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D: Distinctive Design

Whale Fall

At the other end of the spectrum, not to mention of our little geographic enclave, a Hutker project stands as a testament to the work of some true masters; all in the midst of the uniquely charged energy of the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard. There is something about the town of Aquinnah on the Vineyard that is different. It is rooted in the connection between earth, sea and sky, and it seems easily understandable that the Wampanoag people of the Vineyard consider this area to be their home.

Perched on this shoreline was a structure conceived by one of the preeminent respected authorities on architecture and design, architect Steven Holl. His award-winning project, the Berkowitz Odgis House was inspired by a passage in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” in which the Native Americans are described as stretching animal hides over the beached bones of whales. Unfortunately, the choices of materials in the 1980’s for the construction of Holl’s unique incarnation were not of archival quality that would stand the test of time, particularly on the Vineyard Sound side of the Vineyard.

A new owner who wanted to honor Holl’s original design masterpiece approached Hutker Architects to discuss how the original vision of the project could evolve and still be integrated into a new structure. Greg Ehrman, partner in the Vineyard Haven office, led the project team. “Everyone who studies architecture, not only studies Steven Holl, but studies this project,” Ehrman explained. “The project was notable and nationally recognized for the story behind the design, something that we bring to each of our projects: a narrative. It was considered progressive for the theory behind the building and how it was executed artfully. It was incredibly important to us to honor that initial work and we were fortunate that our client also appreciated the history of the building. We would not have gotten involved with the project if the owner had more significant alterations in mind.”

Ehrman and his team spent an exorbitant amount of time documenting how the building had been put together, the different pieces, the structural strategy for how it was built and reproduced all of those proportions and material dimensions, only this time with more durable materials and better building systems.

Melville’s excerpt talks about the whale bones providing structure for the Native Americans. In parallel, Ehrman talks about the supportive bones of the original structure as essentially functioning as stilts that went directly into the ground. Unfortunately, that practice created several durability and maintenance issues. “When we took the project on, we wanted to create the effect of the structural bones of the building touching the ground, but we gave it a foundation that will allow the building to live well for 100 years more,” Ehrman explains. “In that foundation we were able to accommodate a mechanical room, a family room and three bedrooms. In doing so we transformed the functionality of the building without fundamentally changing the visible form of the structure.”

Perched on the forward part of the house, looking out to Dogfish Bar, there are no signs of civilization or development to the east or the west, with nothing but water to the north, almost as it might have been during Melville’s era. Fenestration was one of the biggest changes for the new structure, as the original included fixed, non-operable units. Imitating the figure of a beached whale, the long narrow shape of the building runs perpendicular to the view leaving the narrow end of the building acutely focused on the view beyond. In the triangular space, a hanging swing now provides a spot to float above the dunes, the beach and the waves of the Atlantic.

A rooftop deck and a green living roof beyond is the place to lounge and watch for passing vessels, as though one might be on the quarterdeck of the Pequod, and thinking of those that may have passed this way before. The past is present in this home and as Ehrman reflects, “I think the home is rooted in a story, and the story is timeless, it has withstood generations. It is not a stylized building; it is designed to weather and recess into the natural landscape. I think over time as it grays, as the landscape grows back in, as that green roof takes hold and flourishes; I believe the building will continue to become one with the natural landscape within which it sits.”

A whale fall is defined as the final chapter of a whale’s life when the carcass falls to the depths of the ocean floor. During the descent, the process of decay provides nutrients and sustenance for much of the vital living organisms of the ocean, thus providing a future from something that had ended. Greg Ehrman and his team certainly found new life in the magnificent spark of creativity Holl imagined in his original structure. Mark Hutker’s philosophy might be, “Build once, well,” and in the case of Whale Fall, this do-over may be the one exception.

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