Abiding by the tide: Continuing the traditions of Modernist architecture on the Outer Cape
(originally published in Cape Cod HOME, Indian Summer 2004)
On Lieutenant Island in South Wellfleet, large tracts of conservation land peacefully coexist with a small, quiet community. For residents, the island is accessible only by a narrow road that winds through the marsh and over a wooden, one-lane bridge. The road becomes impassable at very high tides, a minor inconvenience in comparison to the island’s spectacular proliferation of shore birds, unabashed views, and abundance of some of the region’s best oysters.
Unconcerned with the island’s travel restriction and enamored of its peaceful setting, a professional couple decided to purchase a lot for their future summer home. Situated on a gentle bluff, their chosen site offered stunning views of Indian Neck to the right and, in the distance to the left, the long bow of Great Island.
When Cambridge-based architect Mark Hammer of Hammer Architects was contracted to design the three-bedroom summer home, he responded with an emphatic and skilled nod to the Outer Cape’s tradition of Modernist architecture. In the post-WWII years, recently arrived architects from Europe such as Marcel Breuer and Serge Chermayeff, among others, designed modest homes on the Outer Cape’s then readily available pockets of land. Their architectural style was functional, unpretentious, and integrated into the landscape in compatible and unobtrusive ways.
“There are people who think that modern homes are oddities,” says Hammer. “But I disagree. The Outer Cape became a vacation spot much later than the rest of the Cape, and the first wave of vacationers happened to be largely architects, artists, writers, and educators. I believe that the work of these architects is an appropriate prototype for building on the Outer Cape.
“Their modern designs,” Hammer continues, “exemplify the way people want to live in the summer, and are mainly about connecting with nature.”
According to Hammer, this home’s design was influenced not just by his personal interest in Modernist architecture but also by the site and the surrounding landscape. Although the lot offered a perfectly placed knoll upon which to place the home, zoning restrictions stipulated a 30-foot buffer from an old, unused road. To compensate for this slight setback and still capture as much of the view as possible, Hammer and the homeowners decided upon an open floor plan. As a result, the home’s interior is not so much a collection of boxes as a subtle progression of planes that slowly elevates, moving ever closer toward the view.
“The overall idea was to have the house be open to the view, be easy to live in, and have a lot of outdoor spaces,” says Hammer. “The context of the house is nature, woods, sky, and rolling terrain. In this setting, we were not forced to relate to any particular style of architecture. As the design evolved, interior walls started to disappear, and everything became more open and much more glassy.”