For many of the greatest architects of the last century, a private home was their big break. The 1964 home Robert Venturi built for his mother in suburban Philadelphia launched his career and ushered in the postmodern movement. Charles Gwathmey’s first project was a residency on Long Island in 1967 for his parents, who gave him carte blanche to create the Modernist wonder. And the Santa Monica house that Frank Gehry renovated for his own family in 1978 catapulted him to stardom while also introducing the deconstructivist features of his later blockbusters. In the case of these and other talents – Philip Johnson, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Michael Graves, Lina Bo Bardi – private homes served as early labs and calling cards.
Bjarke Ingels forged a whole different path. After founding his own company, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, in 2005, the Danish-born architect gained international attention for two apartment complexes in Copenhagen, one an artificial mountain, the other an eight giant, with cycle paths that rise from the ground floor to the 10th floor. By the time he turned 40, in 2014, he had already taken on the kind of commissions that Pritzker Prize winners have waited all their lives to tackle – towers, cultural centers, city parks, etc. But he had never built a house. “In architecture, you can quickly specialize,” Ingels recalls during a visit to his sprawling Brooklyn office, where you can see young designers crossing the ground on scooters. (The company now employs 540 people, with additional offices in London, Barcelona and Copenhagen, and some 80 ongoing projects that include Google headquarters and storm protection for Lower Manhattan.) “If you’re building a skyscraper- sky, you are a skyscraper expert. If you are doing a hospital, you are a hospital expert. And then you become that architect. Because we had never made a private house, no one asked.
That is, until a savvy design entrepreneur with business in Denmark cold calls BIG in hopes of ordering, as Ingels suggests, a Danish house in Latin America. The client says: “I have always been drawn to the simple, minimalist but extremely comfortable design of Scandinavia. Bjarke was an obvious choice. His work has a really functional side, unlike other famous architects who prioritize form over function.
Practicality, the client emphasizes, was particularly important, given that “the terrain was not easy”. Long and wedge-shaped, with houses on either side and a steep slope in a wooded gorge, the site demanded innovative solutions, especially since two mature palm trees already inhabiting the lot had to be preserved. Ingels was up for it. “What you think is the ideal situation, but actually the worst situation, is a complete tabula rasa,” he says. . “There were so many constraints here. These larger-than-life influences give character.
An initial design for a series of orthogonal volumes was scrapped due to poor communication about building restrictions – for the better. When Ingels started from scratch, he prioritized the customer’s request for a length pool. By squeezing a 50 meter diagonally across the property, Ingels divided the land into two triangular plots, one for the house and one for the garden. This determined the irregular shape of the structure, which rises from a triangular base to a rectangular roof, producing an inverted pyramid with a hyperbolic paraboloid facing the garden. (Ingels tested the intricate geometry in models, cutting a block of foam with hot wire.) Running this out of glass would have cost a fortune, so he opted for concrete, cast in place, with rectangular window walls. recessed on each floor to create terraces. “In many ways the house is in the spirit of modernism – simple lines, simple materials, pieces as regular as possible – but with the harsh influence of a major decision,” says Ingels, referring to the diagonal pool, which he compares to a natural obstacle such as a rock or a stream. “We weren’t sure it would be a big house, but we came up with something full of character.