Gray Matter

Mell Lawrence isn’t bound by any obvious book of rules. The Austin architect often gets labels like “whimsical” and “playful” tossed at his work. And yet, while there is a certain spirited quality underlying most of his projects, a keen observer will be drawn to the rigor and intellect that underpin them. In other words, there are rules. 

For the Hollowcat Wild residence, the rules focused largely on materials. This mattered because the house is so starkly simple that no gesture goes unnoticed. “The client’s interests were very definitely simple modern architecture, things that were daring and dynamic in form, sophisticated and minimal,” Lawrence said. “With that in mind, we created a strategy, which turned into a rule, which was to make the materials be consistent.” Materials were likewise kept to a mere handful. The palette comprises predominantly limestone, steel, glass, and wood, with each material given a clearly defined role that contributes to the simple harmony of the design.

The site, on a slope in the hills west of Austin, boasts a spectacular view of the city skyline, its landmark buildings strung out like a garland on the horizon. 

From there, a low-slung pavilion bisected by a dogtrot appears through the screen of yaupons, juniper, and mountain laurels, which were left largely to their own devices after minor clearing. The dogtrot creates a visual sliver that provides a glimpse from the scrubby forecourt through the pavilion’s limestone passage, into the courtyard, to the main house’s glass front door, and out the other side. The layers give an immediate sense that this house is no monolith but rather a series of discrete spaces, defined as much by their separation as by their monochromatic unity. 

The owners had found the perfect elevation mark that allowed them to crop out the the roofs of neighboring houses in the foreground and still see the city in the distance. Because the desire was for a one-story house, that predetermined level became the open courtyard. The mark happened to be low enough to allow the street view to pass right over the house, so that the roofscape — gently arched metal panels floating above the stone volumes — became the home’s understated, unobtrusive street presence.

As one descends into the courtyard, the house is revealed as separated pavilions, pulled-apart boxes that create the arrival sequence. Separation is essential to the design’s vocabulary; even on the plaza, grass, stone, gravel, and concrete coexist in segmented

geometries that break down the expansive scale. Lueders limestone, the most gray of the variety (a color said to be achieved from eons of soaking in petroleum and minerals) establishes the defining and dominant color palette. Materials are allowed to be, simple and without augmentation.

The clients asked for a house that embraced the serene and neutral qualities of an art museum, and the kinship is immediately apparent in the home’s main room, a 2,700-sf living, cooking, and dining space. Here, the limestone walls provide a backbone for punched openings that frame far views to the west, and close, intimate courtyard scenes to the east and south. The functional spaces of the kitchen sit, Judd-like, in the open space, with dining and living rooms and large views to one side, and enclosed television and reading space to the other. These lighter “boxes of utility” within the larger space further enhance the sense of separation; they reappear as closets and bathrooms in the private spaces.

Thanks to Lawrence’s deft hand with light and patterning, the vast space is deeply pleasing, even soothing, to experience, imbued with what architect and author Christopher Alexander called “aliveness.” A sense of wholeness and grace makes even the heavy stone walls seem energized, boosting the white plaster ceiling that appears to be taking flight, hovering in the tree canopy above a perimeter clerestory.

In contrast to the tethered quality of the public space, the two-level private quarters are fully released into the trees and the sky above. Moving through a glass-encased bridge to reach the bedrooms, the energy shifts from earth to sun, and the house begins to take off. Light is everywhere. It changes constantly, reflecting off the landscape, glimmering on the edge of the roof and purlins of the public wing, and casting living shadows on the white oak floor. This light quality is reinforced by the gentle separation of wall from floor, wall from wall, and wall from ceiling. “It allows the objects to be,” said Lawrence. “And it’s a way to let the space complete itself.” The deliberately neutral palette of the house was intended to provide a backdrop for art, but its effect on the owners has changed their minds. Instead, only minimal accessorizing is evident, and any bursts of color pop mostly from the covers of the books and magazines on display. Absent any other distractions, the architecture is allowed come to the fore.

Canan Yetmen is an Austin-based writer.

Originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Texas Architect magazine.