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“You see more clearly in the moonlight.”
On a crisp fall night, three figures – a newlywed couple and a sprightly old man – traipse through the forests of Bryn Athyn, PA. Guided by only the light of the full moon, they blaze a path through the crunching leaves, and though there is no driveway to speak of, it occurs to them, “Wouldn’t this be a great place to build a house?”
In 1959, famed architect Richard Neutra came east from California to meet with Mr. and Mrs. Feodor Pitcairn and to visit the site on their property with which they had come to love. Neutra, already one of the most important American Modernist architects, was the perfect candidate to create a unique and functional home that incorporated and collaborated with its natural environment.
Each space is beautiful, but one of the grandest gestures of the home is its cantilevered staircase in the formal entrance. Approaching the house, you are arrested by a large white exterior wall, directing you to the front door while shielding the more private outdoor deck. From there, the staircase swoops up to the main living level.
The exterior wall of the entrance hall is all glass, providing a nearly unbroken view of the forest outside to your left as you climb the stair. The wall to the right, which the stair joins at the top, is a pristine mirror, thereby surrounding you with nature on both sides. Looking across the top of the staircase from the dining area, the mirrored surface also creates the illusion of a double staircase, which would be overbearing in physical form, but in this case a delightful visual treat, bringing to mind a bow of a ship.
The curving stair has steel steps cantilevered out from a ribbon of steel embedded into the inward supporting wall (which also serves as a guide rail) of the staircase as it curves down. Each step is surfaced with oak wood, tying this very man-made structure back to the natural world outside. Neutra’s attention to detail continues to manifest itself here; every other step includes a small steel cylinder on the outer edge, which creates another visual trick to make the steps feel more anchored and secure, and to subtly guide people toward the safer inside of the curve.
The Pitcairn House is one of only a few great Neutra Houses on the East Coast (most of his work was/is in Southern California), which seems like a great shame, as this home is perfectly designed to enhance the beauty of every season in this virgin forest.
A key aspect of Neutra’s works is that they are designed to integrate the natural world with a comfortable and functional living environment. It is an exploration of how humans react to nature, and how design, space, structure, and survival all relate to the biological aspects of being human in our living spaces. The Pitcairn home is no different – from the materials to the design. The functionality of the home, the livability and comfort of each space meant for a starting family, and the timeless, yet shifting nature of the forest are all considered and incorporated.
Surrounded by the 800-acre Pennypack Preserve (created with no small help from Pitcairn himself), this house was designed to blend with and enhance the 10.1 conserved acres to which it belongs.
The warm, natural textures of cedar details and the stone surfaces of big walls, held together by recessed mortar, are juxtaposed with the more machined materials and surfaces to create interplay between the man-made and natural aspects of the home.
When asked, Pitcairn found difficulty in favoring one season over another. All of the best features of each season are visually incorporated into the house, with their own charms and features. Yet, just as each season brings new surprises to your view, so does each visit to the house bring new architectural details and marvels to light, impressing you with the skillful and deliberate designs of a man inspired by moonlight.
Architect| Richard Neutra
This property is currently on the market.
Text by Ellie Sywak
Photography by Scott Frederick and Feodor Pitcairn
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