By Jeffrey Slonim | July 24, 2015 | Culture
The avant-garde East End architect Roger Ferris has designed everything from a funky Sagaponack beach bungalow to the acclaimed Clubhouse at the Bridge. Now he’s reaching new depths with an innovative underground library at the Watermill Center, which celebrates its annual gala this weekend.
Seated in the Clubhouse of the Bridge, the glass-fronted epicenter of the 350-acre golf course in Bridgehampton, architect Roger Ferris looks like a younger Jack Nicholson. He’s wearing mirrored sunglasses, lightly distressed jeans, and his silvery hair is pushed back. Coincidentally, he sounds a little like Nicholson, too. From here, the highest point on Long Island, 280-degree watery vistas offer views of a few neighboring islands, Noyack Bay, Peconic Bay, and Sag Harbor. “You can see out to the Sound on clear days—literally to Rhode Island,” says Ferris, whose house is the only residence on the property.
Considered one of the swiftly rising stars of architecture on the East End, Ferris is here to discuss his ambitious plan to build a new underground addition at Watermill Center, a collaboration with noted artist and avant-garde theater guru Robert Wilson, who founded the center. The Bridge is an appropriate venue to discuss the new project—after all, it was here that their collaboration began. “Wilson asked if he could do a production at The Bridge, using the clubhouse as a backdrop,” says Ferris. “Dancers walked around the walls of the front circle with hoses around their legs, turning it into a weeping wall as they slowly ascended. I became enamored of him and his work, and I’ve been collaborating on projects with him at Watermill Center ever since.”
The admiration clearly goes both ways. “I am attracted to Roger’s work because of its attention to detail, its simplicity, and beauty of light,” says Wilson. “I work with young designers and architects who are participants in our international summer program. There is a genuine dialogue between the young artists and Roger’s office in making architectural decisions.”
Indeed, Ferris received input for the design from Wilson as well as some of the artists currently living on the site. It will feature a vast subterranean “library of inspiration” with a performance space and sound studio as well as additional artists-in-residence housing. “We find the notion of an underground space evocative,” says Ferris, who is on the board of directors at the Watermill Center. “Wilson reaches deep with all the artifacts and the contemporary art. And it seemed appropriate [to go underground] rather than adding another building to the campus that is above-grade.”
The underground site will have 20-foot-high ceilings, according to Ferris, and will be visible at two points above ground. “Being familiar with the landscape [at Watermill Center], it’s hard to justify adding another building [at ground level],” says Ferris. “On top of the structure will be what is there today—a plinth where the artists will continue to create their tentlike studios every summer. The plinth is a kind of mediating threshold; the idea is to preserve that. During the galas, Bob creates this processional through the woods [to observe installations and performance art by artists-inresidence], and we also want to preserve that.”
In addition, the underground space—which will double the Watermill Center’s current square footage— will house the cultural center’s collection, which includes more than 6,000 works dating from 5000 BC to the present. “It’s like a library, an open storage,” says Ferris. “Objects can be taken out, held in one’s hand, and placed in study groups and other locations in the building, whether it is in someone’s bedroom, dining room, conference room, or a rehearsal room. As we create new work, we can see what has happened in the past. It offers something unique for Long Island in that the collection stems from cultures from all over the world.”
Art has heavily influenced the architect’s career: Besides designing numerous spaces for prestigious collectors, Ferris also has worked on structures that many would consider works of art. “I restored the Wiley House, a Philip Johnson residence in New Canaan [Connecticut] that was built in the early ’50s, and then we [converted the barn to a private art gallery] and created outbuildings—a pool house and garage—for the foremost collector of British art in America,” says Ferris. “I’m doing a townhouse right now for one of the top art-collecting families in the world. I’m designing homes for people who live with their art, and that’s very different from designing a museum. It’s about scale and visual terminuses. It’s not just having a big wall; there is a dialogue there.”
Until the Watermill Center library opens, Ferris’ clubhouse at The Bridge, one of the most cuttingedge contemporary clubhouses in the country, is perhaps his most acclaimed East End design. “I had done a project for Robert Rubin [principal owner of The Bridge] when he was a partner at a significant trading firm, and we began discussing what The Bridge could be, that we weren’t going to beat the great historicism of The Shinnecock, The National, or Maidstone, and that we should simply embrace contemporary architecture,” says Ferris, who is presently drafting plans for a residence for Rubin adjoining the golf course in a new development of Rubin’s creation. “The organization of the roof forms is referential to the historical use of the land,” says Ferris. “This was one of America’s premier road-racing courses in the ’50s, ’60s, and on into the ’70s; leading enthusiasts competed here.”
Racing also influenced the design of the building. “The [roof] blades that contain the various spaces in the back of the clubhouse are [meant to recall] a turbine wheel in a racing engine,” says Ferris. “I found a broken [turbo charger] when I first went to the site, some bits and pieces in what had been the pits of the racecourse, and I used that in the shape of the building.”
Watermill Center, The Bridge, and the many architecturally advanced East End homes Ferris has designed are perfectly in line with Roger Ferris + Partners’ hip, global oeuvre. The firm was recently the sole American company asked to submit plans for a Zurich Insurance world headquarters competition. His entry was an homage to the classic original structure reinterpreted through a filter of modernism.
His refresh of the Morgan Stanley headquarters, originally designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the ’60s, is monumental and profound, resembling the simple, dreamy, classically influenced façades in de Chirico canvases. Ferris restored the original structure while creating a vast new building with an unexpectedly curvilinear ceiling in the courtyard of the old.
Here in the Hamptons, Ferris adapted Judge Abraham Topping Rose’s circa-1842 Greek Revival home in Bridgehampton for the Topping Rose House restaurant, inn, and spa. His light touch and historical references were key to getting the town of Southampton to approve the project. “We found the oldest photograph available with the help of the historical society and restored the structure to what it had been originally,” says Ferris. “As the porches deteriorated, they ripped them off. As parts of the cornices rotted, instead of restoring or renovating them, they eliminated them.”
The greatest challenge was adding the contemporary elements and having them occupy the same site as the beloved historical structure. “The hotel rooms are all glass but they are behind a louvered façade,” says Ferris. “That gesture is a reference to the shutters on the old house, which could be closed to create privacy. We basically took that shutter and reproportioned it on a much larger scale. That was one of the strongest referential gestures we made, and it was critical. It was a very sensitive site; people were very concerned about adding to the original structure in a contemporary way.”
Demonstrating the breadth of Ferris’ work is another residence he designed on Town Line Road in Sagaponack. Dubbed the “Surf Shack,” it reinterprets the suburban American dream for a major art-collecting client. “The idea was to build a minimal 1,500-square-foot surf shack and then create an aboveground pool, made of pink Corian that begins as a kind of sculptural object,” says Ferris. “It’s a lap pool—more a vessel than an in-ground pool—and there is also an Airstream trailer. It’s an ode to the Middle America ideal of a house, a vinyl pool, and a house trailer, but elevating that idea.”
Less tongue-in-cheek is Ferris’ iconic Bay House, with vistas of Noyack Bay, consisting of two rectangles, one smaller and on its end, that are connected by a bridge. When it went on the market recently, it caused a bidding war before selling for $2 million above the asking price. “It’s meant to be a kind of glass house—as transparent as possible,” says Ferris. “But you still want a sense of enclosure, so we created a latticework or louvered second floor.” From the ground, the louvers block any view of the second floor. Says Ferris, “This creates a sense of privacy. But when you’re upstairs, looking out, you have unobstructed views.”
Although Ferris is prolific, no one project of his exactly resembles another. Surprisingly, except for a clean hand and an inventive eye, he has no signature style. “I strive not to repeat myself,” he says. “I prefer to let myself be subsumed by a client and a program at the site. I strive to reinvent the wheel every time.”
photography by paúl rivera (exterior); Martin Crook (Ferris). by Megan Mack (Wilson); rendering courtesy of roger ferris + partners
(underground). opposite page: photography by paúl rivera (exteriors)