Architecture has been referred to as a useful as well as a high art–a combination of practical and abstract ideas that, when done well, can elevate the spirit.
Photography Tim Brown
The first function of our homes may be to accommodate our basic need for shelter, but there is also the promise that they will nurture, providing a sense of sanctuary and creativity. Architects hope that their best works are not only satisfying for their clients but also reflective of larger, less tangible ideas about space and scale, landscape and nature. Ultimately, good architecture strives to inspire us—whether we actually reside in the house, or experience it only peripherally.
For Ketchum-based architect Mark Pynn, his recently completed house north of Ketchum is a successful combination of those architectural ideals: I view this house as a continuum of an architectural practice that examines the important notions of what architecture should be—response to site, celebration of Idaho, response to the client’s program and design goals, and reinforcement of important historical archetypes with modern adaptations through form, materiality, and current technologies.
Articulating the abstract goals behind the architecture is critical for determining success, but the proof is in the proverbial pudding: How the building looks and feels is vital.
Seeing this house for the first time, the impression is of expanse and warmth. The textural definition and contrasting colors of the wooden siding, coupled with the stone wainscoting and the copper roof, set this apart from other significant residences in the Valley. The materials employed here are beautiful but not lush, presented with attention but without flamboyance.
The horizontal lines of the siding and the extended prow of the roofline keep the house tied to the earth and can be read as a metaphor of respect for the site and for the beautiful landscape surrounding it. There is a sense of consideration and restraint. One senses immediately that the house was not plunked onto the lot or drawn up elsewhere and asserted onto the space; rather, the space and the house were designed specifically for the site, with the location of the tennis courts and the garage given as much thought as the entryway or the great room.
Mark Pynn had been hired as the architect for this project before a site was selected. The clients—a couple from New Canaan, Connecticut, who had been visiting the Valley for years—charged Pynn with creating a home that had the relaxed quality and comfortable ambience of a historic fishing lodge. Having recently become grandparents, they wanted to create a place where the entire family could gather. They also wanted a house that would serve another of their passions—fishing.
After looking for some time for buildable land on the river, the couple found the ideal location, and the design dialogue began in earnest. Pynn was challenged by the natural boundaries of the property—highway 75 determining the eastern edge, and the Big Wood River the northern and western lines. Most of the three-acre property lay in the flood plain, requiring Pynn to situate the footprint of the house closer to the highway than would have been ideal. Potential noise and privacy problems were resolved by locating the tennis court alongside the road, and by using the garage as a buffer. A restructuring of the plantings and the contour of the land afforded an additional barrier. Driving by the house today, the view is of the tennis court and the garage, with just the stepped copper roof of the main house visible. Only after entering the driveway does one have a full view of the house, and even then the body faces away; the main living area is sited northwest, toward the open space between the house and the river.
Approaching the house, visitors have two choices: Advance to the main entry, which is centered under the porte-coche`re, or venture into the yard. Those curious about the setting will choose the latter and move along a flagstone pathway that beckons around the house to a large, grassy plain of backyard. The special nature of the property becomes evident here: The sense of place and privacy is considerable, with no other buildings in view, just the river and vistas of the Smoky Mountains. The gentle contours of the yard move from stone terraces to cultivated green to natural field and, coupled with the riparian environment of the Big Wood River, offer an immediate sense of serenity and retreat. In summer the land has a park-like feeling with broad, flat areas for play.
The very characteristics that lend this property such considerable appeal for the fisherman also posed challenges for the house design. Pynn and the landscape architect, Bruce Hinckley of Alchemie, solved the issue of potential flooding by conceiving of the house as an island, situating it on a kind of hydraulic bench where water will flow around it. Subtle landscaping, with flow-through points through the berms, allows the area around the house to serve as a watershed although, visually, the house does not appear to sit higher than the tennis court or the driveway.
Turning away from the river toward the house, it is clear that Pynn’s design intentions included rigorous attention to consistency. He developed the plan around a 16-inch vertical module, with all interior and exterior lines running off that formula—from baseboards to windows, from the slatted design of the stairway to the placement of light fixtures. Not only does the 16-inch module (consisting of 8- and 4-inch parts) correspond with human scale, but its multiples translate into standard construction heights, making for an efficient use of building materials. The formula fosters a rhythm between exterior and interior as well as between rooms; and the consistent and clean lines of the windows on the top and bottom floors are further evidence of the harmony of this approach. In choosing this template for design and decision-making, Pynn has created a home with a deep sense of cohesion.
Another design principle embraced by Pynn and his clients is a commitment to expressing both the structural and the aesthetic qualities of the materials. The dramatic horizontal pattern of the siding and the flash of the copper roof are the first points of interest. The 32-inch-high wainscoting that wraps the house, forming its base, is made from argylite, a stone native to Montana. Pynn chose the stone for its deep red color and horizontal faceting, and employed it again in the wall that defines the terrace’s perimeter, as well as in the fireplaces throughout the house.
On the exterior it is the siding that defines the house as special. A reverse horizontal board-and-batten pattern designed by Pynn was employed, using American Western red cedar boards 3 inches thick and 12 inches high, alternating with Ipe reverse battens 3/4 inch thick and 4 inches high. A rich, textured pattern results from the contrasting warm orange tones of the cedar and the deeper hues of the Ipe, a dark red South American hardwood. The gentle horizontal striping is made more interesting by the varying surface depths. The decorative surface and the rich tones of the woods give the house a sophistication that is rare in this mountain resort. Pynn feels that the horizontal orientation of the wood boards helps create the expansive feeling associated with log construction, while providing a more crafted, formal, and aesthetically clean appearance.
In line with Pynn’s aesthetic of expressing the true nature of materials, none of the wood in the house—interior or exterior—is stained or altered. Materials were chosen for their true textural and color properties and for how they will age, reflecting the influences of Frank Lloyd Wright and Wright’s protégé, Fay Jones.
For those familiar with Wright, a shared visual vocabulary between this home and the Prairie School-style homes built at the beginning of the 20th century is immediately evident in the horizontal axis of the building and the wide-brimmed roof jutting out like a prow beyond the perimeter. According to Wright’s principles of organic design, construction materials must be used honestly and as a primary element in design, with decorative elements evolving from the materials themselves—not attached or added afterwards. Pynn’s use of reverse board-and-batten structure as a decorative surface element is a classic example of this approach.
Wright took a holistic view of the homes he designed, creating and building much of the furniture as well. In this home, Pynn designed many interior features—including a buffet in the dining room made with a stunning combination of American cherry and Babinga, a South American hardwood. Both woods are repeated throughout the house; much of the trim is cherry, and the downstairs floor is Babinga. Further indication of Pynn’s comprehensive approach lies in the fact that these woods echo the colors of those on the home’s exterior.
One of Pynn’s more quirky signatures is designing pool tables for his clients, and the one in this house is a beauty. Again using Babinga and cherry, Pynn stacked the woods on top of each other in modules corresponding with the 16-inch formula. The felt on the table’s surface is not the traditional green but a maroon color that complements the woods’ warm tones. Pynn also designed the chandelier above the pool table, using strong horizontal lines cut through with vertical pieces in a manner reminiscent of those Frank Lloyd Wright built for clients a hundred years ago.
The great room is further evidence of Pynn’s commitment to his materials. Columnar beams of glue-laminated Douglas fir stand prominently in honest expression of their structural role, and an expansive fireplace showcasing the fine masonry of Don Frasier anchors the room. Local artist Mark Sheehan built the fireplace screen and six others around the house, incorporating horizontal lines that cross the screen at varying depths. The ceiling, composed of Douglas fir roof decking with a grooved pattern, also accentuates the lines of the building.
The inviting expanse of the great room is counterposed against the intimacy of the entryway, where the 4-foot-wide front door is flanked by stained-glass windows adorned with scenes of mountain activities—including, of course, fishing. The move from an intimate welcome to the space and celebration of the great room is well conceived. Daylight floods in through north-facing windows, and the open views to the backyard offer a sense of possibility. The view to the river is made more accessible by a terrace that expands and contracts along the entire rear of the house, providing small spaces for family and friends to gather around the fire pit, the outdoor built-in grill, or the sunken, natural stone hot tub.
Fireplaces are essential ingredients for success in most mountain lodges, and in this home there are seven (including one in the kitchen), all linked into three stacks. The grill on the back deck demanded such serious venting that, Pynn speculates, Santa could descend into it without tightening the belt on his formidable girth. The need for warmth in a place where winter consumes half the calendar year is addressed in radiant heat, present in the bathrooms and wherever else there is natural stone flooring.
Tucked away on the corner nearest the river, the master suite is the only bedroom located on the first floor. Windows wrap the room, making the river more audible. The suite includes a sitting room with a fireplace and built-in desks, two dressing rooms, and a bath complete with granite countertops, flagstone floor, and luxurious stone shower and bath.
The stairs to the second floor are off the entry and, with an open pattern of slatted wood designed by Pynn, reflect the understated craftsmanship found throughout the house. All three upstairs bedroom suites face the backyard and the landscape beyond. The baths here are treated with the same indulgence in materials as the master suite, with granite countertops and stone floors and showers. A long hall designed to hold the family’s life in photographs leads to the bunkroom, which structurally connects the house to the garage and serves as the roof of the porte-cochere. Elongated, horizontal windows fill this rectangular room with light and accentuate the linear rhythm of the home’s design. Beneath the west-facing windows, a built-in desktop runs the length of the room, providing plenty of space for art projects or computers as the grandchildren grow.
It is here that one grasps the functional nature of Pynn’s design. With the guest bedrooms tucked upstairs behind the great room, the house belies its actual size; it does not feel as large as its square footage. Unlike most lodge-like designs, which seem vacuous without groups of people, a couple can easily live in this house and feel comfortable. Although the upstairs does not account for a large percentage of the floor space, it is substantial enough to be welcoming and relaxing. Multitudes of grandchildren have room to romp while the adults retreat to their own quiet space for a few moments of peace. In the evenings the entire clan can gather for dinner inside or out, and enjoy an evening of pool and conversation. The space is accommodating but not overwhelming; the tone elegant but relaxed.
This house achieves the practical as well as the aesthetic aspirations of successful architecture. Well-suited to the site, and reflective of the clients’ wishes, it is a celebration of materials in a thoughtfully considered mountain structure. There is harmony in form as well as in spirit. With any luck, the fishing will be good, too.
Kristin Poole is the Artistic Director of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. She has a particular interest in the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright on contemporary architecture and, in 2001, served as curator for the exhibition “Harmony, Virtue, Simplicity: The American Arts and Crafts Movement.”