Commissioned to do a small house in upstate New York with views to the Catskill Mountains, architect Thomas Phifer knew that he didn’t want to spoil the natural setting. “There was this sloping field that was remarkably heroic and just precious,” he recalled. “From some angles it almost looks like Ireland.”
Paradoxical though it may seem, Phifer and his studio preserved the site’s integrity by cutting away at it. They embedded the home—a series of discrete pavilions, threaded together by low, vaulted passages—into the excavated earth and subsequently restored the grounds to their former pitch and standing. In elevation, the hill appears to wend its way through the tar-black building volumes. It’s an indelible image that betrays a cunning grasp of scenography.
The inspiration for the plan, which arranges interconnected rooms like ants-on-a-log, was coincidental. One day, while mulling over possible spatial configurations, Phifer reached for a worn copy of Constantinos Doxiadis’s 1972 monograph, Architectural Space in Ancient Greece. Through a comparative analysis of temples, Doxiadis purported to uncover the “secret of the system of architectural spacing” that “had the effect of satisfying man [sic] and uplifting his spirit as he entered a public space.” Diagrams lay bare the geometric principles sundering solids from voids.