Living on the Edge – Nova Scotia Design

It began like a thriller. Out of the blue, a mysterious stranger e-mails architect Alexander Gorlin and makes him an intriguing proposition: Get your passport and hop on a plane–you won’t regret it. Gorlin gamely travels to a foreign country, where the stranger meets him on the other side of immigration and escorts him to a waiting helicopter. It ferries them 20 miles to an isolated peninsula inaccessible by car. Below, the ocean spray and spring runoff have cratered the land’s boulders with natural reflecting pools. In the distance, a historic lighthouse; in the foreground, a concrete bunker where, during World War II, sentinels as lonely as the old lighthouse keepers once watched for German submarines. As the pilot maneuvers in the wind, Gorlin points to a rocky ocher shelf created by receding glaciers, and, shouting over the din, tells his new client, “That’s where the house should go.”

Fast-forward six years to the same wild site. The client’s 50 private acres, in Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia, are now connected to the outside world by a new road. It leads to an arresting residence built with “two foundations,” Gorlin says. “Bedrock and trust.” The house also has two Janus-like faces: a severe concrete façade on the forested inland side, and a sheer curtain wall framing the ocean’s boundless horizon. The luminous white-walled interiors and the terraces are floored in the same creamy limestone, so the space flows like water throughout.

Gorlin’s client, a tax attorney for an international corporation, is a widower with a college-age daughter. His beloved wife died two years before their dream house was complete. “We intended to retire here,” he says quietly. The space is still precious to him: Her spirit inhabits it. He and his daughter spend brisk June mornings hiking in the vast nature reserve that abuts their property and cloudless August nights on their rooftop deck, counting the falling stars. “We chose Nova Scotia in part for its purity,” he explains. “The sea air is so clean, and the sky so unpolluted that you see the Milky Way as the first hunters did.”

The client chose Gorlin for the clarity of his style. His signature materials are glass, concrete, and metal. The prizewinning projects in his portfolio reflect his admiration for his hero, Louis Kahn, the great modernist, but they also relate to his studies of Kabbalah, in which earth and heaven, darkness and light, form and emptiness are in unity. “An elemental landscape like this could easily be overwhelmed by a monolithic edifice or one that competed with it,” Gorlin says. “So I designed the house as a series of discreetly linked pavilions on two levels, each with a separate function and angled toward a different focal point. You still have a panoramic view, but it has a narrative, like the panels of an altar triptych.”

Gorlin was gratified that the lawyer and his wife had selected what the architect considered to be the most radical of several models he presented to them. “They weren’t afraid of starkness,” he says. “At every stage they surprised me with their understanding of modernism’s poetry.” The client observes, “The ultramodern transparency of Alex’s work resonated with us. He had at one point suggested limestone cladding for the concrete walls, but when they were poured, we preferred their raw beauty.”

The Maritimes’ climate proved to be much more demanding than the lawyer was. “To withstand the rough weather,” Gorlin says, “steel, reinforced concrete, and Starphire glass were essential materials. Our builder, Andrew Watts, scribed the concrete to the rock with such finesse that it’s almost like marquetry.” The Halifax shipping lanes run just offshore, and Gorlin designed the vaulted roofs to evoke the sails of the old schooners that once plied them. He also shielded the rooftops in rolled zinc to resist hurricanes. “My greatest challenge,” he says, “was to make the house appear both rooted to the land and resting weightlessly upon it.”

If the architecture pays homage to the landscape, the interiors, in Gorlin’s words, “defer to the architecture.” He collaborated with a local designer, Ray Frizzell, who curated an ensemble of spare furnishings in a volcanic palette (ash, pumice, obsidian), enlivened by judicious jolts of color: a forsythia-yellow chair by Dakota Jackson in the entry hall; a vibrantly striped Tibetan rug in the living room; and in the media room, an abstract painting by Matthew Fischer that recalls the dazzle of sun on water.

Like the house itself, the decor seems both anchored and buoyant. “It’s a place of peace and contemplation,” the owner says. “Distant from the world, close to nature. It’s more than a vacation home, it’s a sanctuary.”

Joyce Rey
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