Subtle Layers

Once Rick and Cynthia Torcasso found this property and made the commitment to move from Dallas to Santa Fe, they went scouting for an architect who shared their interest in fitting a house into the dominant landscape. Conversations with Lawrence Speck, FAIA, principal at Page (formerly PageSoutherlandPage), convinced them that they had found a kindred soul. The ensuing design and construction process is a saga of high collaboration between owner, designers, craftsmen, and artist driven by the goal of producing a refined dwelling that both blends with its setting and allows its inhabitants to fully experience the ever-changing panorama of sky, mountain, and desert around it. 

Most architects both aspire to and dread the idea of working in Santa Fe due to its infamous architectural ordinances inspired by the traditional, small-windowed adobe houses in the historic core of the city. The Torcassos’ land was further constrained by tight neighborhood architectural restrictions written into the property deed. Colors and materials were prescribed and very limited. Equally confining were the requirements to break down the form into smaller perceived components by articulating the wall planes or by actu-ally constructing multiple smaller buildings on the site. It is commendable that this house bucks the stereotypes and yet succeeds in doing what the rules were designed to accomplish: It fits within its setting without distraction.

The first major move in the design was to position the house below the ridge of the hillside. Entry to the house is either via a side slither along a narrow courtyard drive, or via a dramatic exterior stairway, which extends from the high cul-de-sac down into a secret garden. The first approach lines one up with a spine that drives the length of the house and introduces all the major material themes. The second approach sweeps one through the glassy middle of the house and sets up the dramatic framed vista of mountain and sky.

Rick Torcasso is an avid gardener, and so the siting of the house was also designed to provide him with three landscape palettes: subtle augmentation of the natural vegetation surrounding the house; rooftop meadows that welcome the eye from that uphill stairway; and the sequestered garden that is carved from the space between craggy hillside and house. This garden, in particular, is a feast of unusual drought-resistant plants. In its contained ribbon of space, it is a perfect foil to the exploded openness of the opposite side of the house — a garden of delight for quiet meditation. As for the roof-top meadows, the architecture literally disappears. In the case of the secret garden, the house forms a strong complementary wall to the rock cliff, riffing off its open face with the horizontal striations of wood and rammed earth.

The second major design move is these two rammed-earth forms, set perpendicular to the long spine of the house. These forms do so many things eloquently: They solve the Santa Fe requirement to break the linear rectangle of the house. They transmit sun warmth into the interior and mitigate diurnal temperature differentials. In plan, they enclose the “servant” (in Louis Kahn’s lexicon) spaces. Most powerfully, they are a sensual interpretation of the landscape beyond. 

The layers of color come from earth on the property and in the region. Finding and selecting the material was a project for the subcontractor, Speck, and Bruce Loethen, manager of the construction administration for Page. Mock-ups fine-tuned

the color selections and the layering order. The result is a silky, banded surface that begs to be touched and requires no other embellishment. The perfection of the surface texture comes from reusable steel formwork and the embedded metal plates that reduce the expansion joints to imperceptible seams. The craftsmanship is the work of a relatively young guy who, according to Speck, had apprenticed with the very best rammed-earth master in the region. “His teacher came out of retirement to give sage advice on this project, and the new generation came through with flying colors,” noted Speck.  

The house is consistent in its material choices. The striped ipe wood, diamond-polished concrete floors, Venetian plaster walls, and neutral glass-tiled bathroom walls are soothing and textural, as are the fabrics and furnishings, which were designed and coordinated by architect Wendy Dunnam Tita, AIA. The exquisite interiors bring us to the third major move of the design, the bold Margo Sawyer-designed/Mark Maček-built art compartments, which delineate the living room space. Sawyer and Speck collaborated on an earlier iteration of these stacked-cube forms in their Discovery Green project in Houston. Independently, they both had experimented with similar constructs earlier in their careers and found that their mutual fascination came from admiring Donald Judd’s work. Speck commented: “Margo and I have worked together enough now that we can easily communicate intuitively as well as verbally. We have a mutual trust and respect for each other’s capabilities that makes a collaboration much deeper than could ever be achieved in an initial teaming.”

In this house, light animates much of the space, and the Sawyer compartments create a balance by inserting color where there is the least amount of natural light. Sawyer has a mastery of color, and she looked for inspiration in the wildflowers and the broader landscape. Although this was a very different palette than she was accustomed to, Sawyer, Maček, Dunnam Tita, and Speck produced mock-ups that confirmed the power of the mix. Like the rammed-earth walls, these art pieces double as storage compartments, with their boxes invisibly hinged by Maček. As the design for the house and landscape developed, Sawyer was asked to complement these art pieces with colored light boxes strewn in the secret garden.

It is a testament to the clients that they set the tone for the house — it is highly resolved with no unnecessary details cluttering the view. This attitude permeated the design and became the touchstone of the construction. A singular example of the care and attention to detail is the immaculate linear ipe deck overlooking the mountains. The decking is invisibly joined by metal disc splines, rather than surface screws. At the end of the project, driven by his own anxiety that a random board-end might warp fractionally over time and ruin the elegance of the surface, superintendent David Campbell of J.M. Evans Construction, returned to the house to personally screw down the ends and cover the countersunk screws with ipe plugs. 

The house is masterful — and masterfully subtle — in its landscape. As one stands on the deck at sunset, a pinyon wood fire in the corner kiva, the house is one with its hillside and the glow in the sky.

Heather McKinney, FAIA, is principal of McKinney York Architects in Austin. 

Published in Texas Architect May/June 2014.