Beyond the Box
Michael Sant crafts a rural "conference barn" with nods to both modernism and place.
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
The program was basic, and for architect Michael Sant its solution was instantaneous. The client, a corporate executive and the chairman of his family foundation, needed a conference barn for the latter to be set amid 117 acres of Virginia horse farm country. Spatial requirements stipulated a pair of work areas for the client and his wife, who is president of the foundation, and meeting space to accommodate as many as 16. Aesthetic considerations, however, required a poetic sensibility, and Sant's delicately nuanced interpretation led to his commission.
The clients—Sant's father and stepmother—initially retained another architect to oversee the project, and merely asked Sant to critique the plans. Ultimately, however, he was given full rein when the other designer's proposal was deemed unsuited to the site's 18th-century house, stables, pool, and outbuildings. "This job required more listening to the place, feeling its tempo, and trying to crystallize its beauty." Architectural language, he decreed, should have domestic and rugged qualities, and the clients concurred.
Given the beauty of the landscape, a pavilion following in the tradition of the great glass boxes (Mies' Farnsworth House and Johnson's Glass House) seemed like an appropriate response. Sant's version, however, would be tempered, eschewing the austerity associated with the echt-modernist type and embracing degrees of embellishment and warmth linked to context. "I wanted to create an object that takes its beauty from craftsmanship and a sense of purpose, much like a canoe." Hardly a glib remark, Sant's analogy would come into play once the building was up.
The conference barn is a tri-partite box anchored on a raised plinth and capped by a gabled roof with a full-length skylight. With roots in a utilitarian hay barn, Sant's updated version is based on a timber structure of reclaimed Douglas fir. Sliding glass doors reach seven-and-a-half ft. and six in. high; the building's walls and roof are enclosed with R-panels (oriented strandboard over insulating material); and the roof is terne-coated stainless steel. Flooring, extending from the plinth through the 1,000-sq.-ft. interior, is local bluestone. The visible part of the foundation wall is of stacked fieldstone gathered from the property.
Sant's details, both visible and invisible, indicate anew the elegance of simplicity of the overall design. Stacked doors allow for open corners, diminishing boundaries between natural and built environments. A shutter system, operable by steel cables and counterweights filled with shot, modulates privacy. Inside, a pair of double-faced cabinets articulates space while accommodating the needs of a workplace: storage, writing surfaces, audiovisual equipment, and services. Hidden from view are all vestiges of HVAC. Radiant heating elements are concealed within the plinth. Conventional heating and air conditioning units are off-site in the stables, and energy is conveyed through underground ducts.
The architect made good on his canoe metaphor with his inspired furnishings. Sant enlisted a Maine craftsman to create a polyester-wrapped version with fluorescent tubes inside that is used as a suspended lighting fixture. This element, Sant says, reduces the scale imposed by the ceiling height—17 ft. at the lower end of the gable and 25 ft. at the peak—and "makes the space appear inhabited even when it isn't." Other furnishing choices—a clever mix of antiques, contemporary Italian seating, and a custom table—complement the architectural intent. As a result, the clients received a bonus: More than a workplace, their conference barn provides additional living space. "They rarely leave the place," Sant reports as a measure of the project's success.