Architects like wordplay. It’s a fun and effective way to condense the main thesis behind a project without resorting to archi-speak. It’s also a good bit of marketing. A simple subversion like “horizontal skyscraper” immediately makes a potentially interesting (or uninteresting) project that much more compelling. Another example: the Tower House.
Designed by GLUCK+ architects, the Tower House looks exactly like it sounds–that is, it takes the form of a skyscraper and shrinks it down to the scale of a house. The four-story-high-building is configured to resemble Lego blocks, an analogy that extends to the house’s bright yellow and green color scheme. A vertical bar, the “tower,” is bisected at its summit by a wide horizontal volume, which appears to conquer gravity with the most minimal of supports.
The house was designed and built for GLUCK+ principal Thomas Gluck and his family on land owned by Gluck’s architect father, who founded the firm (until recently, Peter Gluck and Partners) in 1972. The estate is sprinkled with small follies that the senior Gluck has built over the years, including a guesthouse and studio. The Tower House crowns the sprawling grounds and commands privileged views of the Catskill mountains beyond.
Yet the house’s sensationalist form came almost as an accident, the result of a spontaneous what-if proposition. Asked about the rationale for lifting the house up toward the treetops, Bethia Liu, Gluck+ Director of Strategic Projects, says that the architects “suspected there might be great views up there.” “But,” Liu continues, “you can’t build a house like this on a whim, so we built a 50-foot-tall scaffolding tower to check to be sure.”
The views turned out to be quite spectacular, and the architects proceeded to develop their soaring scheme. The built structure, which bears a striking resemblance to El Lissitzky’s conceptual tower project (and early wordplay adoptee) “Cloud-Iron,” packs all of the home’s three bedrooms and its full-height, yellow-painted stairwell into the vertical volume. The block is split into three modules: The bathrooms are in the middle, with the rooms on one side facing the scenery; the zigzagging stairs are on the other side, sculpturally framed behind a shear glass wall; and the living areas and kitchen fit into a wedge-like prism that locks into the tower’s fourth floor.
As you might have guessed, the house’s quirky shape–what the GLUCK+ office describes as an “adult tree house–presented a significant structural challenge for its designers. “Given the height and the very narrow 14-foot footprint,” Liu explains, “the overturning forces were very strong.” To counteract these, the entire structure had to be fastened to the site by drilling a series of stainless-steel anchors into the bedrock. The end of the cantilevered box also had to be balanced on thin steel stilts.
The seasonal use of the house posed its own set of issues. As a vacation home, it would be sparingly occupied. That meant the architects had to devise a sustainable, efficient way to maintain the structure year-round. They concentrated all utilities in an insulated core, which constituted just 700 of the house’s 2,500 square feet. By doing so, only the core needs to be heated in the cold months. Additionally, they oriented the bedrooms to obviate air conditioning in the summer. The south-facing glass stairwell acts like a “solar chimney” that whisks the hot air out of the house through rooftop vents, while cool air is funneled down into the living spaces. The system, the architects claim, cuts energy costs by half.