WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
PHOTOGRAPHS – SCOTT FRANCES
The house that Tom Armstrong has built for himself and his wife on Fishers Island is a rare but glorious instance of triumph from tragedy. Designed by architect Thomas Phifer, the Armstrong House is an extraordinary glass pavilion, looking out into landscaped gardens and across Fishers Island Sound, just off the coast of Connecticut on America's eastern sea board. Yet the house sits on the imprint of the Armstrong's former home, which was lost in a fire seven years ago [DECEMBER 2003].
'We had grown very fond of the old house,' says Armstrong, a former director with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. 'It was a big colonial revival style house with seven bedrooms. We entertained there a great deal and we raised our four children on the island. They are all grown up now with children of their own.'
Once the Armstrongs had cleared the rubble of the old house after the fire, caused by a worker's blowlamp during paint stripping, they were left with a ghost sitting within carefully nurtured gardens – rich with apple, wild cherry and linden trees - that the Armstrongs loved just as much as the old house. With insurance money from the fire, Tom Armstrong found himself with the opportunity to commission a new building and to realize another dream that had been on hold during his career as a museum director – assembling his own collection of contemporary art.
'When we visited in the summer after the fire, as you approached the site you could see across the footprint of the old house to the coast of Connecticut across the Sound,' Armstrong says. 'It was very lovely. The garden had become a panorama and at the end of that summer my wife, Bunty, said, well you love the place so much and you love the garden, so why not build a new house and let it be your project. That's what I did.'
Rather than building a family compound or an intricate set of buildings, Armstrong concentrated on creating a pavilion with just one bedroom, room for living and space for art, while offering constant connections to the gardens and the Sound. A guest lodge was eventually dismissed as being too expensive.
'What Tom really wanted was to sit in his house and enjoy his art and his garden,' says Thomas Phifer, the architect chosen by Armstrong to design the new house. 'A simple, ordered approach was really important so that the architecture would not be the star of the show. The landscape and the art would be the stars.'
The glass pavilion that Phifer designed is largely transparent, allowing the eye to pass through the space entirely. Simple divisions within the house are created by a sequence of slim walls running perpendicular to the length of the house, holding Armstrong's art collection, including pieces by Myron Stout, Pat Lipsky, Ilya Bolotowsky and others. These walls – with walkway gaps to either side to allow free movement through the pavilion - also neatly divide the house into a sequence of spaces, with the living room at one end, the bedroom at the other and a kitchen, gallery, dining room and library between the two. Skylights introduce toplight, while a trellis around the house helps mitigate the effects of the summer sun. The considered management of light is, for Phifer, one of the key successes of the house.
'It's a lightweight structure, sitting there quietly in the landscape,' says Phifer. 'You have the garden on one side and the Sound on the other and the house is a mediator between the two. Tom Armstrong and I worked extremely closely together to get the house tuned to the garden. It was a collaborative process.'
For Armstrong, the house has brought delight from disaster and provided the means to continue a long and close relationship with Fishers Island itself. It is a much deserved indulgence, although one that has been designed to be as eco friendly as possible and with the lightest of impacts upon the countryside.
'The house is quite a selfish endeavour, because it's really about my interests,' says Armstrong. 'One of the great pleasures is just walking through the house and looking outside into the garden, which is almost more interesting when seen from the house. I wanted to culminate my aesthetic life with a garden with art and I had the privilege of doing it.'
Thomas Phifer & Partners – www.tphifer.com - 001 212 337 0334