The Chicken Point Cabin exemplifies the idiosyncratic residential design for which Tom Kundig, principal of Seattle architecture firm Olson Kundig, is internationally famous. First, a “gizmo” opens the private residence up to its spectacular setting along the lakeshore of a northern Idaho resort community. Second, materials—here, concrete, steel, plywood, and concrete block—are in the buff, naked, unfinished. And finally, Kundig crafts these materials-in-the-rough into compelling architectural elements and choreographs them into a tour-de-force.
The star of this show is a monumental steel-and-glass window wall that pivots up to reveal an unimpeded view of Hayden Lake and surrounding mountains. Co-starring is a 19-foot-high unfinished steel door, taller than needed for the longest of alpine skis, yet harmoniously in scale with surrounding pines. Supporting cast includes a segment of 4-foot-diameter steel pipe, left over from the Alaskan Oil Pipeline, standing in as fireplace, chimney, and solo column in the house.
Now let’s go behind the scenes and see how this show was put together. The site is key, with 100 feet of forested, south-facing lake frontage. To capture this view, the entire south facade is glazed. For privacy from the road and neighboring cabins, walls along the other three sides are insulated concrete block with only a few strategically placed windows. Above the block walls, a continuous ribbon of windows levitates the gently pitched roof and affords views of the sky. Suspended within the concrete-block box, almost like cabinetry, is the plywood master suite reached by a bridge and hanging stair.
This is a house whose forms are primarily rectilinear masses and planes, but a few angular moves stand out. One of these is the tall door, not only exceptional in scale and proportion, but also set at a 30-degree angle to receive visitors arriving from the road. Upon entering, visitors pass by the stair and enter the monumental living space bathed in light from the south.
The entire south side of the living space is a 17 x 23–foot window wall that rotates up to allow occupants to see an unimpeded view of the lake and mountains, hear sounds of lapping water, and feel fresh air enter the space. The window wall, constructed of 1-inch-thick, high-performance glazing framed by tube steel, rotates 90 degrees along an axle with ring bearings at each end. Because the axle of rotation is higher than halfway to allow head clearance, the shorter top is counterweighted by steel bars along its top edge.
Although Kundig considered various mechanisms to rotate the window wall, including a low-tech sandbag counterweight and a power-generated system similar to a garage door opener, he decided instead on a hand-cranked, geared “gizmo,” engineered by Phil Turner. To open the window wall, one turns a wheel that engages driveshaft operating gears—similar to a bicycle’s chain drive—controlled by a governor that regulates speed and activates an audible alarm if too fast. Strategically situated gears and counterweights to provide mechanical advantage allowed even the owners’ young children to lift the 6-ton facade.
As with other Kundig buildings, here a direct relationship to the natural world is paramount. The simple lifting mechanism allows an unobstructed view, fresh air, and the sound of water into the house. The Chicken Point Cabin celebrates the sublime natural world by framing it in simple, unfinished materials and by dissolving the boundary between inside and out by using manual technology that requires bodily engagement of a human occupant.
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