Fishers Island House
Thomas Phifer and Partners
Fishers Island, USA
Donald Cox (Project Partner, Thomas Phifer and Partners) Andrew Mazor (Project Architect, Thomas Phifer and Partners)
Thomas and Bunty Armstrong, represented by their son Whitney Armstrong
More than a one-bedroom retreat for a former museum director and his wife, this is also a place of extraordinary 20th century paintings, sculptures, and glassware—much of it conveying a sense of buoyancy or levitation that echoes the pavilion’s lightness. You can look straight through the house without realizing it, but you could also mistake reflections of trees for glimpses through the pavilion. Morphing with the skies, flourishing seasonally, the dialogue evolves: An arcing swath of vibrant yellow sedum in the garden resonates with the golden footbridge in a Chinese screen inside; a mossy rock garden projects into the pavilion’s simple volume, while the bedroom nestles into a private apse of garden vegetation. The artwork always figures into view out, even if only peripherally. Conversely, from the gardens, this colorful indoor collection projects an extraordinary presence outdoors. The design of the pavilion nourishes the owner’s desire to live in the garden—with art.
A dramatic mature garden site along the rocky northeast coastline of Fishers Island provided a unique opportunity for siting of the house; the extensive existing gardens set the stage for the architecture. Woven into the landscape, the Fishers Island House is an architecture of subtlety, a precisely grounded yet quasi-weightless structure. The driveway approach sets up a dramatic axial relationship through a crab apple bosque to the front door. The home’s thin structural members sit lightly on the landscape and support a delicate aluminum trellis that filters harsh summer sun. A choreography of glass walls and landscaped courtyards seemingly bring the gardens into the house and allow one to experience both interior and exterior elements simultaneously. Freestanding in parallel alignment, the interior walls never meet the enclosure. Instead, they form a virtual box within a box, an implied inner volume. These parallel planes channel long vistas out toward water and garden, only allowing the seascape’s wide, rugged panorama to emerge in full view at the house’s far side. From the entry hall a reflecting pool continues the organizing axis, merging the boundaries between the ground, the water and the sky and extending the experience of the house out towards Long Island Sound. Adjacent to the entry, the living room and three galleries are open to views to the Sound and the garden. Carefully placed mid-century modern paintings, bronze sculptures, colorful glassware and contemporary furniture are enhanced by the controlled natural daylight and the shade of the trellis.
With its crystalline glass structure and outdoor trellis, the house provides a visually permeable perimeter between the interior and exterior environment. The insulated glass walls, skylights and outdoor trellis work in concert to provide generous amounts of natural daylight in a controlled manner that illuminates the interior, yet reduces heat gain and solar glare. Thus the low emissivity glass protects the art from ultraviolet light. At the same time the structure was designed to withstand the hurricane force winds and driving rain possible on a coastal site. The exterior trellis also shields the glass wall from direct sun. Although indoor air temperature and humidity must be maintained for the museum-quality art collection, the high performance glass wall has operable openings for natural ventilation in temperate weather. Use of a highly efficient closed loop geothermal system for heating and cooling obviates the need for any exterior mechanical equipment, minimizing the impact of the house within the garden. While the pavilion’s interior floor plane—fully visible through the glassy shell—continues outward, its surface of ebonized bamboo transformed into an exterior plinth of Indian black granite, a walkway, finely striated with shadows from the diaphanous, metal canopy above.