Kevin Alter has lived in Texas long enough to understand the power of the sun there. The way shadows fall across the land. How the light changes over the course of a day, giving a house an improvisational nature. As intangible as it is vital, sunlight “starts to become a register for one’s place in the world,” he says.
This concept is especially useful when there are no landscape elements or borrowed views to cue the architecture. When Kevin and his partners at Alterstudio were hired to design a house for full-time art collectors on a nondescript lot in Dallas’ Highland Park neighborhood, it became a touchstone for creating a building that would “have presence but not easily explain itself,” enlivened by light and a new, integrated landscape.
As serious art patrons, the closely involved clients already had a relationship with landscape architect David Hocker, and hired him to help knit the house and a separate art gallery into the suburban plot. This was particularly important because of the house’s size. More than 12,000 square feet, including the gallery, it is nevertheless one of the smallest on the block in a tony neighborhood consisting of contemporary Tudor mansions and French chateaus. “We made an effort to see the house as part of a continuous landscape, a slightly enigmatic box, with the landscape meant to continue through,” Kevin says. “The idea was that there would be a private zone in front made with landscape elements, and a different courtyard in back,” with the first floor open to two sides.
On the relatively flat lot, zoning requirements were the most powerful site condition driving the design. Deep front and rear setback requirements meant that most of the building had to sit near the center of the three-quarter-acre parcel. To create that flow-through relationship, the architects came up with an Indiana limestone–clad bar that hovers over a glassy first floor, bending to enclose a private backyard large enough for a pool, play yard, and reception events. The building’s boomerang-like contours respond to the lot, which widens in the back and abuts two alleys to the west and north. The footprint is hinged where the garage, office, and family room on the west meet the main living spaces on the south. Upstairs, the children’s bedrooms lie along the west side, with a playroom acting as a knuckle between their wing and the wife’s office—an open-to-below “cockpit” in the center of everything—and main bedroom suite.
The lower floor is narrower than the upper one to create covered outdoor space. “We have this big bar that claims the space and defines where living happens, but it’s not so definitive about whether you’re inside or outside when you’re under the overhang or next to the glass,” Kevin says. “We like that ambiguity.”
The couple, with three young children, lived across the street when this lot came up for sale, and chose Alterstudio among several other firms invited to present a design concept. “They wanted something special, a building that would be commensurate with the kind of art they collect,” Kevin says.
If the house is abstractly modern (the colored site plan recalls the work of Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx), it is also complex and cinematic, inviting interaction and discovery. A chunky, rock-covered berm scattered with wildflowers, prickly pear cactus, and mesquite trees weaves like a sine wave along the street and west alley, enclosing a garden dotted with cedar elms. Visitors enter on the southeast along an angled stone pathway interplanted with sedum, drawn toward the limestone bar’s 34-foot cantilever. Under the cantilever, a reflective glass–lined hole opens up overhead. “Around that, upstairs, are the most private areas of the house,” Kevin says. “It’s an interesting mixture of public and private”—and also inside and outside: “You’re coming in and being reintroduced to the sky in its frame.”
Straight ahead and down a few steps is the detached art gallery, which was dug several feet into the ground to cheat the 12-foot plate height requirement near the lot’s edge. Visitors expect to go straight, but the main entrance is to the left, marked by a pivoting, 4-foot-wide walnut door and, next to it, a glass panel revealing a piece of art in the foyer.
Interiors, too, explore the occupants’ relationship with light and landscape. A look left in the entry hall offers an outdoor view, and the living room is caught between the front and back yards, with a void overhead. “The house sets up temptations to see, and when you get there, you realize other things are happening,” Kevin says.
Where the limestone cladding breaks up along the street façade, for example, is a second-floor pocket garden accessible from the playroom, the wife’s office, and the husband’s bath. A window into this garden on the stair landing reveals lava stone hollowed out for a plant. “You’re reintroduced to the out of doors in a way that’s unusual,” Kevin says. The landing places occupants at eye level with the garden, and shadows from the slatted walnut screen around the office create atmospheric light. At night, the office hangs like a lantern over the living room.
Kevin’s admiration for modern design is evident, but he views it more as a setup for special effects than an end in itself. “Modernism in America has generally been misunderstood; blame the Bauhaus,” he says. “We like the Scandinavian version that is warm and cozy. If you ask people to name a modern artist, they’d probably say Picasso, yet his work has all this complexity and multiplicity. I like abstraction, but I think it’s there to allow other things to show.”
A minimal material palette sets the foundation for this approach. Indiana limestone cladding was chosen because it looks homogenous in flat light, yet sunlight throws its craggy surface into relief. On the other hand, Kevin views showy mechanical details as distracting and “a little self-indulgent.” He says, “My partner Ernesto appreciates that every consultant we’ve worked with thinks our drawings are the best. Meticulous detailing is present everywhere.” However, “we try to detail in a way that changes the way a building feels, and the object of all the effort is usually to downplay the presence of this stuff. Otherwise, you can focus on the details and say, ‘I forgot to look at the house.’ The eye goes to the spider clips. In a way it’s the least interesting thing about architecture. I’d rather you don’t go and examine a stone wall like you would a piece of jewelry.”
Lightweight enough to be set without a crane, the vertical limestone strips sit on an L-channel and are made up of 3-inch, 6-inch, and 9-inch widths. In plane they are adjusted in and out to create a shadow pattern. Strips in the top two rows are 4-feet-8-inches tall, and the bottom row measures about 5-feet-8-inches tall. “They are load-bearing and tied back so they don’t fall out,” Kevin says. “It’s the same technology as on any masonry building, just a little cleaner. We didn’t want to fetishize the details; there are no fancy clips, like a rug starting to fray. There is a sense of continuity with the wall.”
The first floor’s structural sliding glass is similarly seamless. “It’s a beautiful way to open the building to the out of doors and also create amazing reflections,” Kevin says. “Other places, such as on the curve, we affixed large panels of glass to a steel shape.” Throughout, glass wall and window systems disappear into a channel in the ceiling and drop below the floor surface. Upstairs, the glass inside the cantilevered opening was hung on a parapet wall and back-painted white, except at the husband’s clear-glass closet window and the wife’s bath, where the glass is etched. The glass panels appear blue or green, depending on the light and the color of the sky, and cast a glow into the entry courtyard at night when the lights are on.
Builder Steve Hild was up for all these challenges. “The two steel I-beams holding up the cantilever are 42 inches tall and weigh almost 30,000 pounds apiece,” Steve says. “The glass there is 14 feet tall and all butt-glazed silicone. There are no fasteners on the exterior or trim holding it on, so we had to get the steel frame to 1/8-inch tolerance to get it to work right. If a post was ½ inch out of plumb, you’d notice.”
“We had a very ambitious client who was demanding and had an incredible eye,” Kevin says. “We drew to play to Steve’s strengths and to things that could be executed well.”
Points of Stasis
Indeed, a well-built design imparts a sense of ease and purpose. The house is set up to be practical, with a pantry and bar behind the kitchen, small appliances stashed behind the blackened steel backsplash, drawer pulls to keep the cabinets clean, a built-in banquette, and a long island. “The statuary marble–topped island, slatted screen, and eating booth are meant to be like points of stasis against the strong pull of the outdoors,” Kevin says.
The kitchen’s curved glass wall overlooks a stone-lined well that was dug for basement egress. “The wall shows the tool cuts,” Kevin says. “It’s the beauty of something found, and you only discover it when you are next to it. The way a person understands architecture isn’t so much by diagram but intimately.” Materials such as the marble’s black veining, the entryway’s blackened steel with oil and roller marks, and the rough landscape rocks look abstract until you get close, he says. “It’s like a painting that looks one way from 15 feet away and different when you’re next to it.”
Beside the kitchen is the family room, where a half-flight of stairs leads down to the garage, laundry, exercise room, and media room. Accessed from the alley, the garage is hidden under terracing on the backyard side, creating a clean, green canvas for play and entertaining. Across the lawn, the art gallery is warehouse-like, with a concrete floor and 14-foot ceilings fitted with three big skylights and track lighting. In front, the husband’s office gazes over the main entry and reflecting pool. In back, a cabana-like space contains a kitchenette and Murphy bed, opening to a trellised terrace and the pool.
Despite the featureless found setting, the Highland Park house is extraordinary for the way it communes with the natural world. The result of craft and technology, collaboration and invention, it manages to be not merely an objet d’art but a building that people engage with viscerally. And like the best art, it provides prompts more than answers. As Kevin says, “Architecture doesn’t travel well; you have to see it to experience it.”
Plans and Drawings
Highland Park Residence
ARCHITECT: Kevin Alter, Assoc. AIA; Ernesto Cragnolino, FAIA; Tim Whitehill, Assoc. AIA; Michael Woodland, AIA; Jenna Dezinski, Alterstudio Architecture, Austin, Texas
BUILDER: Steven Hild Custom Builder, Dallas
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Silvia Zofio, SZPROJECTS, New York, New York
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT: David L. Hocker, Hocker Design, Dallas
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Essential Light Design Studio, Dallas
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Ellinwood + Machado Structural Engineers, Atlanta
MECHANICAL ENGINEER: Positive Energy, Austin
PROJECT SIZE: 12,398 square feet
SITE SIZE: .67 acre
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Casey Dunn
CLADDING: Indiana limestone
GARAGE DOORS: MHB Grand Openings
HVAC: Mitsubishi, Aprilaire
LIGHTING CONTROL SYSTEMS: Lutron
TILE: Cerámica Suro
TUB: Blu Bathworks
WINDOWS: Western Window Systems
WINDOW WALL SYSTEMS: Sky-Frame