In the mid 20th-century, winter-sports enthusiasts allied with deep-pocketed investors began to transform Rocky Mountain towns that had long ago gone bust, setting out to create ski and recreation destinations. In those early days, it was not entirely uncommon to see modernist structures take root, with many of the greats—Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, Eliot Noyes, and Herbert Bayer—designing early works in places like Aspen and Jackson Hole. But in the closing decades of the past century, preferences shifted toward styles drawn more from Old West kitsch, making houses detailed with heavy rough-cut timber and stone.
More recently, though, a new generation of homeowners and their designers is rediscovering the possibilities of modernism in these high-altitude settings. One of the architects putting their stamp on this landscape is Brian MacKay-Lyons. His firm, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, has built a body of work that has become synonymous with his native Nova Scotia, but has also been growing a portfolio in the Rockies, including this house for a couple from California.
That couple came to this project with a shared love for this part of the world, but they diverged, at least initially, on the architectural approach. As MacKay-Lyons recalls of early design meetings, “One wanted to fit in, and the other wanted to make a statement.” The architect found a third way. By turning to western red cedar as the façade material, he linked the house to the region’s long-standing building tradition, allowing it to “fit in,” but the shape he proposed—a flattened wood cylinder resting on a concrete base—created the kind of visual impact the clients also sought.
The form does far more, though, since it is designed to perform in a tough environment, perched as it is on a steep slope 9,000 feet above sea level where winds are high, snowfall is heavy, and the sun is intense. Set in an environment that can get up to 40 feet of snow each winter, a house kept low to the ground would come with a big challenge. “Unless you’re Santa Claus, you’re not getting into that house,” says MacKay-Lyons, who worked with Edge Builders to construct this residence. The concrete podium, which houses guest suites, does double duty, elevating the structure above the snow pack and bracing it from the winds that come ripping through this landscape. With this arrangement, the homeowners enter the house from above, descending into the main room from the driveway positioned upslope.