Shapeshifting rooftops taking centre stage

Sculptural and sinuous, roofscapes are finally coming into their own as the crowning glory of contemporary homes. Dominic Bradbury reports

Why Architecture’s design for a main residence and guesthouse in Chiang Mai was partly inspired by Japanese villas and their matching tea pavilions
Why Architecture’s design for a main residence and guesthouse in Chiang Mai was partly inspired by Japanese villas and their matching tea pavilions

At last, the roof over our heads is getting the attention it deserves. The choice of pitched or flat has come to seem limiting and overly conservative in the 21st century and there is now a distinct push towards something more adventurous and imaginative. The arrival of fresh, fluid forms takes the roof from afterthought to key architectural element, which not only offers shelter but creates character and a strong identity.

The curvaceous roofs for the guesthouse and main residence also reference the local craft tradition of umbrella-making, expressed in an abstract architectural form
The curvaceous roofs for the guesthouse and main residence also reference the local craft tradition of umbrella-making, expressed in an abstract architectural form

In some ways, these modern roofscapes draw inspiration from vernacular ideas, from towering oast houses through to sculpted thatch and temple pagodas. But there’s also the influence of the 1950s and 1960s, when midcentury designers felt liberated enough to explore all kinds of statement canopies, from A-frames to soaring butterfly wings. That same spirit is evident among today’s architects, who are increasingly drawn to sinuous, expressive forms – and are helped by computer-aided design software and advanced engineering. At the same time, dynamic roofscapes deliver practical benefits. They can help unify a complex plan, drawing together different kinds of volumes and spaces under a single, overarching vision, while also sheltering verandas and terraces.

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In the UK, Caring Wood, designed by Macdonald Wright Architects and Rural Office for Architecture, is a striking new country family house of many parts arranged around an internal courtyard and expansive terrace that is defined in large measure by an extraordinary roofscape. The sculptural outline of complementary towers, silhouetted against the Kent landscape, is reminiscent of traditional oast houses but expressed in a contemporary manner, featuring handmade clay tiles combined with skylights and banks of glass. The undulating shapes of the roofs help define the nature and function of the separate spaces beneath them, including a large music room designed for recitals.

Tham & Videgård’s Krokholmen retreat takes cues from tents and Nordic pavilions
Tham & Videgård’s Krokholmen retreat takes cues from tents and Nordic pavilions

“The design was influenced by regional building styles, crafts and techniques, while the square oasts at Great Dixter and Sissinghurst, in particular, inspired the roof form,” says architect James Macdonald Wright. “The character we were aiming for – as in a type of oast – is ordinary for Kent, but we wanted to create a twist on that traditional form and hint that this is a country estate that has taken on the mantle of the contemporary in a whole-hearted way. For me, it’s about the importance of regional craft and exploring the genius loci.”

Chris Tate’s Tent House in New Zealand was similarly inspired by the simple shape of his tent on a camping trip
Chris Tate’s Tent House in New Zealand was similarly inspired by the simple shape of his tent on a camping trip

Architectural practice Blee Halligan’s Five Acre Barn in Suffolk also draws on vernacular influences to create a mesmerising addition to an existing farmstead. The new building here was designed to offer upscale accommodation for B&B visitors and has the appearance of a shingle-coated barn with a roof shaped like a wave. The zigzag meets the owners’ request for something “out of the ordinary”, but once again has pragmatic benefits, helping to craft the bedrooms within, which mostly feature mezzanine sleeping platforms beneath skylights. “We wanted the building to be distinctive and something that would intrigue potential guests,” says David Woodbine, a consultant in the charity sector, who owns the barn with Bruce Badrock, a former naval officer. “Our feeling was that if we were going to all the trouble of building something bespoke, then we should ensure everyone knows it. At the start there were a couple of versions of the zigzag, but we particularly liked this one because it gave us these dramatic mezzanine galleries as an addition to the rooms themselves.”

A pair of sinuous roofs hovers over Thomas Heatherwick’s conversion of the Coal Drops Yard building in London
A pair of sinuous roofs hovers over Thomas Heatherwick’s conversion of the Coal Drops Yard building in London

At their best, sculptural roofs bring functional benefits such as these, but also the sort of pleasures afforded by works of art. Swedish architects Bolle Tham and Martin Videgård have a positive pedigree when it comes to seizing the chance to design crowns and canopies that exhibit originality and creativity. The duo’s summer retreat on Krokholmen – a small island within Stockholm’s archipelago – is rich in such delight, featuring a curvaceous roof softly ascending to a point, like a child’s drawing of a mountain peak. Tham and Videgård compare it to the shape of a tent, but also reference Nordic pavilions and gazebos, which form a distinct presence in an open landscape. “With each project we strive to make spaces that add to the experience of a specific place – and that includes the roof,” says Tham. “Many of our homes have these ‘place-making’ roofs.”

A-shaped windows punctuate Jens Quistgaard’s Armonk residence in New York state, which BarlisWedlick Architects has converted into a private wellness retreat
A-shaped windows punctuate Jens Quistgaard’s Armonk residence in New York state, which BarlisWedlick Architects has converted into a private wellness retreat

In Thailand, architect Kulapat Yantrasast of Why Architecture has created a house in two parts where this idea of “place making” comes across vividly. The design of the main residence and guesthouse in Chiang Mai – designed for asset manager Patrick Corfe and his partner Yupa, a textile collector – was partly inspired by the idea of Japanese villas and their matching tea pavilions, which become a focal point in the garden. The curvaceous roofs for each building also reference a local craft tradition, expressed in an abstract architectural form. “Chiang Mai is a centre for umbrella making in Thailand, and I was also captivated by the image of children protecting themselves from tropical rain using a large leaf frond,” says Yantrasast, who is based in Los Angeles but was born in Thailand. “I didn’t want a traditional roof form, but more of a direct response to the climate and culture. As such, it’s a combination of the leaf with a structure inspired by the umbrella.”

YH2 Architecture’s La Colombière in Québec reinvents a forest hut
YH2 Architecture’s La Colombière in Québec reinvents a forest hut

The fronds crowning both buildings shelter the internal living spaces, as well as integrated terraces, decks and balconies, blurring the distinctions between inside and outside living. “When you are under the roofs, what seduces you most is their almost voluptuous form, which takes on a different aspect depending on whether you’re staring up at them from bed or gazing out to the river nearby with the roof helping to frame the view,” says Corfe.

In Thailand, dramatic triangular roofs dominate Stu/D/O Architects’ design for the Gliding Villa and its guesthouse
In Thailand, dramatic triangular roofs dominate Stu/D/O Architects’ design for the Gliding Villa and its guesthouse

At the Gliding Villa, also in Thailand, the dramatic triangular roof serves to provide shelter and shade, but also unifies different parts of the home. Designed by Stu/D/O Architects and situated next to a golf course near Khao Yai National Park, this vacation home, owned by entrepreneur Vipart Pakathikom and his family, unites bedrooms and living spaces with decks and verandas between them under one extraordinary cedarwood canopy. Triangles punched out of it create apertures framing the sky, and a second villa alongside, used as a guesthouse, is designed on the same principles. “The roof is thin and light – appearing as though it’s levitating – and represents the aesthetic of the entire house, offering something bold yet in harmony with the surroundings,” says architect Apichart Srirojanapinyo.

Caring Wood – designed by Macdonald Wright Architects and Rural Office for Architecture – puts a twist on traditional Kentish forms
Caring Wood – designed by Macdonald Wright Architects and Rural Office for Architecture – puts a twist on traditional Kentish forms

The combination of various distinct modules in one home, arranged according to function, also creates opportunities to generate a more complex and abstract roofscape of interlocking forms. Across the ocean in the Catskills, New York, this is evident in a standout vacation cabin designed by Corpus Studio, which is composed of five spaces devoted to living, cooking, dining, sleeping and bathing, topped by a handful of irregular peaks. “The house draws inspiration from the surrounding mountains, but we also wanted to create playful forms that recall that collective memory of traditional cabins,” says architect Konrad Steffensen.

The surrounding Catskill Mountains inspired the irregular peaks of Corpus Studio’s cabin in New York state
The surrounding Catskill Mountains inspired the irregular peaks of Corpus Studio’s cabin in New York state

The playfulness of such houses is reminiscent not only of the vernacular, but also of the midcentury period, when John Lautner, Félix Candela, Oscar Niemeyer and others explored expressive roofscapes that were enchanting and fun. These masterpieces have become key reference points for contemporary designers, while period gems have been revived and restored, including Jens Quistgaard’s 1961 Armonk residence in New York state. The house, recently converted by BarlisWedlick into a private wellness retreat, features a delightful roofline formed by a collection of A-shaped dormer windows – or lanterns – lined up like birds on a wire.

The roof of Blee Halligan’s Five Acre Barn in Suffolk follows a zigzag pattern
The roof of Blee Halligan’s Five Acre Barn in Suffolk follows a zigzag pattern

The A-framed home – a style particularly favoured in the midcentury period – is experiencing a marked revival. The roof becomes the house itself, lending a delightful purity to the genre. In New Zealand, architect Chris Tate is fascinated with A-frames and decided to build his own version on Waiheke Island as a holiday retreat. Another key source of inspiration was a camping trip, where the simple shape of his tent got him thinking. “The roof line is the complete skin of the building, so it becomes wall, roof and envelope,” says Tate of his resulting Tent House. “We used a black metal cladding, which accentuates the pure white interior, and the roof also collects our water for household use. It is so crazy and fun to be in and completely different from our 110-year‑old everyday home. The children love it.”

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In Canada, YH2 Architecture has created another variant of the A-frame with its country cabin in Québec for a landscape designer. Known as La Colombière, or “The Dovecote”, the house is a reinvention of a forest hut that previously sat on the site. Architect and client were intent on using the same footprint to preserve the natural surroundings, and so built upwards and topped it with an A-frame roof featuring an elevated hexagonal-shaped deck indented within the side of the building. It serves as a treetop eyrie, looking out into the woodland. “It’s more difficult to design a roof like this than a flat one, but it does have a great effect,” says architect Marie-Claude Hamelin. “The house is really a refuge in the forest reminiscent of a bird box.”

The roof has become a place of high ambition – and there is a growing interest in creating expressive designs for all kinds of buildings. Thomas Heatherwick’s pair of sinuous kissing roofs hovering over his conversion of the Coal Drops Yard building in King’s Cross, which opened last week as a retail complex, is a beautiful example. “The roof has been an underappreciated component of modern architecture,” Yantrasast concludes. “I have always loved roof forms that are a key architectural element of a building.”

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