May 02 2012
There is a fresh wave of contemporary architects who have little fear of heights – or gravity. They are tempted towards buildings that push themselves outwards into space and touch the void, so that they float in the air itself. Clever cantilevers – as these projecting, elevated spaces are known – frame extraordinary views, while also lending a sense of drama and excitement to the architecture of a home. They often maximise the space available and orientate a building towards sunlight and the views. No wonder, then, that in recent years we have seen a rise in designs that make the best of these balancing acts.
Advances in engineering and a growing demand for statement homes – even on challenging and exposed rural sites – have helped make these precarious-looking structures a reality. But the designs also have a pedigree of classic modernist and mid-century houses behind them, including the gravity-defying work of John Lautner, who liked to test his engineers to the limit with pioneering Californian houses perched on cliff edges or anchored to steep hillsides. Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1930s Fallingwater building famously pushes itself out over a running stream in Pennsylvania, while in Ireland, Scott Tallon Walker created an astonishing pavilion in the early 1970s – the Goulding House – which floats above the River Dargle.
Of the current crop of cantilevered homes, the RIBA-award-winning Balancing Barn in Suffolk is one of the most enticing, designed by Dutch practice MVRDV for Living Architecture – a collection of contemporary holiday and weekend homes that was curated to inspire interest in modern architecture. The barn (available to rent) is clad in shiny metal shingles and makes the most of the undulating topography in this rural spot, with half of the 30m length of the single-storey building suspended over a sudden drop in the level of the land. The living room is right at the end of the cantilever, complete with a glass floor for savouring the distance to ground level below. MVRDV has even hung a swing off the tip of the barn.
“There’s something very basic about a cantilever that captures the imagination,” says writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, who co-founded Living Architecture and was a key part of the team that commissioned the Balancing Barn. “It defies something we generally have an intuitive sense of in a building; namely, how is this thing supporting itself? We aren’t sure if it will stand up, it feels insecure, but in the process makes us appreciate security all the more. It threatens us, but in a lighthearted way – like slightly scaring someone for a good effect. We’re tickled by something that seems to suspend the normal rules.”
The Holman House in Australia by architects Durbach Block Jaggers, is also a showstopper, but in a very different kind of location: its Y-shaped pair of cantilevered spaces pushes out over a 70m-high cliff edge at Dover Heights, Sydney, framing twin views out to sea. One of these cantilevers – supported by angled stilts – holds the kitchen/dining room and the other the living room. It creates the most photogenic of seaside homes.
“The intention was to allow the occupants to feel as if they were floating over the ocean – weightless, calm and connected,” says architect Neil Durbach. “The idea of defying gravity has been a compelling interest for architects and the cantilever is really a horizontal version of the soaring, heavenly tower.”
These bespoke designs emerge from a very specific response to the site and location. That’s also true of Ty Hedfan – which is Welsh for “hovering house” – built by architects Sarah Featherstone and Jeremy Young just outside the Brecon Beacons National Park (available to rent). They found that because the riverbank was a Site of Special Scientific Interest, planning restrictions were in place to protect this natural habitat and they could not build within 7m of the water. The cantilever offered the perfect solution, projecting out towards the river but never touching the ground beneath it. It also created a dramatic viewing platform to appreciate the trees and the flowing water below, while an integrated terrace – part of the cantilevered section – offers their three-year-old son a safe and secure outdoor play area.
“It’s not a huge plot of land, so if we hadn’t used the cantilever we wouldn’t have had much land to build on,” says Featherstone. “We were keen to maximise what we had and we ended up doing so much more than we had ever imagined. It feels like a treehouse. It has improved the whole experience of living here and the floating element is quite magical.”
Architect John Pardey and his client Dawn Pooley also had limitations on space when they decided to build a new house on a narrow site facing the sea on Hayling Island, not far from Portsmouth. The house needed to make the most of the sea views, while also dealing with any potential flood risk. Pardey decided to place the bedrooms within a ground-floor level positioned across the site, but the main living spaces on the upper storey sit within a timber-clad block at right angles to the plinth below and form cantilevered elements projecting to front and back. The open-plan living room reaches out towards the sea in a way that was partly inspired by Pardey’s fond memories of Can Lis in Mallorca – a building by the legendary Jørn Utzon, who designed the Sydney Opera House.
“What I find most enjoyable about the cantilevered space on this house is the way that it reinforces the idea of a timber box balancing on a masonry base,” says Pardey, who is also using a dramatic cantilever in another project in Falmouth. “The cantilever is always attractive as a design element as it engenders a feeling of daring, a suspension of belief. It also creates a sense of aspiration and promises a leap of faith into space.”
“The living room has the most incredible views,” adds Pooley. “These are amplified by the length and shape of the room that the cantilever enabled us to build. It also created lovely covered areas; one above the main entrance, and another on the harbour side, which is now an amazing dry-deck area. It defines the character of the house – we love it.”
At Chardonne in Switzerland, architects Patrick Heiz and François Charbonnet, of Made In, were also presented with a modest-sized site – overlooking Lake Geneva – on which to build a house for Heiz’s parents. The site sloped down towards the lake and here they designed an extraordinary rectangular tube, projecting out towards the water and anchored to the ground at the rear, but also supported at the front by slim legs. It is as though a futuristic spacecraft has landed by the lake – an impression enhanced by the stairway entrance that can be raised or lowered from inside.
“One intention was to build a house for a retired couple, with the possibility of living on a single, flat level,” says Heiz. “With the plot located on a very steep wine-growing landscape, the cantilevered structure allowed us to create one horizontal floor over the slope. And with the area being quite narrow, a structure that doesn’t touch the ground allowed us to keep as much terrain as possible free for use as outdoor space.”
Importantly, cantilevered living areas also help to focus the space – and its occupants – on a particular aspect of the landscape, or seascape. For example, the buildings designed by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects in Nova Scotia, Canada, have sometimes been compared to cameras in the way that they focus attention on a vista.
This is especially true of Two Hulls, a mesmerising new home perched on a cliff looking out over the Atlantic. A “double lens” is created with twin cantilevers looking along the coast, one holding the living room and the other the master bedroom. A concrete wall below offers storm-wave protection for the house, which sits on a series of concrete fins, rather like the chocks used to support boats when on dry land for repair or winter storage. A steel frame, meanwhile, is wrapped in clear cedar, giving the house an organic, natural quality.
“With Two Hulls the cantilever has a lot to do with the character of the house and is really a site response,” says architect Brian MacKay-Lyons. “It is like a pair of binoculars focused on a framed view.” Another of his designs in this part of Canada, Cliff House, also uses a cantilevered design. These buildings have emerged – in part – from a long-established boat-building tradition in Nova Scotia, where buildings are often perceived as floating on the landscape like ships and sometimes seen as portable, moved from place to place. The idea of a floating house gives rise to structures that try not to make a strong physical impact on the environment.
When designing a hillside home in the Hudson Valley, New York State, for gallerist Sean Kelly and his wife, architect Toshiko Mori was also looking for a form that offered the sensation of floating within this naturally beautiful landscape.
The upper level of the house – which looks out across a carpet of trees, greenery and undulating hills – projects out over the floor below and the main bedrooms are in the leading edge of this cantilever, with the views. The upper level appears more solid from the outside, with aluminium panels on three elevations, while the lower level is more transparent, enhancing the impression that the top storey is floating in space.
“The cantilever element is essential to the success and fundamental design of the building,” says Mori. “And the site, which has a very spiritual aura, is also of great importance. It is a primitive landscape, unchanged since it was discovered by Henry Hudson. Hence, the clients and I definitely felt that this must be a Native American sanctuary site that celebrates the ‘lift’ into transcendental sensation through the observation of nature. The cantilever carries this sensation into the house.”
Elevated structures and bridge houses – sitting on supports at either end – have also been part of the portfolio at Stelle Architects in the Hamptons for many years. They offer many advantages, such as helping to get over the problems of flooding that can be a real concern in this part of the world, as well as lessening the visual impact of the mass of the building and offering a sense of lightness. Then there is the bonus of creating sheltered terraces and decks that nestle below the overhangs.
Stelle’s Ocean Guest House in Bridgehampton uses a cantilevered form with a terrace below, while its Bay Residence in eastern Long Island is an elevated bridge house with a sumptuous platform close to the ocean, and its new Green Woods House in Amagansett uses cantilevers to create raised living space and balconies that connect with the forest that surrounds the house.
“The drama comes from that experience of having passed a threshold that brings you to this bright, natural and perhaps initially unexpected suspended place,” says architect Viola Rouhani, a partner at Stelle. “They allow the buildings to be freer in the landscape. Views are unobstructed, letting you engage with the surroundings more intensely. The beauty of designing homes in this part of the world is the beauty of the area itself. Cantilevers are often a direct response to this because they bring you further into the landscape.”