The site of Corey and Melissa’s house is a forty acre plot of land just south of Ithaca, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It is an area with a lively arts and culture scene, as well as countless family farms and organic, biodynamic and community-connected CSAs. The area’s development has long been dominated by Cornell University, with its land-grant agriculture school and its perch atop the hill riven by gorges and overlooking the lake.
For Corey and Melissa, the easy connection with the culture of family farms and CSAs has been their entry point into this new community. “Everywhere that I’ve lived, the way that I’ve settled into an area is finding the food sources,” said Melissa.
The site itself seemed unremarkable when we first arrived: an undeveloped patch of woods on the side of a back road. But once we crossed the property line and the stream that defined it, everything changed. The trickling of the water created a sonic wall between us and the road, and immediately we felt ourselves in the world of the forest, looking out at the world we had come from. The site for the house was a small flat area at the foot of a long slope. We stopped here to investigate the tree types and the speckled quality of the light. Is this bright enough? I asked. Yes, they said. It was more like home, in fact, being in this soft light than in the direct light of an open field.
Then we went for a hike to discover the rest of the land. If the first threshold was the stream, the second was a thick, muddy bramble we had to work our way through before entering the deep woods. The soundscape here was completely different. We could no longer even see the road, and the forest seemed to stretch forever in every direction. As we walked, Corey and Melissa spoke of wishing to live here on the site, to be connected with it, and not to have the house be in opposition to the site as most houses are. They didn’t want the usual house/property divide. I could understand why: the site had a mythical quality, and as we ascended the slope and left civilization, that quality seemed to increase. Then we arrived at a pond and a log cabin lean like one I know I’d seen once in a book of fairy tales. Corey and Melissa spoke of their childhoods wandering in the forest and how much wonder there was in it. They wanted this for their kids. Was there, perhaps, some way that we could integrate that natural wonder into their daily lives at home? Could there be, as the children grew, a series of stories tied to the property which might reveal themselves over time, perhaps over a whole childhood?
The more we walked and talked, the more the property seemed to become the territory of a hero’s journey.
Progressing meant crossing a series of thresholds that led deeper and deeper into the other world of the woods. The deepest part of the journey was the highest point of the property, and, like Dorothy in Oz or Luke in Yoda’s swamp, anything seemed possible there. Then the journey back down the hill was a journey back to the future house and to the road and where people might be invited to come eat and get bodywork and play with kids.
The more time we spent on the property, the more it seemed that the house would do well to be situated at the threshold between the two worlds. On the one side: the generative quality of life in the woods, and on the other the engaging quality of life in the world. This approach seemed much more apt than the ordinary public/private divide common in architectural design. Where would dinners be situated in this spectrum? What about Melissa’s chiropractic office? Or Corey’s home workshop?
The most important thing we learned from the site, however, was that the home they were building would be much bigger than just the house. This opens up a lot of possibilities. Perhaps the “house” would be distributed among several structures at different distances into the forest. Perhaps programs might be designed to span interior and exterior spaces. We would never have come to this understanding if we had taken the ordinary architectural approach and focused on what looked like a house rather than on how they wished to live in this place.
Next: getting back to the drafting desk to start diagramming these ideas…