“There isn’t really much of a barrier to the natural world when you’re in this house,” says Juliet Stone of her family’s Cape Cod home, designed by Bauhaus luminary Marcel Breuer in 1949. Welcoming us into the timber house, Stone’s words compete with the loud croaks of spring peeper frogs drifting up from a mist-covered pond nearby. Here, amid coastal woodland on Massachusetts’ peninsula, a brand of modernist architecture that willingly embraced the wilderness remains in remarkable condition.
The Kepes House was commissioned by Stone’s father, the Hungarian painter and art theorist György Kepes, who emigrated to the US in 1937 to work at the New Bauhaus design school in Chicago. Breuer, who also came to the US in 1937, leaving Nazi Germany via London, was Stone’s guardian. “Dad was a professor at mit and the salary was relatively meagre at the time. But Lajko [Stone’s nickname for Breuer] said that my family had to come here to [Cape Cod’s] Wellfleet because he had found nirvana and that this was the place to be.”
The Kepes House is one of a handful of handsome modernist residences that dot this part of the western Cape. Other notable figures who had homes and holiday retreats here include Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus founder; Finnish modernist Eero Saarinen; Serge Chermayeff, the author and architect; structural engineer Paul Weidlinger; and Breuer himself.
“The adult world that my parents belonged to on Cape Cod feels completely separate from my childhood memories of it,” says Weidlinger’s son Tom on the telephone from San Francisco. He’s referring to the house that his father built in 1953 on the lip of Higgins Pond near Wellfleet; he bought this small parcel of land on the recommendation of Marcel Breuer, who had already built a house in the area. “My father discovered a piece of paradise on Cape Cod and built his summer house there,” says Tom.
The construction of the rectangular single-storey house, set high on metal stilts, was an engineering test for the contractors in the area. The weight of the floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass windows meant that heavy-lifting equipment had to be brought in from Boston – a novelty among the toolkits usually used by the craftsmen of Cape Cod’s traditional pitch-roofed wooden homes.
Today the home is looked after by Peter McMahon, an architect who founded the Cape Cod Modern House Trust in 2004 to protect and preserve the area’s overlooked modernist pedigree. “Even people living nearby didn’t have any idea who any of these people were,” he says. “Half of President Kennedy’s cabinet had homes here. Russian spies were based here. Noam Chomsky still lives here. It was a very rich environment at that time.”
Architecturally Cape Cod’s modern vernacular was being rendered in ways that were inherently local, constructed by craftsmen from wood sourced nearby. Hatch Cottage, perched high on a bluff near Wellfleet Woods, was commissioned by Robert Hatch, an editor at The Nation. Its designer, US architect Jack Hall, conceived the cottage as an experiment in volume: the house is a series of wooden boxes, which are connected by outdoor pathways, all held together by slender metal frames. The outer walls of the rooms can be opened upwards to form a roof for portions of the pathways, offering welcome shade on sunny days. Today it serves as a summer holiday house for appreciators of modernist design and a place of pilgrimage for architecture students from MIT and Harvard.
The singularity of these homes is compounded by their setting within sheer natural beauty; the ponds, woods and sand dunes all intermingle with Cape Cod’s modernist vernacular. “Breuer really had a chance to spread his wings in his work on the Cape,” says architect Malachi Connolly, who directed the 2013 documentary Built on Narrow Land, which chronicles Cape Cod’s modernist masterpieces.
The simplicity of the architecture reflected the lives of those who settled here. Writing, sculpting, painting and sketching was done during the day. On early summer’s evenings there was swimming (usually nude) before clothes were put back on for table tennis, debates, cocktails and dinner with the neighbours. “The Cape was a magical place,” says landscape architect Susan Saarinen, daughter of Eero Saarinen and sculptor Lilian Swann. “Most of the people who I knew there are gone. But it lives on in my heart.”
As the Modern House Trust continues to restore and revive the homes that come into its care, it also has to contend with landscape and social shifts in Cape Cod. “It’s a bit of a tricky time,” says Stone, back at Kepes House. “It was a privilege that I had all those summers here. It became a part of who I am, that connectedness to the natural world. But it was a very different world. It’s important for people to have access to it. Otherwise who is going to protect it if people don’t care?”
Design for retreat:
Simplicity is at the core of the Cape Cod style of modernist housing. Despite the grand names of architecture who designed them, these buildings are modest in form and empathetic to the whims of wilderness. Often drawing upon salvaged materials and largely comprising wood and stone, the architecture sinks into the environment bringing those who dwell in these buildings down to Earth with them.
In the 1940s, spending time in a cosy cabin in Cape Cod proved the perfect antidote to the stress of modern urban living; 80 years later the need to design for retreat has only grown. In China entire villages are being erected in the mountains for urbanites to experience scaled-back living (maintaining their livelihood remotely on laptops). Meanwhile, in the West, the likes of Peter Zumthor have ascended dizzying career heights pioneering an architecture that harmonises with nature.
But the rules for forging design for retreat remain rooted in the Cape Cod modernist style, which itself is entrenched in nature. Drawing upon simple materials and designing to maximise an appreciation for the landscape – it’s all about letting nature do the hard work for you.