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This week the Pleistocene has become incredibly modern for FOP. We’ve been working and living in what amounts to a Modernist aperture onto the Pleistocene. Our glass house/field station sits poised at the edge of a small kettle pond in Wellfleet, MA called Northeast Pond. Designed by architect Charles Zehnder in 1970, the Kugel / Gips house was restored by the Cape Cod Modern House Trust (CCMHT) in 2009.
And it turns out to be the perfect place for any friend of the Pleistocene to experience how the last ice age continues to shape living on Cape Cod.
Northeast Pond exists in sands deposited by the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet 14,000 – 17,000 years ago. It’s a small 4 acres, bordered by the larger Great Pond, which has an area of 44 acres. Both are located within the boundaries of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The Atlantic Ocean is just over a half mile away.
Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Zehnder designed the Kugel / Gips house to respond to its landscape. And that means its architecture responds to the Pleistocene.
architectural response to a Pleistocene landscape
How we’ve been able to inhabit a Modernist house built on the shore of a glacier-formed kettle pond, within the boundaries of the National seashore, requires a bit of a back story – both about the Pleistocene and about an organization called the Cape Cod Modern House Trust.
During the Pleistocene, the site of the Kugel / Gips house was covered by 5600 feet of ice. The mainland of Cape Cod is a glacial moraine, and the nearby city of Wellfleet exists on an outwash plain deposited by the meltwater streams from the South Channel Lobe of the Laurentide ice sheet–the biggest ice sheet ever, as far as scientists know (according to Mariana Gosnell, author of Ice: the Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance).
The pond outside the floor to ceiling window in the Kugel / Gips house was formed at the melting edge of the South Channel Lobe of the Laurentide ice sheet.
The kettle pond we’ve called home this week, like all the others on Cape Cod, was formed when a block of “dead” ice broke from the retreating ice sheet and got buried by rock debris that washed out from the melting glacier. Sometimes, buried chunks of dead ice survived for thousands of years.
The formation of a kettle hole. “Isolated ice blocks become covered with the pebbly debris of an outwash plain”. image, US Geologic Survey, from These Fragile Outposts: A Geological Look at Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket
The voids left behind after the dead ice melted became hollows, which in turn became the many ponds that dot the Cape today as cherished swimming and fishing holes fondly celebrated by locals.
Every one of the dune shacks, trophy houses, fish shanties and Cape Cod style homes on this cape are built in a Pleistocene landscape. But a precious few qualify as significant examples of Modernist architecture.
How and when did this Pleistocene cape become home to Modernist houses?
The connection between the Cape’s dramatic Pleistocene landscape and Modernism was traced vividly in an exhibition called, Chain of Events:Marcel Breuer to Charles Jencks, Modernist Architecture on the Outer Cape. Co-curated by Peter McMahon, founder of CCMHT, and BoB Bailey the exhibition opened at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 2006. This show was the start of a growing appreciation for local history that had global reverberations.
Peter McMahon at the Kugel / Gips house during restoration. image, Sara Barrett/The New York Times 2009
For the past three years the forgotten Modernist architecture of the Wellfleet area has become Peter’s raison d’être. It’s a fascinating history.
In the off-season, such as now, the town of Wellfleet has a population under 3,000. It seems like a sleepy town that might never wake up. But, come summer, the population will swell to more than 15,000 and spark to life once again. It was the summer allure of the Cape’s bare Pleistocene landscape that attracted some of the world’s brightest young architects to the area in the late 1930’s (including Walter Gropius and a number of recent Bauhaus exiles). Creative and eccentric personalities transformed the area into an architectural hotspot.
The CCMHT is dedicated not only to celebrating and remembering the Cape’s Modernist history, but also to bring its material structures into the future:
“In the late 1930s, on the isolated ‘back shore’ of Wellfleet, a group of self-taught, architecture enthusiasts began building experimental structures based on the early Modern buildings they had seen in Europe. Through mutual friends they invited some of the founders of European Modernism to buy land, build summer homes and settle. Like their local hosts, the recently emigrated Europeans admired the traditional Cape Cod ‘salt boxes’. These ancient houses were simple, functional, owner-built and designed for long winters. The Modernist summer houses were inversions of these, oriented to capture views and breezes, perching lightly on the land. In the three decades that followed, these architects built homes for themselves, their friends and the community of internationally influential artists, writers, and thinkers that took root nearby. Though humble in budget, materials and environmental impact, the Outer Cape’s Modern houses manage to be manifestos of their designers’ philosophy and way of living, close to nature, immersed in art and seeking community. The work of these architects and their clients spread around the world. These houses are the physical remnants of this unique convergence.” -from the CCMHT website
The remarkable circle of architects that the CCMHT profiles on their site include: Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Rudd Falconer, Jack Hall, Olav Hammarstrom, Paul Krueger, Jack Phillips, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Tony Smith, Hayden Walling, Paul Weidlinger, Charlie Zehnder.
Two families, first the Kugels and then the Gips, lived in the house between the 1970s and 1990s. They shared the 25 year lease granted by the National Seashore (after the land became National Seashore in August of 1961). Vacant since the lease expired in 1997, monumental deterioration had set-in. The Trust acquired the lease in 2009. Peter, with a group of generous and enthusiastic locals, initiated a rapid six-month restoration of the derelict structure.
We’re presently inhabiting the spectacular results of their labor. The Trust now leases the land from the Seashore and hopes to continue to rent the restored house to modernist architecture aficionados, Cape visitors, artists and scholars-in-residence.
The original owners of many of the Cape’s Modernist homes seemed drawn to the formalism manifested in both the Pleistocene landscape and the Modernist aesthetic: each characterized by shapes and forms that are essentially dynamic. Like the Kugel / Gips house, the Cape’s Modernist homes are enveloped in an ever-changing landscape that embodied, and embodies still: form as motion, motion as form.
The Kugel / Gips house, “demonstrates Zehnder’s skill for inhabiting a site without overwhelming it.”- CCMHT
It was designed to respond to its inhabitants too, who dwelled here primarily during the summer months. Its walls are made of cinder blocks and single pane glass is the primary insulator in the living room, making it difficult to inhabit during New England winters.
The Kugel / Gips house’s design was particularly informed by Wright’s Falling Water. The house is nested in the woods and is a layering of geometric lines and forms and floating boxes that frame views of the surrounding Pleistocene landscape.
We are experiencing the house as a transitional space. The boundaries between inside and outside are elusive and extend throughout the space.
Double and triple reflected views–interior and exterior–play across, through, and between mirror-like window panes.
Light pours through from sunrise to sunset. Exterior sounds–wind in the tops of pine trees, ocean surf half a mile away, rain on the flat roof and skylights–become interior. Temperatures rise and fall from room to room as sunlight moves along the front of the house. The lines between in and out are porous and thin.
This week, Mars shines through the skylights at night. Water from the pond reflects in the windows. Lines of the deck tip off into infinity. It is a shelter of exposure to the elements and the place that hold it.
Sitting at the window overlooking the Pleistocene kettle pond has become, for us, what Matt Coolidge calls a CLM (cinematic landscape moment). We can’t help but feel as if we are witnessing a Nathaniel Dorksy or James Benning film as wind moves across the pond, skims the water and sends shimmers through trees. Through these windows, such minute movements become recognizable as monumental events–capable of shaping, over deep time, the landforms of the world’s largest glacier-built cape. Coolidge describes a Cinematic Landscape Moment:
“This experience occurs when layers of perception are compounded to create a sensation of full fluidity between them, a sort of melting of modes into a singular experiential event that forms a momentary but profound sense of a new point of view. These events can be of startling and even transformative clarity and resonance…In a Cinematic Landscape Moment (CLM) … the physical place—and the perceiver’s moment in that place … actually [create] a new space … a crack in our hardened, accustomed ways of seeing, into which the new experience flows.” –Matt Coolidge
The Modernist houses of Cape Cod might be sited in a relatively durable Pleistocene landscape (predicted to be around for another 400 years to 10,000 years, depending on sea levels and erosion), but they were not designed for deep time. They are in need of human stewardship and inhabitation. The Kugel / Gips house is for rent to the public starting this summer. Consider renting it for a week to help support the CCMHT, or donate materials and time toward their work.
You can keep tabs on future events and renovations on the CCMHT blog.
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