Less is More
Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm,” declared Plato, “depend on simplicity.” But one of the great ironies of life is that achieving simplicity is no simple thing. It’s as easy to go wrong making a perfect omelet as it is to muff a soufflé. And when it comes to design, grace and good rhythm can be elusive, especially when the goal is to distil architecture to its most harmonious essence. But for Michael Siegel, Associate Principal at Chicago’s VOA Associates, helping to realize the dynamic simplicity that radiates from this Hinsdale home was the kind of challenge that makes his work worthwhile.
The residence was conceived by Swedish architects Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen, with whom Siegel had worked when VOA carried out his design for the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C. “I was sitting with Gert and Tomas in a restaurant on an island in the Baltic Sea one night, and Tomas said, ‘Do you know any good architects in Chicago?’ He was joking, but he said, ‘We have this house concept we started and we need someone to finish it for us.’ I got back to the States, and he sent me two small plans and two perspective visions of the house and a note to the client telling him, ‘This is the guy we think you should use.’ We went to see the homeowner expecting an interview and he said, ‘When are you going to start?’”
While landing the job was simple enough, executing the project required intense focus and the best of Siegel’s expertise in construction. Conceived to occupy its lakeside site as if it were almost an element of the landscape itself, the home devolves into its surroundings, its open plan and crisp, minimal form extending seamlessly to the outdoors. Key to this intimacy with nature is the extensive glazing that envelops the expansive living areas. “Achieving that flow of space dictated a curtain wall that is pure sheets of glass,” notes Siegel. “The glass has no mullions, and it disappears into recessed channels in the floor and in the ceiling, so there’s no interruption of the spatial flow.”
On the first floor, the U-shaped plan comprises the kitchen, dining room, and living room, all of which are visible to each other through the glass curtain wall. The open layout, suggests Siegel, enhances the connections between the family members living here. And the black granite floor in these spaces stretches outside to form a terrace, which is in essence, the heart of the home. “The house is all about living in a place, on a knoll overlooking a lake,” states Siegel. “And it’s almost like living outside, because you are bathed in light.”
The structure’s orientation to the outdoors is manifest upstairs in bedrooms outfitted with glass walls and private terraces. Throughout the house, nothing is allowed to mar the purity of line that gives the home its satisfying geometry. Door frames and thresholds are flush. Outlets and light switches are discreetly located to reinforce the clean minimal esthetic.
Standing outside, where a pool shoots beyond the terrace to intersect with the landscape, one sees how the home’s concrete construction rides delicately above the glass walls. Painted white, it is excised at points to admit light into the interior, a strategy the underscores the airy transparency of the building while creating visually engaging play of solids and voids.
“Much of this house is typical construction, but the way it’s detailed is very elegant and modern to be more like an art museum,” notes Siegel. To remain true to Wingårdh’s design and the homeowner’s vision, Siegel and his VOA colleague, Gayle Soberg, were scrupulous in sourcing the best materials and technologies possible. “From the beginning, the client was driven to have incredible design, but everything was evaluated very rigorously. It was not a matter of the coolest, most expensive thing wins. But what was most telling was the client’s willingness to take advantage of what the world market provides. I believe firmly in collaboration and when you have a diversity of mind-sets that stretches across the globe, you will have better ideas. And, secondly, searching for products, materials, and processes across the globe allows you to achieve things that you normally could not with what is readily available here. There are parts of this house we engineered in Sweden. We brought parts from Belgium.”
Any homeowner who has undertaken a construction project knows that “schedule” is a fluid term. But Siegel says accessing materials from abroad did not adversely affect his timetable. “You have to plan, of course. When you’re getting windows from Sweden, it’s not an eight-week wait, it’s not like picking something up at the local lumberyard. And this home demanded a high level of craftsmanship. It’s not something that the normal guy coming to the site knows how to build. You have to explain the expectations and all the relationships of the parts. But what I found really refreshing about this project was the commitment to design something of our time. I give the client a lot of credit for being brave enough to do that.”
—Words by Thomas Connors