Something to reflect on: mirrored houses

Mirrored façades are creating homes that are part art installation, part camouflaged hideaway – their appearance changing with the season, weather and even hour. Dominic Bradbury reports

Pound Ridge House in New York state, by KieranTimberlake; similar projects, price on request
Pound Ridge House in New York state, by KieranTimberlake; similar projects, price on request | Image: Peter Aaron/OTTO

There has been a quiet revolution in recent years in the materials that we use to wrap our homes. Both imagination and technology have propelled a whole new wave of choice in layers and coatings that define the outward identity of freshly conceived houses. One of the most fascinating and dynamic exemplars of this push towards a 21st-century portfolio of residential façades is the mirrored house.

Of course, mirrored surfaces have been a commonplace sight upon the soaring planes of urban office buildings and city skyscrapers for some time now. We are also well used to the notion of utilising mirrored glass within the home to help circulate light, increase the perception of space and add an element of drama. But now contemporary architects are increasingly bringing mirrored glass and polished metallic skins to the exteriors of residences as well.

















Front of a pair of Mirror Houses in Bolzano, Italy, by Peter Pichler Design; similar projects, from about €600,000
Front of a pair of Mirror Houses in Bolzano, Italy, by Peter Pichler Design; similar projects, from about €600,000 | Image: Oskar Da Riz

These mirrored surfaces offer many subtle delights and intricacies, whether in a countryside or urban setting. They establish a sense of movement and interaction, mirroring the energy of the surroundings and capturing the sway of trees and shifting shapes and shadows as the sun and clouds progress across the sky. These reflections help a building to blend in with its surroundings in the form of mirrored camouflage rather than shouting out its architectural presence.

The relatively modest scale of mirrored houses recalls Anish Kapoor’s mesmerising Sky Mirror artworks in Nottingham, Kensington Gardens and elsewhere and the surreal installations of Phillip K Smith III, including a vintage homesteader’s shack coated in mirror panels set in the open desert of the Joshua Tree National Park, California.

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It comes as no surprise then that many mirror houses possess art-world influences and references, including KieranTimberlake architects’ Pound Ridge House (similar projects, price on request), set among 29 acres of land in New York state. Commissioned by art collectors Michael and Olga Kagan, an equity portfolio manager and a film producer, the Pound Ridge project was partly informed by the desire to make a home within an alluring landscape, along with the ambition to house an art collection that includes pieces by MC Escher, best known for his images of impossible buildings and distorted realities.

“We very much intended to build a work of art,” says Michael Kagan. “Architecture and architectural art speak deeply to us, and as building the house took a tremendous amount of time and effort, it was only worthwhile if we felt that we were helping to create a great piece of art too. Otherwise, we would have just bought one of the McMansions selling for a song after the financial crisis.”

Rear of a pair of Mirror Houses in Bolzano, Italy, by Peter Pichler Design; similar projects, from about €600,000
Rear of a pair of Mirror Houses in Bolzano, Italy, by Peter Pichler Design; similar projects, from about €600,000 | Image: Oskar Da Riz

Kagan has known the area well for more than 40 years and his family bought the land six years ago. The Kagans and architect Stephen Kieran – whose practice is currently working on the new American Embassy in London – settled upon a striking spot surrounded by woodland and nestling among granite outcrops. The house is arranged in two distinct parts that slot into the topography and are connected by a bridge. For the façade, the design team looked at a number of different options before settling on a composition that includes reflective polished stainless-steel panels, brushed stainless steel, coated copper and transparent window glass.

“It is the broader sense of the natural place that we were after, including the sky, the earth and the passing of time,” says Kieran. “It is with these more ephemeral sensibilities that the idea of the reflective elements arose to capture the essence of the place as the weather and seasons change, providing a compelling counterpoint to the permanence of the geology.”

Mimetic House in County Leitrim, Ireland, by Dominic Stevens Architects; similar projects, from €300,000
Mimetic House in County Leitrim, Ireland, by Dominic Stevens Architects; similar projects, from €300,000 | Image: Ros Kavanagh

The split form of the house lessens the building’s impact on the landscape, while the semi-reflective façade creates an intricate sense of connection with the oak, maple and beech trees. The use of fieldstone to form a plinth and lower entry level for the main body of the house above also helps tie the structure to its setting.  “We love how the house changes in its appearance depending on the time of day and the weather – and your point of view as you walk around it,” say the Kagans. “The four materials with their different reflective qualities are much more powerful than just a mirrored surface would be.”

In Ireland, architect Dominic Stevens designed the Mimetic House in rural County Leitrim (similar projects, from €300,000) for artists Grace Weir and Joe Walker using a semi-reflective solar-control glass made by Saint-Gobain that is more commonly found on the outside of office buildings. The effect is striking, with the house mirroring the rugged green folds of the landscape and disappearing within it, helped by a planted roof. It has the look of an art installation and was partly inspired by an innocuous reflective office building on the one hand and a retrospective exhibition by artist Dan Graham on the other, which included a number of his pavilions that use reflective glass.

Eidolon House in Highgate, London, by Dominic McKenzie Architects; similar projects, price on request
Eidolon House in Highgate, London, by Dominic McKenzie Architects; similar projects, price on request | Image: Will Pryce

Weir had owned the land for a number of years, hoping to build something original and inventive as a second home. Then she was introduced to Stevens by friends of friends, and the artists now regard the house as their prime residence, with a modest lower level tucked into the earth and an open-plan living space on the upper level. This elevated pavilion becomes a platform for viewing the land and the sky.

“The façade is fundamental to the building in that from the outside it looks like a piece of the field folded up to form a living space,” says Stevens. “But it also makes the white interior a huge hidden surprise, because you could never imagine it when you view the house from a distance. So it gives this immense sense of privacy – you are living in a secret place that sits in plain view.”

Green Orchard house in south Gloucestershire, by Paul Archer Design; about £500,000
Green Orchard house in south Gloucestershire, by Paul Archer Design; about £500,000 | Image: Will Pryce

Mirrored homes have also appeared in more urban contexts. In London’s Highgate, architect Dominic McKenzie has created a contemporary house (similar projects, price on request) for patent lawyer Sophie Rich and her family that features a dramatic façade of highly polished stainless-steel panels. This mirrored wall creates a reflecting screen for the trees in nearby Waterlow Park, while the outline of the building complements a number of other distinguished modernist and contemporary houses on the same street. The building was christened the Eidolon House, meaning “phantom”, “double image” or “idealised”.

“All of our initial thoughts were guided by the principle of wanting to make the house connect with and celebrate its natural surroundings,” says McKenzie. “We looked at green living walls, where the whole façade is composed of real plants, but that was just too complicated. With a mirror, we could use the façade to capture and highlight the surroundings, and the way that the house looks depends almost entirely on the sunlight and the general appearance of the trees opposite. Whenever you see the house it is never quite the same. It is also slightly surreal, as it can give the illusion of a gap in the row of terraced houses, as though it isn’t there at all.”

Izabelin House in rural Poland, by Reform Architekt’s Marcin Tomaszewski; similar projects, from €500,000
Izabelin House in rural Poland, by Reform Architekt’s Marcin Tomaszewski; similar projects, from €500,000 | Image: Marcin Tomaszewski

Mirrored façades can offer practical solutions as well as artistry and camouflage. When architect Paul Archer was designing a house (about £500,000) on the edge of the Severn Estuary for his retired mother and stepfather, he was inspired by the example of modernist Californian houses with a good deal of glass and transparency. At the same time he was intent on creating a zero-carbon home.

“We soon realised that we would find it difficult to achieve a zero-carbon thermal performance with too much glass,” says Archer. “The idea of the mirrored panels came from trying to replicate the reflectivity of glass all around the building and then it was really sold to us when we did some modelling for the planning application and realised that the building would start to disappear into the landscape. If you go for a walk along the surrounding footpaths, you catch glimpses of the building as it blurs into the vegetation.”

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Archer created a series of panels for Green Orchard house using timber coated with a layer of mirrored aluminium, plus a honeycombed backing that gives the reflective surface a pixelated quality. The panels serve to reflect sunlight in the summer months, stopping the building from overheating, while also serving as insulating shutters that can be moved over the windows with a motorised mechanism to help insulate the house at night or during the winter months. There are also solar thermal panels and photovoltaics on the roof.

Among the apple orchards of Bolzano, in Italy, architect Peter Pichler also introduced reflective walls to a pair of new buildings. His clients, Josef and Angela Sabine Staffler Ebner, own a farmhouse here, as well as a castle in Appiano, which is rented out for weddings and special events. The family decided to build two one-bedroom houses (similar projects, from about €600,000) alongside the farmhouse that they could use as rental properties and for visiting guests, but were worried about the impact that these two new structures might have upon their garden.

Pichler’s solution was to create a glass frontage with open views of the orchards, as well as side walls in black aluminium. The rear elevations facing the farmhouse garden were coated in mirrored glass panels with a special UV coating that prevents birds from flying into them. These walls form a reflecting screen that mirrors the garden, the mountains beyond and the sky. But, crucially, it creates the perception of continuous space without distorting the scale of the garden, while also providing privacy for both the Ebner family and their guests over at the Mirror Houses. “With the mirrored glass we were able to hide the two pavilions and reflect the beautiful surroundings,” says Pichler, who set up his own practice after working with Zaha Hadid. “They almost act as sculptures in the garden, as well as extending it optically. It’s a simple formula, but a very special one: contemporary architecture in a beautiful landscape.”

The stunning visual tricks played by these mirrored homes makes them a source of endless fascination. The multilayered illusions that they offer are as intriguing to architects and their clients as they are to artists such as Kapoor and Graham. At times these illusions become startling, as in the case of Reform Architekt’s Izabelin House in rural Poland (similar projects, from €500,000), designed by Marcin Tomaszewski as a second home for a couple with their own marketing company and a young child. The two-storey house sits among the trees and consists of two rectangular boxes, with the modest upper level forming a crisp white box floating upon a larger base storey coated in polished panels made from the aluminium composite Alucobond. The mirrored surface reflects the trees back into the landscape, making the base of the building all but disappear, while the upper portion of the house seems to be hovering in mid air.

“The mirrored surface appears as an extension of the forest floor and so the house integrates perfectly with nature,” says Tomaszewski. “But it’s that levitating block of the second floor that really pleases me most about the project.” And so a house that might have appeared rather ordinary becomes quite extraordinary with the magic of mirrors. Few contemporary skins or surfaces for house and home could be quite as mesmerising and intriguing as the reflective façade.

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