“There is much to learn from architects before it became an expert’s art,” Bernard Rudofsky wrote in Architecture Without Architects in 1964. “The untutored builders in space and time demonstrate an admirable talent for fitting their buildings into the natural surroundings. Instead of trying to conquer nature, as we do, they welcome the vagaries of climate and the challenge of topography.” The book marvels at ingenious designs of the past, such as the subterranean cities of Cappadocia, carved houses of Les Baux-en-Provence, and cliff dwellings of the Dogon. But in recent years, progressive architects have started to take on topography too, and embed houses into their surrounding landscapes—a technique that might have made the iconic writer and architect proud (he died in 1988). These homes offer alternative forms of living, reflect and respect nature, and minimize the impact on the environment, all of which were tenets of Rudofsky’s writings. On the shores of the Colorado River in central Texas, for example, the Edgeland House is a modern re-interpretation of the Native American pit house. Like pit houses of the Pueblo, it is sunken into the ground and uses the encompassing terrain to maintain homeostasis. Its roof, which is planted with more than 40 native species of plants and wildflowers, further incorporates it into the local ecosystem. “We have always been interested in lessons from vernacular architecture,” says Calvin Chen, of Bercy Chen Studio, which designed the Edgeland House. “Vernacular structures embody time-tested wisdom about real site conditions learned over centuries without the distraction of what is in vogue.” Here, we share a few of our favorites—from an eco-house shaped like a flower and nestled into the moorlands of England to a Brutalist structure lodged in a sheer cliff in Lebanon—that are pushing the boundaries of sustainable thinking and design.
On a rugged cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea, Casa Brutale is a “geometric translation of the landscape,” and features a béton brut exterior, a massive floor-to-ceiling window that offers breathtaking ocean views, and a glass-bottom pool that serves as the roof. “Both me and my partner grow up in Rhodes, with this infinite blue carpet in front of our eyes,” says Laertis Antonios Ando Vassiliou of OPA, which designed Casa Brutale. “The idea of the project is to frame this view (from the inside), and also to create a visual continuation of the pool to the sea (from outside).” The ground it is embedded in provides thermal insulation, and the overhead pool cools the residence and brightens it. Shadows and light swirl and undulate, which brings the house to life. Overall, Vassiliou explains, it is an homage to pure Brutalism. “Most of the Brutalist buildings have been connected with social housing and, in general, ugly social living conditions,” he says. “But we like Brutalism for the sincerity of its materials. We also love concrete as a material—we find it both epic and poetic, as long as it is being used in wise quantities and in harmony with other materials too.”
Bolton Eco House
Nestled into the moorlands of North West England, the Bolton Eco House will generate its own renewable energy and be the first zero-carbon property in the region. The four-bedroom, single-story home is embedded into the hillside to minimize its impact on the landscape. When viewed from above, the eco-house is shaped like the petals of a flower. Make architects designed the home for British football star Gary Neville, and planning consent has been granted.
Cabin Knapphullet, a seaside home on the coast of Norway, is tucked in between boulders and dense vegetation, which protect it from the elements. Stairs lead up to the concrete roof, which can also be used as a deck or viewing platform, and offers panoramic views of the rough and rugged sea. Inside, the ceiling is made of oak strips that were pieced together like a woven basket, and the rest of the walls are made of glass and offer more striking views. Cabin Knapphullet was designed by Norwegian studio Lund Hagem and is the summer home of one its founding partners.
Dani Ridge House
On the rocky coast of Big Sur, the Dani Ridge House is almost invisible. The house was built into the sloped hillside (the garage, laundry, powder room, pantry and 5,000-gallon water storage tank are all underground), and its roof, covered in native grasses, disguises the structure as part of the meadow. It was built by Studio Schicketanz, Inc., a design studio based in Carmel, CA, in 2006.
The Edgeland House was commissioned by a science-fiction writer, who provided Bercy Chen Studio with a 50-page brief, which outlined his “personal aesthetic, philosophic and environmental interests, and goals for the house.” He named it Edgeland House because it is located “on the edge of town where manmade light from the industrial zone interacts with nature.” When asked how the project tests the boundaries of current thinking and design, Chen answered, “I think the remarkable thing was finding an enlightened client who was committed enough to commission this project and execute on it. I feel the current ‘boundary’ is not technological—we don’t have a lack of good sustainable thinking—but rather we lack execution.”
Set on the Greek Island of Antiparos, Ktima House can barely be seen from the slope above. It looks like thick, white lines drawn on the ruddy hillside. But from below, a fragmented structure, which recalls ancient citadels, can be seen. The house features two levels, which are kept cool by its green roof (no mechanical cooling system is needed). There are also several terraces that offer stunning views, an aquamarine pool, and a guesthouse. Camilo Rebelo + Susana Martins designed Ktima House, which was inspired by the classic Greek themes of order and chaos.