Architecture / Montauk
On the margin
At the eastern extremities of New York state, the coastal village of Montauk is home to inventive architecture designed with the wild terrain and weather in mind.
For New Yorkers, Montauk is known as “The End”. Situated on the outer reaches of Long Island’s South Fork and at the terminus of the Long Island Rail Road, the hamlet has the distinction of being the easternmost point of New York state. And, as places at the end of things tend to, Montauk has developed a culture unto itself. Because no one simply passes through on the way to someplace else, the people who end up here do so deliberately. Over the years this has included fishermen, surfers, artists, bohemians, owners of second homes and those just looking for an escape. In keeping with this, various architectural styles have found their way to this rugged and beautiful slice of coastline since the late 1800s, when a wealthy Brooklynite, Arthur Benson, began commissioning grand holiday homes here.
“The history of architecture in Montauk happened in episodes,” says Robert Young, an architect who has studios in New York City and Montauk. His work is part of the area’s most recent instalment, drawing upon timbers common to the region and far less ostentatious in form than the Queen Anne and Tudor Revival-style buildings from earlier years that dot the town.
The ideas behind Young’s portfolio – featuring new timber homes with low-slung roofs, and sensitive renovations of gabled vernacular residences – chime with the breezy buildings that sprung up here in the 1960s. For a project in 2000, Young climbed a tree on a property, finding views of the ocean. Following this site visit, he designed a new interpretation of a type of modernist building commonly found around Montauk: the upside-down house. Replicating the vista from his treetop perch, Young’s creation arrays most living spaces on the upper level, where his clients enjoy those superlative ocean views.
Montauk is mostly a village of small structures – fishing and surf shacks – so I wanted this residence to maintain that scale,” says Young, as he takes monocle to visit a home he designed next to Montauk Lake, where he drew from history again. Rather than design a single grand structure to impose itself on the site, he created the home as an assemblage of multiple pitched-roof, cedar-clad buildings, in keeping with the forms and materials so prevalent across Montauk. He stitched the volumes together with modern glass elements. By including full-height sliding doors on adjacent sides of the main house and nearby guesthouse, he ensured that its residents could enjoy cross-ventilation from the lake’s breezes.
Making the most of the elements is what defines the designs of Young and his contemporaries in Montauk. Architects here are attempting to work with the land’s unique ecology – coastal dunes, grassland, shrubland and a patchwork of freshwater, saltwater and brackish wetland – rather than fight against it. When New York architecture firm Desai Chia started work on a house in Montauk’s Hither Hills neighbourhood, it took into account a wetlands area to the south.
“We positioned the house as far north as possible to avoid issues with storm water run-off to the nearby wetlands,” says Katherine Chia of her firm’s sensitive approach. The home’s final design features a huge overhanging element that creates shady outdoor areas and shelters the interior from the sun, enabling the residents to avoid using air-conditioning. Charred-wood cladding across the property is a shade of grey that references aged cedar, prevalent in Montauk. The façade is tough enough to withstand Montauk’s dramatic weather conditions, which range from scorching sunny days to fierce storms that batter the coastline.
The urgency to design with nature in mind is a pressing one in Montauk. For example, when the Montauk Point lighthouse was built in 1796, its engineers positioned it nearly 100 metres away from the shore. Today, erosion has shaved that distance down to 30 metres. Meanwhile, to counter the high tides and storm surges causing flooding in the downtown area, the US Army Corps of Engineers is planning what it calls the Downtown Montauk Stabilisation Project, which will result in the construction of reinforced dunes along the most vulnerable shorelines. As Young puts it: “I tell my clients that they aren’t buying the land – they are borrowing it.”
But this precious land is increasingly coming at a premium cost. Property prices are surging in Montauk, threatening to undo the social mix that has been so central a part of the area’s story. As we wrap up our tour we meet architect Tommy Zung, who started coming to Montauk more than 20 years ago as a relaxing counterbalance to the grind of New York City. He has designed and constructed several houses here, while also producing a line of surfboards shaped for the nuances of Montauk’s surf, using references that are drawn from interior design and art.
“People tend to think about Montauk for the summer season but you really have to consider the full year and the community of people who live here,” says Zung. “There are surfers, artists, fishermen and quasi-degenerates – Montauk has all of them living together. Now it has more people from finance, yes, but there should still be room for everyone.”