Living in Geometry

March 31, 2015
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For his first commissioned residential project, Vancouver-based architect Omer Arbel got what is probably many a designer’s dream job: to work with a close friend who trusts you enough to bestow complete carte blanche. “If you are lucky enough to work with a very great architect,” says the client, an eccentric farmer who wanted to build his dream home in the middle of a hay field, “it’s crazy to tie his hands with your own amateur ideas.”

The house in question is a futuristic glass and concrete structure that from a distance looks like complex and intricately folded origami dropped on an undulating field between two masses of old growth forests. “The site is beautiful to the point of being sublime, especially in summer,” says Arbel, principal at architectural firm Omer Arbel Office and Creative Director for Bocci, a young contemporary design and manufacturing house known for large chandelier installations and custom fabrications of extremely large proportions. Set in the coastal town of White Rock some 40 kilometers south of Vancouver and a 5-minute drive from the Canada-U.S. border, the 23.2 House (the name references the second version of OAO’s 23rd project) is an 11-room triangular structure arranged into pockets of intimate spaces that fold into internal rooms, each with its own outdoor space overlooking the trees and pasture.

“It was important for us that the experience of living in this home allowed intimacy, domesticity and comfort with the rather overwhelming landscape,” says Arbel. Indeed, the only requests the client made were that the house be constructed on one level only; that every interior space in the house have a profound relationship to the exterior; and that the project make use of a depository of large, century-old reclaimed Douglas Fir beams that were rescued from burned down warehouses.

It was clear to Arbel and the client that wood of this dimension—the beams are milled from one enormous tree, over a meter deep and 30 meters long—is rarely available. The beams became the “poetic engine” of the project; sacred objects not be manipulated or finished in any way. Because each beam was entirely unique in terms of length, cross-sectional dimension and structural capacity, Arbel had to conceive a geometry that could accommodate the tremendous dimensional variety while still narrating legible domestic space. Indeed, the beams define not only the ceilingscape of each interior room but also read strongly as elements of the building façade.

“One of the challenges of working with a complex geometry is that it’s very difficult to predict, on an intuitive, spatial level, how the human body might occupy rooms with strange geometries and proportions,” says Arbel. “As an architect, while working on the drawings, you do your best to imagine yourself in these spaces. But because this kind of space has not formed part of my past experiences, the imagination sometimes reaches limits.”

Despite initial concerns about the geometry and the overt 1960’s brutalist overtone of the project, both the architect and the client are extremely happy with the outcome. “We knew all along that the heavy wood roof would warm up the rather brutalist reading of the concrete walls,” says Arbel.  Special attention was paid to the way natural light entered the space while also making sure that every room was naturally cross-ventilated. Indeed, blurring the line between inside and out, Arbel redefined a corner in each room by pulling the structure back from the corner itself, using bent steel columns. Outfitted with large accordion doors that retract to the sides entirely when open, the rooms feature corners that completely disappear to create very ambiguous semi-indoor, semi-outdoor spaces.

Furnished almost entirely with custom-made pieces—from the black walnut dinning room table to the built-in credenzas and the open bookshelf-cum-room-divider—the 23.2 House explores, like many of Arbel’s other work, the relationship between spaces and objects. Within each environment the objects are considered spatial and the space is objectified. “The approach here was to provide, crisp, highly crafted furnishings with a precise, machined quality to contrast with the rather rough textures of the heavy wood roof and concrete walls,” says Arbel. The contrast between these very different textures ended up creating a richness of experience that please both architect and client.

“It was a pleasure to build a house for a family that I know so well,” he says. “I felt, or even saw in my mind’s eye, on an intuitive level, how they might inhabit the various spaces, and hopefully the resulting decisions ended up resonating.” For his part, the client couldn’t be happier with the outcome. “It’s pretty perfect,” he says. “There’s really nothing I would change.”