Blank Canvas

Working with an architect for the first time, Dr. Maggie Hart and Patrick Woodson began their journey with an inspired vision for an irresistible but challenging site in West Austin. Their ideal house was perfectly illustrated in a design publication — a project by Dallas-based Malone Maxwell Borson Architects (MMB). Magazine in hand, the couple began their search for an architect who could bring this family of five closer to their vision. 

Nervously, Maggie decided to call Michael Malone, AIA, the founding principal of MMB. Surprised to find Malone fielding his own phone calls, the couple was reassured by his gentle demeanor and accessibility. Refreshingly lacking in preconceived ideas and eager to fulfill Patrick and Maggie’s vision, Maline and his design team went straight for the intricate details of the project.

Instead of drawing on a vernacular that would blend the house into the site, the architects imagined a bolder conceptual approach: a transparent pavilion designed instead to integrate daily living into the landscape. A quick study of the house might lead one to view the work as simply a self-referential object set atop the land. However, the minimalist material palette of stucco and glass manages to surrender the house’s presence to the land, bringing the surrounding trees and hills into the residential space itself. The overall effect echoes a less surreal but ever-magical Turrell installation. The perception of place is amplified as one looks through the house rather than at it, while it gently soaks up the color of light and landscape beyond.

Long and wide, the site perches on a westward-facing bluff, the result of the Colorado River carving through rock over time. The placement of the house was prescribed by the steep gradient and by five mature “century” oaks, and it recedes before the view it heralds. A long walkway, unadorned by heavy landscaping, draws one deep into the heart of the site, where the main entry is tucked between the glass envelopes of the family room and the dining room. The latter forms a peninsula in the waters of an almost moat-like swimming pool. Mediating house and landscape, the pool’s sweeping infinity edge welds the land and water into a hairline joint, referencing the river below and incorporating water into every view. A bathhouse delineates the south edge of the pool. Resting alongside the lake and introducing Hill Country views, it acts as a refuge for outdoor living while — importantly — screening the dining room from the harsh late-afternoon sun.

Magnificent westward views of gently rolling hills blanketed by indigenous trees has invited a carefully structured architectural response, one that would balance the picturesque overlooks against the unfavorable orientation, the challenging western wall. A thoughtful 

composition of planes and volumes works in concert with walls of glass to provide the interior with open views while minimizing glare and solar exposure. Instead of aligning the broad side of the main living room along the western edge, the architects turned it 90 degrees. Its narrower western edge features a double-height expanse of glazing, but the two-story living room recedes eastward into the shade and relative coolness of the rest of the house. The flanking volumes on the south create a light shelf that joins with north-facing clerestories to ensure profuse natural light throughout the space. This central living area, with its soaring ceiling, takes on the role of public square, and the most important family spaces — kitchen, dining, living, media room, and playroom — are all organized around it. The master suite is situated to the northwest side of the house, where it also benefits from arresting views. The children’s wing, with ensuite bedrooms, is placed to the east, with direct access from each bedroom to the yard. A carport extends off this wing and doubles as a covered, multi-season play area for the children. 

To ensure maximum comfort and efficiency, the formal strategy is supplemented by automatic sunscreens that drop from recessed slots along the perimeter of the window walls. Sensors track the sun as it moves across the sky; the self-adjusting screens drop the appropriate distance in response, varying throughout the year in tempo with the seasons. Interior finishes are minimal and restrained, and include only a handful of accent materials set against a backdrop of modest yet resilient surfaces selected by the design team to absorb the activity and kid’s play without damage. “Concrete floors are indestructible; glass walls can be wiped clean; white walls can be repainted,” Malone says. “The fact that the kids can ride a razor scooter in the house and not freak anyone out is pretty cool.” Accents to the overall materials include meticulously grain-matched walnut millwork and stone tile. 

With acuity, MMB conceived a house that reflects two realities: one that sits in thoughtful relation to its surroundings, and one that will contain a full and active life for a couple with three playful children. Bringing this into a carefully executed composition, the house, instead of asserting itself as an independent abstract object, is transformed into a blank canvas on which the landscape is painted and the family life unfolds without pretense. According to Woodson, “Michael and his office were able to take our disjointed thoughts, wishes, and ideas and meld them into a far better reality than we had imagined.”

Chris Cobb, AIA, is an architect in Austin. 

Originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Texas Architect.