In Galileo’s day, men counted their pulses to tell time. In 2 A.D., Ptolemy, who understood more about the movements of the sun and the earth than most of us do today, designed a tool called the quadrant that, by measuring heaven and earth, brought the infinite scale of the universe into the palm of the hand. Today, a house built by Carrie and Kevin Burke brings that universal scale into their own Charlottesville, Virginia, living room.
The Burkes (both architects) call their living room an “observatory” because their home is a time-telling instrument based on ancient technologies. From the street, the modern, copper-clad structure recuses itself from a row of whitewashed Victorians while mimicking them metaphorically: The fanned point of its north roof is a counterpoint to the traditional Victorian turret, and the texture of its siding and the proportions of the windows refer saliently to the neighbors’. As the house’s copper walls weather into a mossy patina, they’ll mark the passage of time, allowing the house to recede from
view “like deep shade in a garden,” says Carrie.
The house’s primary mechanism for telling time, however, is an oculus embedded in one side of the roof through which a light beam tracks through the observatory. Forming an indoor sundial, it indicates both the hours of the day and the cycles of the season by alighting on crosshairs and lines marked on the floor with auto detailing tape. Later, the Burkes will fill incisions in the floor with powdered metal to make certain dates permanent: solstices and equinoxes; Carrie and daughter Ava’s August birthdays, when the light licks the edge of the banister; and Kevin’s birthday in January, when the beam
rests directly beneath the skylight.
The layout of the house evolved from the synchronization of the cycles of the family’s daily life with the cycles of the sun, and vice versa. The Burkes identified where light would and would not fall, and built the house so that they could, for instance, wake up in the cool dim of the downstairs bedrooms and ascend into the warmly lit upstairs to grind the first coffee beans of the day. They also find themselves adjusting to the light as they find it: Kevin has a particular fondness for ascending into the mornings; no matter what she is doing, Carrie can sense solar noon from her studio on the mezzanine.
Before construction began, the site was surveyed to align the house precisely north to south along the solar axis and to ensure that the roof angle would parallel the angle of the sun at winter solstice. The roof angle makes the house site-specific to an unusual degree because it is unique to its latitude at 38 degrees and 3 seconds. (In Alaska, to work as a timepiece, the roof would have to be much more shallow while in Athens, Greece, it would work in the same alignment.) Carrie calculated the locations of structural beams in the roof using sun charts and trigonometry and then translated the radial geometry of the light into the orthogonal geometry understood by her builders. “I learned to love math through this project,” she says.
The house is, in effect, a medium and laboratory for the strategic transformation of light by shaping, deflecting, filtering, and reflecting it. “Sometimes people assume that paying attention to solar cycles is almost religious, but it’s not about that,” says Carrie. “It’s actually quite mundane, in the best sense of the word.”