Inspired by ancient architectural principles, Thomas Phifer and Partners burrowed this upstate home into the side of a hill

Down to Earth

Commissioned to do a small house in upstate New York with views to the Catskill Mountains, architect Thomas Phifer knew that he didn’t want to spoil the natural setting. “There was this sloping field that was remarkably heroic and just precious,” he recalled. “From some angles it almost looks like Ireland.”

Paradoxical though it may seem, Phifer and his studio preserved the site’s integrity by cutting away at it. They embedded the home—a series of discrete pavilions, threaded together by low, vaulted passages—into the excavated earth and subsequently restored the grounds to their former pitch and standing. In elevation, the hill appears to wend its way through the tar-black building volumes. It’s an indelible image that betrays a cunning grasp of scenography.

(Scott Frances)

The inspiration for the plan, which arranges interconnected rooms like ants-on-a-log, was coincidental. One day, while mulling over possible spatial configurations, Phifer reached for a worn copy of Constantinos Doxiadis’s 1972 monograph, Architectural Space in Ancient Greece. Through a comparative analysis of temples, Doxiadis purported to uncover the “secret of the system of architectural spacing” that “had the effect of satisfying man [sic] and uplifting his spirit as he entered a public space.” Diagrams lay bare the geometric principles sundering solids from voids.

Phifer took these lessons to heart. Short of the algebraic equations that characterize Doxiadis’s text, everything was done to ensure that “all these little objects landed very carefully,” Phifer said. If at first the transposition from Miletus to Ghent seemed “static,” subsequent refining yielded a “dynamic relationship—all of the sudden, it was like [the pavilions] were dancing around the hill.”

Like every room in the house, the double galley kitchen boasts views of the Catskill Mountains in the distance. (Scott Frances)

Handed a tight budget, Phifer prescribed small, positively “petite” dimensions for the primary bedroom, guest suites, and bunk room, as well as the dining and living rooms. The entry pavilion, for instance, is barely wide enough to accommodate a staircase that directs leads to the dwelling spaces below. You wouldn’t want to prepare Thanksgiving dinner in the double galley kitchen. (For the clients, a couple, that’s all in the future.)

The interior finishes are spare and economical, with white sheetrock and polished black concrete floors making up the material palette. The exception is the dining room, lined on all sides with a warm plywood. Every room is exposed to the south, with sunlight finding its way into the otherwise dim hallways. Phifer revels in the way deep shadow gradually gives way to brightness.

“You think you understand what the light is going to be,” he said. “You study it, you make a model, you make renderings that can pretend to predict the light. But it surprises you every time.”

Phifer's appreciation of Constantinos Doxiadis's book Architectural Space in Ancient Greece informed the plan. (Scott Frances)