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Hamptons Cottages & Gardens

“The Big Picture.” Steele, Lockhart. August 2004.
see project page here  

There are few places left on the South Fork where there's land to be had-real land, that is: giant, raw expanses that awaken one's inner Feudal Lord. On the northwest corner of Montauk, on the opposite side of town from the bluffs Paul Morrissey hopes might fetch him $50 million, is such a spot— or, rather, was such a spot a few years back when Gavin Cutler went looking for a place to build a house.

At the time, Cutler had been vacationing in Montauk for 15 years, renting a summer shack in Ditch Plains during time away from his Manhattan video editing company, MacKenzie Cutler. When the time came to buy, he knew he wanted to stay local. At the promontory known as Culloden Point, he found a subdivision of undeveloped land where the developers had just won zoning approval to sell 54 buildable lots (down from a proposed 200) alongside a 190-acre nature preserve. Cutler was the second person to buy.

That quick decision won him a piece of paradise: a flag lot perched on the edge of a nature preserve, a mere 200 feet from a bluff that dropped dramatically down to the bay. Yet, for all the natural grandeur of the site, it wasn't immediately clear just what exactly Cutler had purchased.

"When I first saw the land, there wasn't even a finished road. We walked a mile down a path to get to the lot," recalls Robert Young, the architect Cutler hired to design the home for the site. "Once we got there, we couldn't see anything—it was covered in shrubs and trees. We weren't sure how good the views were going to be." Once the undergrowth had been cleared, however, the architect and owner discovered what they had to work with: a peninsula-shaped lot with mind-blowing wrap around bay vistas. This, Young realized, was going to be fun.

Young, a principal at Murdock Young Architects in New York City, previously handled the renovation of Cutler's South Street Seaport loft. There, he used a modernist style that cleverly accented rather than downplayed existing elements such as the weathered brick walls. Here, given nothing more than a site plan to work with, Young again drew on his modernist tendencies.

"The tradition of experimentation with modern architecture in the Hamptons was inspirational," says the architect. "We were remote enough that we didn't have a context, but modern architecture is particularly successful in a natural environment. On such a secluded site, we were able to design a house that really opened up."

To put it simply Responding to the unusually shaped building envelope, Young placed two forms on an angle to each other. One block comprises the public rooms—the great room and kitchen—while the other holds the private bedrooms and baths. The public wing is cantilevered over a sloping hillside, creating open space underneath that serves as a covered outdoor living room. In the great room that occupies the interior space above, Young set a wall of windows along the west wall to soak in the views of Gardiners Island—and the sunsets. "The overriding factor was the views. Capturing them became the real priority," he acknowledges.

But, Young did not want to make the mistake of saturating the house with the vistas beyond, fearing that they might, like a too-perfect postcard, all but disappear from the viewer's consciousness. "We wanted to design the house in a way so that if you moved even five feet in a room, the view would look different," he explains. In that spirit, Young preserved two large oak trees that obscure the view of the beach (and the distant Connecticut coastline) to the north. "It's more interesting to have moments where you're looking through the trees," he says.

In the private wing, the upstairs holds a large master bedroom and master bathroom; the downstairs contains two guest bedrooms separated by a movable floor-to-ceiling sliding cork panel. The corner where the two wings come together—and where visitors enter the house—is set partly into the earth, making for a stairwell and mid-level entryway between upstairs and downstairs, one of Young's attempts to avoid some oft-seen sins of modern architecture. "We worked to avoid the feeling of an upside-down house," he says.

Young also fought modernist convention with the materials he employed on the interior. In the great room, mahogany strips serve as valences over the windows, and a long built-in bench beneath the windows is also fashioned from the wood. "We tried to give texture to the space," Young says. The architect worked With Cutler to decorate the interiors, which echo the clean lines and wood themes of the architecture with items like a cocktail table made from two pieces of ebony.

Even the outside of the structure rays with expectations about modern and traditional. Exposed concrete supports were formed with 2x8 boards, an old-fashioned method that imprints the quirks of the wood into the material. "We see ourselves as champions of refuting the perception that modern architecture is cold by creating modern architecture that is warm, inviting and has a human element," Young says. In this natural world, at least, the modern feels right at home.