Halprin House by Hayden Walling in Wellfleet. Photography: Raimund Koch
Saarinen House by Olav Hammarstrom in Wellfleet. Photography: Raimund Koch
If you look at Cape Cod on a map, it resembles a putrescent arm, with Brewster at its bony bicep and Provincetown curled into a feeble fist. Locked between the ocean on one side and the bay on the other, this rugged peninsular has long played fisticuffs with the unforgiving elements, but it’s a battle that can never be won. “Five thousand years from now,” begins this book ominously, “Cape Cod will be gone.”
The architecture has adopted a suitable sense of impermanence. Buildings are invariably raised up on stilts, to allow water, snow or sand to career around beneath them. The area’s signature house type, the Cape, was built to be movable; when the ocean encroached, the owners would float it from one part of town to another. Homes were thrown together with whatever materials were handy. The same is true of the houses that sprung up in the 20th century; if a plot of land already contained an old house or cabin, most designers simply grafted a modern structure onto it.
The first of the Outer Cape’s modernisers was Jack Phillips, a 20-year-old Harvard undergraduate from a prominent Bostonian family. Having inherited an 800-acre plot on what was considered a bug-infested wasteland, he built himself an audacious dune studio in 1938. With its mono-pitched clapboarded form and outsized full-height window, it set the tone for 40 years of thrilling site-specific architecture, which is the subject of this wonderful book.
Phillips’s next project combined the white-painted stucco and cubist forms of European Modernism with the local tradition of recycling. Clad in Homasote, a pressed board of pulped newspaper, it was dubbed the Paper Palace. Surrealist painter Roberto Matta rented it one summer and hosted Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim and Robert Motherwell, “a pretty unconventional bunch”, said Phillips, who was taken aback by the games played on his property – particularly a version of Truth or Dare in which one forfeit was to masturbate in front of the group.
Despite the presence of these free-spirited natives, the Cape owes its architectural richness primarily to European émigrés. Serge Chermayeff erected a mono-pitched timber-framed house with brightly coloured side panels reminiscent of nautical flags. He then urged Marcel Breuer to buy a plot nearby, who in 1949 built his prototypical long house. Breuer, in turn, lured Walter Gropius. Within a few years, the sand dunes and pitch pines resounded with central European chatter.
Like the fishing shacks and colonial cottages before them, these buildings quickly fell into disrepair once their occupants had gone. In 2007, the nonprofit Cape Cod Modern House Trust was inaugurated, and set about restoring some of them as holiday homes. The result is that one of the world’s most important aggregations of Modernist houses has been preserved for the next generation. As for future generations? The whistling wind and wayward waves will decide.
This review by Matt Gibberd first appeared in the February 2015 issue of The World Of Interiors
For more information visit Metropolis Books. For modern properties for sale in the UK, visit The Modern House.