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Alaska: The Final (Architectural) Frontier

“I always wanted to live in a glass house,” explains Valerie Phelps, as she stands surrounded by the 40 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows that are the only walls of her living room. Laid out in a 270-degree panorama in front of her is the frosty expanse of Cook Inlet, cascading rocky mountains, and a white sun as big as a dinner plate. It’s 10:30 at night and the sun is stuck in high-noon position. “I mean,” Phelps pauses, her wineglass refracting specks of light throughout the room, “how could you not want look at this view all day?”

Laid out in a 270-degree panorama in front of the house is the frosty expanse of Cook Inlet, cascading rocky mountains, and a white sun as big as a dinner plate.

Ah, summertime in Alaska. When 70-pound cabbages spring up within weeks of newly thawed ground, spawning red salmon stuff every river, and the sun spins like an unbalanced toy top in the western sky—always circling but never setting. “It’s the mysticism of this land, it gets in your blood,” explains Phelps, squinting in the midnight sun, “then you never want to leave.”

Phelps isn’t alone. For hundreds of years, drifters, dreamers, and pioneers have been pulled to make their homes on Alaska’s icy shores. We know their stories from literary anthologies, PBS documentaries, and Jon Krakauer best sellers, their tales of adventure and finding God on the frozen tundra of an empty land. But what most of us don’t know is that the majority of Alaskans couldn’t give a hoot about wintry vistas and northern lights—they moved here for the money. 

Russian fur traders first came here in the late 1700s to harvest the seemingly endless sea-otter population; a hundred years later, gold miners came seeking easy fortune in the Klondike. But what has defined the industrial, cultural, and physical nature of Alaska more than any other period was the oil boom of the 1980s. During this time, Alaskans became the richest per capita population in the U.S. Thousands of emigrants poured into Anchorage—the state’s urban center—and soon turned the Podunk downtown into a snowy Dallas, replete with mirrored office buildings, ritzy malls, mech-anical bulls, and cowboy-boot-wearing businessmen.

As the oil wave subsided in the late ’90s, the once-bustling downtown of Anchorage again transformed, this time into a kind of postmodern ghost town—a maze of empty sidewalks, broken windows covered by plywood, and tourists shops selling moose-turd earrings.

“I don’t see what Anchorage lacks,” says Petra Sattler-Smith, co-partner of the Anchorage design com-pany Mayer Sattler-Smith. “I see what potential it has.” Inspired by the architectural “blank slate” of the city, Sattler-Smith and Klaus Mayer—who are both from Germany and had both worked for M Mense Architects in Anchorage—set up shop in 2001. Though their beginnings in the tiny cottage office across from a parking lot were humble, their mission was ambitious: to modernize what could be American architecture’s last frontier. “Consider that the first shack in Anchorage was built in 1915—there’s no real architectural history, no story, here,” Sattler-Smith explains. “We want to help shape it.”

Mayer Sattler-Smith’s first residential project was building a house for Valerie Phelps and Peter Burke, for whom they had previously built a physical therapy clinic in 2001. “Their program was simple: Valerie wanted to live in a glass house; Peter wanted to live in a house of shipping containers,” Sattler-Smith explains. “We just worked up from that.”

The program called for a series of large rectangular “containers” to be positioned on top of and perpendicular to one another, with the south- and west-facing walls cut out to provide maximum sun exposure and panoramic views of Cook Inlet. Though the actual design for the Phelps/Burke house came relatively easily, construction did not. “In Alaska, there is a very small window of time to build,” explains Phelps, who is a physical therapist and author. “Either it’s summertime and people are too busy fishing, or it’s wintertime and people are too busy freezing. You need to find them somewhere in between.” After two years of—literally—brick-by-brick construction, Phelps and Burke moved into their house in September 2004.

Fifteen miles down the only freeway south of Anchorage and a few miles along a twisting rocky road, the Phelps/Burke house sits 750 feet up the face of a steep mountain. Here, even in Alaska’s most populous city, few houses cover the huge tree-lined swath of land south of Turnagain Arm. This is urban for this state, considering that if San Francisco were populated to the same density of Alaska, less than 55 people would live there.

Sitting at the end of a dirt driveway and surrounded by mounds of rocks and leafless shrubs, the plain steel siding and faceless garage façade of the Phelps/Burke residence resemble more a utilities kiosk in a public park than a sweeping modernist home. There is no house number, no welcome mat, not even a front door. “That was completely intentional,” explains Peter Burke as he emerges from the yard below. “We’re not really concerned with presentation from the street level—we saved the scenery for the back.”
 
From the side view, the open windows and lack of curvature make the house appear somewhere between a Southern California Case Study House and an Eastern European communist office block, a jumble of right corners tightly interlocked like a winning row of Tetris.

“We keep a basket of sunglasses by the door,” Burke comments as he leads me inside. “You’ll need some—it’ll be bright like this until 11 or so tonight.”

He’s right. Even with sunglasses on, I can’t help but squint at the sunlight blasting through the huge living-room windows. Though this room is only 480 square feet, it feels much bigger due to the fact that the area between the living room and porch is unencumbered by walls or furniture, an effect that brings the outside in and magnifies the dimension of both. “We wanted a kind of ‘infinity pool’ effect,” explains Burke, pointing out the barely visible cable rails that run along the walkway. Because the second story juts obtrusively from a steep hill, the ground below is absent, leaving only a wide breadth of sea, sky, and mountains in the view. “You see,” Burke says with a smile, “it’s like we’re just floating here.”

To further open up the living room, Mayer Sattler-Smith put the kitchen and dining table directly behind the couch, devoid of any separations. “Since we spend so much of our time in the kitchen cooking, or eating, we wanted both these spaces to have the best view in the house,” explains Burke. The couple even contemplated putting their bed in the kitchen/dining/living space. “But we didn’t want to create too much clutter,” Phelps explains, “so we moved all that stuff downstairs.”

Wall-size windows, breezy open spaces, concrete floors—it all sounds delicious during the Southern California–warm Alaskan summers. But alas, we are 3,000 miles from Malibu, and one wonders how a house of such apparent airiness might fair in the seven months of subzero Alaskan winter.

Because the sun rises and falls in just a couple hours in the south during wintertime, Mayer Sattler-Smith opened the south end of the house to maximize what little sunshine there is in the darkest winter hours. Phelps expands, “We can sit here, watch the snow and blue light fade in and out, and be in it without leaving the couch.” And without all the frostbite and hypothermia.

I am driving back to downtown Anchorage and it is now 11:30 at night. It’s bright, I put on my sunglasses, and like clockwork that infamous Corey Hart song comes on the radio again. To the left of Cook Inlet, the sun has just touched the mountains and is starting
its bounce back northeast; to the right, red clouds frame fluorescent-green foliage into which bald eagles fly—it’s a scene so excessively natural as if to appear unnatural, like a computer screensaver from a Star Trek episode with the contrast jacked up 200 percent. I am hungry for another reindeer dog and Klondike bar. There’s an electric charge in the air that I have felt nowhere else in my life. I start to get it.

“This land, it is a fantastic, natural place,” explains Klaus Mayer, when I talk to him later on the phone. “It needs structures that respond to this amazing environment, that articulate this area. That doesn’t exist here yet—and that is the great challenge for us to work on.”

If Alaska is indeed architecture’s last frontier, then these must be its first pioneers.

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