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Raising the Barn

Architect Preston Scott Cohen resurrected an early 1800s barn as a vacation home for a literary couple and their family, calling to mind both the agrarian spaciousness of the structure’s former life and the vernacular of its new function as a house. Transcending both, Cohen created a piece of architecture that is at once porous and opaque, familiar yet otherworldly.
"We didn't want to diminish the openness and height and feeling of a great expanse of space," says Arnold, though he adds, "I was slightly concerned that we were going to end up feeling like we were reading in Grand Central Station." Fortunately, the barn frame's horizontal beams perform a domestic function by creating the illusion of a lower ceiling. The three major anchor beams were hewn from a single tall yellow pine.

The skunks may be miserable on Skunks MiseryRoad, but from the look of things, the people are doing just fine. Land values have risen so high along this roadkill-dotted lane, which winds through Pine Plains, a hamlet two hours north of New York City, that the dairy farms that once flourished on the forested, hilly landscape have been converted into estates.  The cows have mostly decamped, but the farmhouses and barns remain—suggesting that the affluent fauna now grazing among the mâche pits shares its predecessors’ architectural predilections.

That is, until one turns at the Simon’s Farm mailbox, bumps a mile along a dirt road, and beholds the home of Arnold P. and Elise Simon Goodman. The design, by architect Preston Scott Cohen, takes the peaked-roof gable house—an object so familiar as to seem invisible—and, with a provocative mix of modernity and tradition, a sprinkling of the surreal, and a massive explosion of scale, utterly upends our notions of home.

In keeping with the Goodmans' desire for just enough subdivision for rooms to sleep and work in, Cohen inserted a two-story volume into one of the barn frame's side aisles. An additional small mezzanine over the kitchen serves as a play area for the grandchildren.

“The house is not about a lot of little things,” declares Cohen, with an enunciative clarity that  converts simple words like “moves”—“mewves”—into events. “It’s one big thing at all times.”

The seed for Cohen’s architectural sequoia was his clients’ desire for a country retreat. “We wanted three things,” says Arnold, who is partnered with his wife in a Manhattan literary agency. “Privacy; a Catskill Mountains view; and a place to swim. But we could never find a house that suited us, so we decided to build.” The couple purchased a 164-acre property, one of the last still-undivided parcels created from a 1706 British land grant. There was a spring-fed spot for a pond, and, after clearing 15 wooded acres west of their building site at the land’s high point, they got the biggest defoliation-related surprise since Mikhail Gorbachev lost his hair: a view, not only of nearly the entire Catskill range, but an Arcadian tableau of valleys, forests, and fields in front of it.

As for the dwelling itself, “we’d rented a barn once that had been converted into a house,” Elise says, “and we discovered how lovely it was to have high ceilings and wood beams.” The idea, Cohen recalls, was to “have a barn disassembled and restored, and reconstructed with a new envelope built around the frame.” The Goodmans were drawn to the traditional Dutch version, with its broad, nave-like central axis with aisles on either side, and massive H-shaped supports. In New York’s Mohawk Valley, the couple found a unique example: a barn dating from the early 1800s that, via the addition of a fifth bay (one more than usual), had a colossal 50-by-60 footprint and soared to a height of 37 feet. “Though the old siding was in typically passable condition,” says Cohen, “the frame was the best they’d seen.”

In a narrow residual area between the breezeway and the house's northern elevation, Cohen created a so-called "skinny space," with a changing area accessible to the outdoor shower.

The greatest challenge, however, was not finding the ideal property or the perfect barn. It was engaging an architect who could provide that unquantifiable something Elise calls “a work of art.” And so, in a manner of speaking, she went to the source: the Museum of Modern Art’s library, where she discovered Cohen’s “breathtaking” Torus House, which had been featured in MoMA’s 1999 exhibition The Un-Private House. “[The Torus] scheme has an airy interior, largely a single open space, connected to the landscape,” Cohen explains. “It was quite similar to the Goodmans’ program.”

For Cohen, the project was a chance to experiment with “transforming historical typologies to produce a new language.” Vernacular structures like barns, he observes, “establish conventions that are rooted in social practices we can understand. Contemporary architecture can elaborate on that, so that the new is brought into a dialogue that has collective values embedded in it.”

In keeping with the Goodmans’ desire to retain the barn frame in “pristine form,” Cohen left the space largely open, locating the master suite, guest accommodations, offices, and baths in a two-story volume tucked into a side aisle. Then he focused on the dialogue between past and present, producing several large gestures that, by reinterpreting elements of the barn, revivify the “collective values” common to domestic architecture.

The first, says Cohen, involves “the irreducible image of a house—the gable form,” which has, through simplification and inflation, been converted into a nearly hyperreal expression of home. “To make the exterior more monolithic and provide a more astonishing contrast with the timbers behind it—a dialectic of the refined and rustic—the exterior is clad in tightly tailored, four-inch-wide cedar planks that look at moments like cast-in-place concrete,” he observes. “It adds to that peculiar overscaled character.”

Inside, the contrast is indeed astonishing. Apart from the timbers’ monumental beauty, Cohen says, “their fascination derives from the return to the pure tectonic experience of architecture. The barn frame confronts one with it in the most profound way—and in a domestic setting, where it normally isn’t offered.”

In the bedroom, a "scarecrow" crafted by the Goodmans' grandson Eli hangs on the wall.

Excluding the partitions that traditionally stabilize a barn facilitated Cohen’s liveliest inspiration: an exposed, load-bearing steel frame that sits between the wooden beams and walls. The support establishes a pas de deux between pre-and post-industrial structure, in which the partners endlessly contrast and harmonize—sometimes separating, at other moments colliding with startling, kinetic beauty. Considering the sculptural starburst of wood and steel in the guest room, Elise wonders, “Why put any art on the wall?”

By releasing the building’s skin from its structural support function, the steel frame also enabled Cohen’s anarchic, Dalíesque scramble of 48 windows, which reinforces the drollery of the house’s scale. “It’s a free facade,” he explains. “And we’ve displayed it by having the windows wander off out of sync with the barn’s bays.” In fact, there’s a method to the madness: “They’re determined by views and relationships to furnishings, and have geometric connections with one another,” Cohen says. But in a wry inversion of the pleasures of looking out, he adds, “they also frame views of what’s inside—they capture certain intersections of timber and steel.”

Perhaps the architect’s richest gesture is the ten-foot-square breezeway—running the structure’s full width and open at both ends—that forms the main entrance. This was, the Goodmans joke, the only piece of “architecture” they would permit. Indeed, its mention sends Cohen into an enthusiastic fit that borders on the zany. “That was the thing that mattered most to me!” he yells. “That moment when you’re poised in the interval of the threshold—this extends that interval through the whole house. The breezeway invites you not just to enter, but to explore the experience of entering.” Because the space’s windows fold from floor to wall and wall to ceiling, opening 360-degree views of the interior, one is surrounded by the house’s pleasures before going through the front door. The experience is further enriched by the breezeway’s function as an interior porch, directly on axis with Round Top Mountain, one of the Catskills’ tallest peaks. Best of all, it can be enjoyed year-round: Cohen designed outsize roll-up glass and screen doors, which drop like theatrical flats and keep out the cold in winter and bugs during the summer.

The outcome is an architecture that unites Cohen’s theoretical rigor, instinct for the sensuous, and sheer creative exuberance. It’s also remarkably in sync with its occupants, who seem like typologically correct Upper West Siders of a certain age until, ofcourse, you come to recognize their unexpected iconoclasm, appetite for risk, and good humor. “The house is a great source of pleasure,” Elise affirms. “Can you imagine having this in your life?”

Cohen, pointing to the design’s use of space, replies, “Why not? The persistence of those gigantic things creates great effects at many scales. It challenges conventions, draws you into a new experience, but relieves you of the expenditure of having to resolve everything,” he says. “That’s part of what makes it a modern house. And I like that.”

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