Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Every good tale should have a twist, they say, and for architect Ben Van Berkel a twist can also transform an ordinary kind of building into something unique. Van Berkel's Dutch practice, UN Studio, is well known for dynamic buildings with a sense of fluidity, full of curves and sinuous shapes. With the Villa NM in upstate New York, Van Berkel has applied such imaginative thought to a modestly scaled vacation home, transforming the idea of a box-like cabin into a highly sculpted and intriguing object.

Van Berkel's clients had bought a plot of land on a hillside, with mesmerising views of the surrounding woodlands and undulating countryside. They had seen UN Studio's designs for an earlier project, the Mobius House, at an exhibition in New York and were so taken with the practice's work that they asked them to create a family house for them, for use at weekends and holidays.

"From the house you have this incredible panoramic view of the whole region," says Van Berkel, who heads Amsterdam-based UN Studio with Caroline Bos. "The house plays with this view and with the landscape but we really started with the geometric transformation of the structure, how the house could turn from a simple horizontal experience, through a twist, into something else."

The twist becomes a point of fascination, as well as guiding the layout and structure of the building. It's as though a rectangular box of concrete and glass were grabbed at two corners and twisted in the middle, creating an irregular building with a number of different levels. Essentially there are two main floors, with two bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper level and the living room and kitchen – plus a guest room – on the lower. Yet inside, the twist at the centre of the house allows for additional shifts in floor level using sculpted ramps, topped with steps, to lead you from one area to another. The living room, then, steps down gently and without doors to the kitchen, where an island of sculpted white Corian emerges from the white, polyurethane floors.

"The twist really plays with the idea of how sleeping and living can become almost one in the house, how everything can flow together," van Berkel says. "There is this idea of continuous living and an emphasis on the moment of crossing from one level to another. It's not a linear space but quite kaleidoscopic. We also played with ideas of furniture making, so that elements like the staircase almost become pieces of furniture in themselves."

The house creates a contrast between the mathematical and engineering complexity contained within its organisation and the impression of overall simplicity and modest beauty. It is just three bedrooms, and around 250 square metres, which is not large for a vacation house – especially an American vacation house – yet feels larger because of the lack of solid divisions and the simplicity of detailing. Much of the interiors are a pure white, with select areas of contrast, such as the wooden panelling around the fireplace. This makes the villa appear more spacious, as does the lack of intrusive additions like handrails on the staircase, where an almost invisible system of simple wires – stretched like the strings of a harp – creates a safety barrier instead.

"We wanted to keep it very pure," says van Berkel. "Too heavy a detail like a handrail on the stairs would have been too much. It is a compact house but what's beautiful about the finishes and the big windows is that it does give it a spacious effect. At the same time, one gesture or detail can generate an enormous impression, depending on how you articulate that detail."

The organic, dynamic nature of the house – with its lack of sharp edges, hard corners and dead ends – helped inspire other work from the practice. One can see links to their Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart, where a complex double helix structure eliminates full stops with a curling pattern of constant spatial discovery. One can also step back to the Mobius House, inspired by the mathematical principle of the Mobius Strip, and see how important the ideas of mathematical and organisational flow are within the work of UN Studio.

At the same time it's a highly creative practice. Van Berkel himself was a graphic designer before becoming an architect, studying at London's Architectural Association as well as in Amsterdam. Bos was a journalist and writer, with the practice led by a commitment to theory and artistry as well as high tech engineering. The result is no boxes and no boring buildings; even an electrical substation (there have been two, in Amersfoort and Innsbruck) becomes an ambitious, sculpted presence.

The owners of Villa NM, who are now completing their garden and swimming pool, are apparently so taken with their new home that they find it hard to leave. And at the same time, the landscape is never forgotten. Like a belvedere or a pavilion, Villa NM doesn't seek to impose itself upon the landscape but rather draw in and celebrate the countryside. The landscape is a defining part of the building, with the large windows opening up different sight lines and the expanses of glass reflecting the shifting colours of the trees through the seasons.

"The most important thing here has to be the landscape," says van Berkel. "That's what the clients fell in love with. The house plays with the view and whenever you shift levels in the house you always have this frame of the view, you always have this beautiful background of the landscape itself."