Open House

What's inside? What's outside? This landscape architect doesn't want you to know the difference.

The modernist mantra of "light and space" doesn't end at the front door. Increasingly, the landscape architect—the guy once merely responsible for the lawn and shrubbery—wants you to forget about the interior/exterior boundary completely. One such practitioner is Bruce Hinckley, whose Alchemie firm, founded in 1981, maintains offices in Seattle and Sun Valley, Idaho, with a wide variety of projects throughout the Northwest. In the old days, one of his typical jobs might've begun with the landscape—the greenery, the choice of plants, and their locations. Today, it begins much earlier, with the "hardscape," as it's known in the trade. That means collaborating with architect and client from the very outset of the design process—thinking about the siting of the house and how it'll relate not just to the underlying property but to the climate and topography around it.

As an example of that holistic process, Hinckley and I recently discussed an in-progress Seattle residential project of his, so that the underlying hardscape would be more apparent—naked of greenery—during a visit to the construction site, where his client, George Schuchart (owner of the prominent building company that bears his name), toured me around the place.

"I really like to get involved in the beginning," Hinckley explains. Indeed, Schuchart's architect, acclaimed Northwest modernist George Suyama of Seattle firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi, brought him in at the 2003 outset of the job—a Broadmoor tear-down overlooking the golf course on a gently mounded site. The goal was to create "as little difference as possible between the interior and exterior space . . . [to] try and extend the architecture into the landscape." With its main living area fronting the links, the house was designed to open up so that the living room would flow out into Hinckley's open pavilion. (Suyama's huge sliding glass doors, which knock a whole corner off the house, help greatly in this regard.) The notion is one of "outdoor rooms—that's getting a lot of buzz today, but it's an ancient concept. Take the corner off, and you really are living in the garden."

At the same time, he and Suyama didn't like the lot's original gentle hump; they didn't want the house to feel as if it were "onstage or on parade," looking down at the golfers, especially given its high front-room ceiling line. Hence the house was "hunkered into the site," as Schuchart puts it, with a 3-foot excavation. Like any Suyama design, the home was going to be stand-out contemporary in a neighborhood that's decidedly mixed to traditional in its architecture. "This is a big departure," says Schuchart, "but it's been very well received."

Bruce Hinckley

(Laura Schmitt)

Hinckley's hardscaping on the site includes concrete walls and basalt boulders, some harvested from the original property, some picked out individually in a process he compares to choosing strawberries. He speaks of wanting to reveal "pieces of larger bedrock" through the 50-odd boulders and fragments then incorporated into the design. They're seeded in front of the house, progressing from outside the walled, open-air foyer, through a pond, and into the interior of the house itself. A few more stand in the living area, and more complete the pattern in front. It may look as if they were scattered that way by the glaciers, but, Schuchart recalls, "Bruce was here and moved every rock" with the construction crew—carefully repositioning them within the plan, inch by inch. The old stones do indeed help make the new home feel organic to the site, although Schuchart's wife vetoed some of the interior placements.

Equal care is given to planning the "microclimates" that Hinckley distributes around the site, taking advantage of the inherent natural shade and precipitation patterns of the property, plus the new zones created by the overlaid house footprint. One "water feature"—or shallow pond to the rest of us—penetrates the front wall, leading to the front door. It and two others will be pebble-bottomed and oxygenated with pumps, encouraging streambed biology to take hold among the aquatic plants. (Fish are optional.) The fountain noise is intentionally "very tunable" he explains, by varying the water drop, depth, and flow, so that the microclimate is as much aural as visual and environmental. Low shrubbery, grass, and a moss garden will compose other elements of the finished landscape.

The extent to which the house opens up to these distinct outdoor zones is apparent as Schuchart demonstrates where doors and windows will slide or pivot open into little pocket pools and gardens—"Like a cabin in the woods," he notes. "We knew that we wanted a large gallery" in the front of the house, he continues. With the sliding doors opened up to the pavilion, the effect is of "one large room. You don't feel you're inside. I'm really excited about it." He also appreciates how the master bedroom shower can be opened up to the private—and, yes, locked—front courtyard, like an open-air shower at the beach.

"SEATTLE IS an incredibly mild place," says Hinckley of our climate. Showering (partially) outside or living outside shouldn't be such a shock. Yet traditional architecture and landscape architecture have created more of a distinction between the two than our (generally) temperate weather warrants. He prefers permanent stone and concrete benches instead of yard furniture because they're always there—not like the annual summer ritual of dragging the things out of the garage and into the front yard. The long extended eaves Suyama has put on the Schuchart residence help, too, in this regard: It could be warm and raining outside while the house is still open and dry. There's a valence, not a barrier, between inside and out.

This indoor-outdoor blurring speaks to the increasingly impractical big (and expensive to water) lawn studded with rhododendrons once common to the Northwest, a kind of tasteful default mode for the bygone era when land was cheap and lots were big. Anyone who grew up in a certain kind of Seattle suburb can remember being told to take off those muddy shoes, that the domestic and open-air realms were to be kept fastidiously distinct. The outdoor realm was also relatively untamed: Walls and fences were somewhat stigmatized—they were unfriendly and made lots look smaller than they were.

But Hinckley's notion of hardscaping is partly a return of the much older tradition of the garden wall; it's not just an enclosure or a privacy screen, but an extension of the house's planes and foundations—albeit without a roof. This is what he calls the "green walls" effect, whether those walls are made of concrete or hedges. Indeed, both he and Schuchart favor leaving the concrete unfinished, to weather with time and moisture. "It develops a patina and a depth," says Hinckley (though some of these walls will eventually be covered by climbing vines).

So where does the house end and the yard begin? It's a credit to both Suyama's and Hinckley's work that it's hard to tell.

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