Bruce Nagel + Partners Architects
East Quogue, New York 2020
Driftwood Sands is a majestic beacon of beauty, white as a sail. Driftwood Sands is, in turn of the century terms, a “cottage orné “; elaborate, close to the ocean, a retreat for summer or winter.
The house looks to the Atlantic with magnificent views and a profusion of viewing balconies. Its sumptuous party terrace cum swimming pool deck gives access to the great lawn sweeping past the tennis courts to the beach where the lawn becomes the dunes and drifting sand that meets the ocean.
The house is the creation of Bruce Nagel & Partners with Bruce Nagel, AIA, RIBA partnering with Dave Walker, AIA, and Judith DiMaio, FAIA, RIBA. They created a design solution commensurate with the client’s expectations and criteria and their own high standards for design excellence – in fact, Nagel and DiMaio were classmates at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and have remained a source of inspiration to each other ever since.
It is actually Driftwood Sands’ ‘beginnings’ that hold the secret of the design, its resolution and ingenuity in appearance. It is not, in fact, one house but a house within a house where the original house is disguised, gobbled up and re-choreographed, if you will, to become the “cottage orné” you see today. The existing house, rather chunky and stout no longer suited the client’s needs and vision for himself and his family.
The architects discussed tearing it down. The caveat: the client said, “No, I want to keep it as the ‘core’, but I want to veil the aesthetic and enlarge upon it”. Herein lay the challenge for the architects. The existing house could have become a colossal impediment had the architects viewed it as an obstacle rather than a liberator and the generator of an idea.
Architectural design is driven by constraints and criteria - tactical and strategic – and can be like the game of chess where the individual moves or design gestures are the tactics/criteria whereas an overriding strategy “wins the game”. In the case of Driftwood Sands and its pre-existing condition (still visible upon close inspection but blurred) the architects opted for the strategic broad stroke to unify and blend the ‘core’ rather than building up a series of individual moves or design gestures.
The unifying stroke was the introduction of a modernist frieze crowning and wrapping the entire and expanded house much like the frieze of a Greek or Roman temple unifies the whole. Here at Driftwood Sands the frieze demarcates the ‘core’ and entire, enlarged volume of the house. The core is discernable by its curved and implied volume at the entry stair leading up to the sky-lit entrance into the house and the bullnosecurve to the right of the entrance holding the interior stair. The frieze, in its flatness plays against the curvatures –the round and the flat- of the ‘core’ and, itself, transforms into the planar nature of the house as it extends to the left of the entrance and around to the oceanfront elevation and around to meet the front elevation again where a gigantic sentinel-like column holds the frieze and anchors the ground.
The frieze or banding is unusual for this reason: its changing nature or identity as it circumvents the entire volume of the house. On even closer inspection, the frieze/band transforms into a trellis as it dovetails around the sentinel column to again metamorphose into what can be characterized as an oceanfront scaffold consuming the entire elevation. The scaffold creates a grid of windows framing views of the great lawn down to the sand dunes and the Atlantic beyond. The ‘journey’ of the frieze does not stop here but re-emerges as a curved band tying the oceanfront scaffolded surface to the enlarged bedroom wing of the house which incorporates corner viewing porches that are supported by a stalwart pier, a counterpoint to the sentinel column anchoring the opposite corner of the front elevation. The transformative nature of the frieze/band completes its journey when it reconnects to the sentinel column as it traverses and plays against the curving volumes that identify the entrance or the ‘core’ of the house.
It would be an omission if one did not mention that this ingenious invention of the organizing frieze was not counterpointed by tactics, or individual and functional moves such as the incorporation of the garage, or the projecting deck to facilitate and bear the weight of the swimming pool. For Nagel, Walker, and DiMaio tactics also included lyrical or metaphorical moves such as the “wavy” window surrounds reminiscent of the drifting sand or the truly unconventional incising of the stucco surface. Rather than follow the vertical and horizontal condition of the overall design, the entire scheme of joints or lines cutting through the stucco (expansion joints) are rotated 45 degrees to counterpoint the statics of gravity and grounded. The rotation suggests a dynamic not uncommon to drifts of sand or to the motion of shifting and crashing waves as they subside on the beach and drag back into the ocean. In short, Driftwood Sands is a metaphor paying homage to the sand and the ocean.