George Suyama has designed more than 100 houses, many of them stirringly simple compositions in which details underscore powerful architectural ideas. Still, he is less celebrated than some of his peers, in part because he's too shy, even, to call the owners of his houses to ask if he can show them. That was one of the reasons George and his wife, Kim, wanted to make their own home a place where prospective clients would see George's architecture at its most alluring. Says Kim pragmatically, "Now we never have to call and ask if we can bring people around."
But George's idea of a showplace isn't a sprawling house with elaborate ornamentation. The couple's new home, on a narrow site that slopes down to Puget Sound, is only 20 feet wide and largely unadorned. Its most intriguing feature is a stream that starts out in the entry court and descends the hill, alternately forming pools and rivulets. As a jury that awarded the house an American Institute of Architects honor award eloquently put it, the stream "engages the house along its northern edge, narrowing and then pooling in the way that people moving through the house flow and then gather."
The site required a long, narrow house—a shape that George accommodated with such linear features as a single wall of steel kitchen cabinets and a dining table made from a 26-foot-long slab of recycled 100-year-old fir, echoing the large fir trees outside the building. Above the table is a section of an espaliered apple tree from an Oregon orchard, which serves as a kind of focal point—a chandelier without the lighting. If the branches (resembling the tributaries of a river) suggest flow, the adjacent living room is very much a gathering place. George designed its wool-covered sofa and ottoman and the pipe-arm chairs. The limited palette of browns and grays ties the pieces together.
But George isn't the type to insist on a single aesthetic. On the hill below the house is a funky, pre– World War II fisherman's cottage that reminds him of the days when people weekended in humble dwellings at the beach. George not only preserved the cottage, but arranged windows and doors in the new house to frame views of the old one. Even more surprising, he kept many of the previous owner's meandering paths and rustic terraces—acting more like an archaeologist attempting to understand the site than an architect seeking to redesign it.
If constraints produce great architecture, George (who was born in Seattle and studied at the University of Washington) had many occasions for greatness. The south side of the site abuts another house, so the Suyamas' big windows had to face north—a problem, the architect says, in a part of the country where south light is a saving grace in winter. In part to make up for the absence of direct sunlight, he created a series of glass partitions perpendicular to the building. The result: From the entry court, you can see all the way through the house to Puget Sound. Inside the house, pools and streams, designed by George with landscape architect Bruce Hinckley of Alchemie, keep the memory of water alive. From the time you arrive, says George, "Puget Sound is your destination."
In designing the house, George imposed the kind of "rules" that can complicate the architects' job but simplify the resulting building. Joists two feet apart support the angled roof—and dictate a two-foot module for the built-in furniture, which covers almost the entire south wall of the house. George stuck to right angles for the coffee table and end tables (both of which he designed) as well as the Flexform upholstery. But with a swirling painting, a collection of Japanese folk art dolls and a bamboo chair from a Paris flea market, he threw curves and doodles into the mix. Then, too, the steel he used for the built-ins is far from boring: Its surface "will grow its own patina," says George. The architect embraces the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi—the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. "I always tell clients that they should use steel only if they're willing to live with change. Not everybody is."
From the couple's bedroom, they can see the roofline of the tiny (550-square-foot) cottage below. George, Kim and their two cats lived there for four years while George designed the new house and oversaw its construction. Rather than making life difficult, they say, the experience was revealing and liberating. "It taught us how little space we needed," Kim explains. In fact, as the couple became more and more comfortable in the cottage, plans for the new house shrank.
The finished building is spatially rich, not rich in spaces. There are just three main rooms—the living/dining room on the main level; the master bedroom, down half a flight of stairs; and the media room/library at the bottom of the flight. In the master bathroom, a deep soaking tub is set into the concrete floor alongside a sliding glass panel; on the other side of the panel is a decorative pool. Water in the tub and pool rise to the same level. That produces not just a connection but a glorious confusion between indoors and out.
"Architecture should change the way you think about your life," George says. "In this case, the house helps us realize we can live not only with less square footage but with fewer things." True, the house contains luxurious materials, but textures and tonal differences, unlike possessions, don't take up space. And with less "stuff" around, George says, it's easy to contemplate nature.
"What's outside the house," he says, "informs our lives in a deeper way than anything we could purchase."