaring someone for a good effect. We’re tickled by something that seems to suspend the normal rules.’

The Holman House in Australia, by architects Durbach Block Jaggers, is also a show stopper but in a very different kind of location, with a Y-shaped pair of cantilevered spaces pushing out over a 70 metre high cliff edge at Dover Heights, Sydney, and framing twin views of the ocean. One of these cantilevers – supported by angled stilts – holds the kitchen/dining room and the other the living room. It creates the most photogenic of seaside homes.

‘The intention was to allow the occupants to feel as though they were floating out over the ocean – weightless, calm and connected,’ says architect Neil Durbach. ‘The house is known as the “Concrete Butterfly” and the ‘Hanging House” and the cantilevers are certainly the most dramatic and memorable aspect of the building. The idea of defying gravity has been a compelling interest for architects and the cantilever is really a horizontal version of the soaring, heavenly tower.’

These bespoke designs emerge from a very specific response to the site and location. That’s also true of Ty Hedfan – which is Welsh for ‘hovering house’ – built by architects Sarah Featherstone and Jeremy Young just outside the Brecon Beacons national park. But with Ty Hedfan, an elevated, open plan living room, dining and sitting room projecting out over the nearby river also became a necessary solution for making the most of the limited space available on the sloping site itself.

Featherstone and Young found that because the river bank was a site of special scientific interest, planning restrictions were in place to protect this natural habitat and they could not build within 7 metres of the water. But the cantilever offered the perfect solution, projecting out towards the river but never touching the ground beneath it. It also created a dramatic viewing platform to appreciate the surroundings landscape, the trees and the flowing river below, while an integrated terrace that forms part of the cantilevered section of the house also offers Featherstone and Young’s three-year old son Ben a safe and secure outdoor play area.

‘It’s not a huge plot of land, so if we hadn’t have used the cantilever we wouldn’t have had much land to build on,’ says Featherstone. ‘We were keen to maximize what we had on the site and with the cantilever we ended up doing so much more with the house than we had ever imagined. The main living space floats just above the river and also there’s a whole bank of trees along that river front, so it feels like a tree house. It has improved the whole experience of living in the house and the floating element is quite magical.’

Architect John Pardey and his client Dawn Pooley were also faced with a limitation on space when they decided to build a new house on a narrow site facing the sea on Hayling Island, not far from Portsmouth. The house needed to make the most of the sea views while also dealing with any potential flood risk. Pardey decide to place the bedrooms within a ground floor level positioned across the site, but the main living spaces on the upper storey sit within a timber clad block positioned at right angles to the plinth below and form cantilvered elements projecting to front and back. The open plan living room reaches out towards the sea in a way that was partly inspired by Pardey’s fond memories of visiting Can Lis in Majorca - an ocean front home designed by the legendary Jørn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House.

‘What I find most enjoyable about the cantilevered space on this house is the way that it reinforces the idea of a timber box balancing on a masonry base,’ says Pardey, who is also using a dramatic cantilever in another new project in Falmouth. ‘It’s a simple architecture of two elements coming together and the cantilever is always attractive as a design element as it engenders a feeling of dare, a suspension of belief. It also creates a sense of aspiration and promises a leap of faith into space.’

‘The living room has the most amazing views,’ adds Pooley. ‘These are amplified by the length and shape of the room that the cantilever enabled us to build. It also created a lovely covered area above the main entrance and an amazing covered, dry deck area on the harbour side of the property. It defines the character of the house - we love it.’

At Chardonne in Switzerland, architect Patrick Heiz was also presented with a modest site – overlooking Lake Geneva – on which to build a house for his parents, Heidi and Samuel Heiz. The site sloped down towards the lake and here Heiz designed an extraordinary rectangular tube, projecting out towards the water, anchored to the ground at the rear but supported at the front by slim legs. It is almost as though a futuristic, semi-glazed space craft has landed by the lake – an impression enhanced by the use of a stairway entrance that can be raised or lowered by the owners within.

‘One element of the design was the intention to build a house for a retired couple, with the possibility of living here at an advanced age on a single, flat level,’ say Heiz, of Made In. ‘With the plot located on a very steep wine growing landscape, the cantilevered structure offered the possibility to create one horizontal floor over the slope. And with the plot being quite narrow, a structure that doesn’t touch the ground gave us the possibility to keep as much terrain as possible free for use as outdoor space.’

Importantly, the cantilevered form of key living areas in the home also helps focus the space – and its occupants – on a particular aspect of the landscape, or seascape. The buildings designed by Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects in Nova Scotia, Canada, have sometimes been compared to cameras for the way they focus attention upon a vista. This is especially true of Two Hulls, a mesmerizing new home perched upon a cliff looking out over the Atlantic. Here a double lens is created with twin cantilevers looking along the coast, one holding the living room and the other the master bedroom. A concrete seawall below offers storm wave protection for the house, which sits on a series of concrete fins, rather like the chocks used to support boats when up on dry land for repair or winter storage. A steel frame is coated in clear cedar, giving the house an organic, natural quality.

‘With Two Hulls the cantilever has a lot to do with the character of the house and is really a site response,’ says architect Brian Mackay-Lyons, whose Cliff House, again in Nova Scotia, also uses a cantilevered design. ‘The building is like a pair of binoculars focused on a framed view. Our buildings are really instruments to help you understand the landscape and experiments in the landscape. But the experiments are always different because the landscape is always different.’

Like Two Hulls, Mackay-Lyons’ buildings have emerged – partly - from a long established boat building tradition in Nova Scotia. Here, buildings are often perceived as floating on the landscape like ships and sometimes seen as portable, moved from place to place. The idea of a floating house gives rise to structures that try not to make a strong physical impact upon the land or the environment, an idea reinforced by the cantilevers of Two Hulls and the Cliff House.

When designing a hillside home in the Hudson Valley for New York gallerist Sean Kelly and his wife, architect Toshiko Mori was also looking for a form that offered the sensation of floating within this naturally beautiful landscape. The upper level of the house - which looks out across a carpet of trees, greenery and undulating hills – projects out over the floor below and the principal bedrooms are positioned in the leading edge of this cantilever, savouring the views. The upper level appears more solid from outside, coated in aluminium panels on three elevations, while the lower level is more transparent. It enhances the impression that the upper storey is floating in space.

‘The cantilever element is essential to the success and fundamental design of the building,’ says Mori. ‘The site is an essential element in choosing a cantilever and has a very spiritual aura. It is a primitive landscape, unchanged since Henry Hudson painted the landscapes of the region. The clients and I definitely felt that this must be a native American sanctuary site that celebrates the “lift” into transcendental sensation through the observation of nature. The cantilever carries this sensation into the house.’

Elevated structures and bridge houses – sitting on supports at either end – have also been part of the portfolio at Stelle Architects in the Hamptons for many years. They offer many advantages, helping to get over the problems of flood risk that can be a very real concern in this part of the world, as well as lessening the visual impact of the mass of the building and offering a sense of lightness. Then there is the additional bonus of creating sheltered terraces and decks that nestle below the overhangs.

Stelle’s Ocean Guest House in Bridgehampton uses a cantilevered form with a terrace below, their Bay Residence in Eastern Long Island is an elevated bridge house that forms a sumptuous living platform close to the ocean and their new Green Woods House in Amagensett uses cantilevers to help create raised living space and balconies that connect with the woodlands that surround the house. But the common link is creating a more direct and vivid sense of connection with the natural world. The cantilevers – the balancing acts – become observatories, belvederes and treehouses all in one. They are viewing platforms with a unique perspective.

‘The drama comes from that experience of having passed a threshold that brings you to this bright, natural and perhaps initially unsuspected suspended place,’ says architect Viola Rouhani at Stelle. They allow the buildings to be freer in the landscape and the sense of being in a tree house, high up above the ground. Views are unobstructed allowing you to engage with the surroundings more intently. The beauty of designing homes in this area is the beauty of the area itself and the landscape is really the statement here. Cantilevers are often a direct response to this because they bring you so much more into the landscape.’

 

ARCHITECTS ETC

LIVING ARCHITECTURE – www.living-architecture.co.uk

MVRDV – www.mvrdv.nl

FEATHERSTONE YOUNG ARCHITECTS – www.featherstoneyoung.com

JOHN PARDEY ARCHITECTS – www.johnpardeyarchitects.com

MADE IN – www.madein2003.ch

MACKAY-LYONS SWEETAPPLE ARCHITECTS – www.mlsarchitects.ca

TOSHIKO MORI ARCHITECT – www.tmarch.com

STELLE ARCHITECTS – www.stelleco.com

 
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