Being There
06.29.2013, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

aperturesHatch House, Wellfleet, MA, all images this post, FOP 2013

The Center for Land Use Interpretation has a practice of ending their seasonal newsletters with the phrase,“Thanks for being there!” We’d like to think this invitation hasn’t been lost on us. We try to “be there” (anywhere) as much as possible, since no other medium replaces really being somewhere.

We recently had the pleasure of inhabiting the Hatch House in Wellfleet, Massachusetts for 24 hours (a short tour of the house can be seen here). We first photographed the Hatch House in 2008, when it was in a state of amplifying deterioration. Remarkably, as of June 2013, the Hatch House is back to health with a new deck, historically and architecturally thoughtful renovations, and uncontested lease — and it is able to be inhabited by humans for the first time in years. This surprising structure (and a few of its contemporaries on Cape Cod) gained its second life due in large part to Peter McMahon’s efforts through the Cape Cod Modern House Trust. For the past few years he, and countless volunteers, including a group of Harvard’s GSD students, have worked to make this moment possible.

The Hatch House faces Wellfleet Bay.  It was designed and built by Jack Hall in 1960. The Cape Cod National Seashore was signed into law a year later in 1961. Most of the houses that were built on what became Seashore land were given 25 year leases before they were to be absorbed into the National Seashore. The legalities of  this arrangement, and the exceptions since allowed or taken to building/living on Seashore property, are storied and complex (and best researched elsewhere).

What remains interesting and remarkably contemporary about the Hatch House, which was built for Ruth Hatch, a painter from New York and her husband Robert, an editor of the Nation Magazine, is the spirit of experimentation that the house exemplifies. Its light, floating, boxy structure stands in stark contrast to what many consider the standard Cape style.

The house activates the modernist grid, and blurs inside and outside. To go to bedrooms, bathroom or kitchen/living room, one has to go outside onto the deck that connects all rooms. By going outside, one’s eyes are drawn up to the sky to take in sun, stars or clouds. Changes in temperature, humidity and light become part of the daily pulses of inside to outside, outside to inside experiences. Large hatches can be raised to provide abundant shade and lowered in extreme weather conditions, or when the house is closed for the season. Regardless, everything flows both in and out, either through small gaps in the wood or through huge screen windows.

We spent much of our 24 hours at the house awake and outside on the deck. Given the extreme swings that June Cape weather can deliver on extremely short notice, we knew we were very lucky to have the 24, sun and breeze-filled hours that we did.  Thoreau’s quote from The Maine Woods seemed apt:

“I did not regret my not having seen this before, since I now saw it under circumstances so favorable. I was in just the frame of mind to see something wonderful, and this was a phenomenon adequate to my circumstances and expectation, and it put me on alert to see more like it.”
— Henry David Thoreau, as quoted in Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics and the Wild, by Jane Bennett

During our time at the Hatch House, we thought of traditional Japanese architecture and more experimental artist/architectural collaborations such as James Turrell’s House of Light and Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field installation in New Mexico’s high desert. The Dia’s log cabin adjacent to The Lightning Field is a sort of inverse of the Hatch House. Both structures afford inhabitants the chance to directly experience the surrounding landscape in solitude, but the cabin at The Lightning Field is a solid, cave-like log shelter and offers a distinct break from the highly charged installation outside its doors. The Hatch House felt more like a sailboat, flying just above the sea. The deck — an extension of the hill that the house is nested within. In this way, the Hatch House might have more in common with Provincetown’s dune shacks, except that it’s a deeply intentional work of  art/architecture, embodying a philosophy and a political ideal. Its spirit is about the humility of its materials and impact upon the land, as much as (if not more than) about the very particular  configuration of its design. Its materials are aligned (literally), it seems, to afford inhabitants an opportunity to disappear along with the house into the landscape.

A few days after our stay, we had a chance to see the world premier of Built On Narrow Land at the Provincetown Film Festival. This documentary offers a compelling account of modernist architectural history on the Cape and illustrates the hopeful, yet uncertain future of how its legacy will endure from here.

Built On Narrow Land is a beautiful film, yet no number of striking shots or vivid descriptions erases the vast difference between experience and description. To pass hours with/in this house is magical. To access, through an embodied experience of dwelling, how the structure’s materials and design instruct movements, generate stillness, and expand the distance from the “noise” outside, is to enter into a rare relationship with a site and its architectural inflection. The Hatch House is by far one of the most intentional spaces we’ve stepped into. When we left that second morning, we were surprised how far we felt we had travelled, without having left the deck of the house itself.

Despite there being no translation or mediation that is up to the uniqueness of “being there,” we offer the following polaroid images.  And, we once again invite all to support efforts to preserve these structures AND follow the Add-on ’13 project and exhibition taking place this summer. Add-on ’13 is an invitation to spark new building practices on the Cape. The project attempts to match the scale- and place-responsive architectural history of the area, and expands modernist house ideals to encompass current affordable housing efforts and sustainable building practices.











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