Thomas Shafer Architects’s Canyon House is an architectural transformation of the typical suburban house. Located in the sparsely populated subdivision of Little Cottonwood Canyon and accessed via a picturesque road through jagged granite canyon walls, the neighborhood enjoys the seeming isolation of wilderness while still within commuting distance of Salt Lake City. Canyon House fits into and stands out from the surrounding built environment. The houses of Little Cottonwood Canyon, including this one, are set in large lots, sometimes close to and sometimes far removed from the access road. Featuring, respectively, either mowed lawns or cultivated but native and naturalist vegetation, the subdivision landscapes betray a fascination with the culture and mythology of the American suburb and the American West. Both are born of an attachment to modern comforts and a yearning for unspoiled nature. The relationship between house and landscape, in both cases, is one of control, emphasizing the inhabitants’ desire to live in “natural” settings they are able to dominate. The houses are equally embedded in a popular image of romantic outdoor living and they embody middle-class values and ideas about family, home, and property. Formally, these houses couple modernist aesthetics with contemporary means of production. Their spatial organization follows a strict three-part plan, with areas for formal and informal living, sleeping, and cars. The driveway of Canyon House is barely distinguishable from the access road.
Despite its similarities to other houses in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Shafer’s Canyon House derives much of its visual and symbolic value by activating a series of self-conscious displacements of the suburban domestic typology. Its design can be read as a critique of a desire for visual conformity that often masks a need for social conformity. It opts for self-expression, as the architect, rejecting the anonymity of the subdivision’s standardized houses, designs an identifiable marker of the owner and the owner’s patronage of the creative classes.
In place of the conformity of machine-graded landscape, Canyon House opts for the variety characteristic of the site’s rugged terrain. It does not scrape the site clean of native vegetation to be replanted with manicured foreign planting. Instead of sitting on the cleared ground, Canyon House fit into its topographic context. Indeed, it seems to jut out of the rock. Instead of facing the street, Canyon House is informed by the contours of its site. Not only does it reject a stiffly ordered frontal orientation, when approaching the house it is actually difficult to find the front door.
At Canyon House the program is split into distinct functional volumes. The mass containing the grand living area and bedrooms maximizes the expression of the interior functions, so that the whole breaks up within discontinuous volumes. The project owes its name not only to the canyon in which it is located, but also to these deeply cut volumes. They are clearly differentiated both inside and out and seem to indulge in a sort of topographic mimicry. The volume housing the car porch with an eloquent terrace above is revealed on the exterior as distinct from the volume holding the informal living area connected to it and the formal area above. The cavity between them has steps leading from the driveway to the entrance, located a floor above. Unfinished risers and refined treads twist round the bend. The serendipitous nature of this arrival evokes a hike up the majestic Rocky Mountains as much as it recalls a modernist trope extending from Frank Lloyd Wright to Le Corbusier.
Though the open plan concept and the split-level organization are typical of builder ranch houses, at Canyon House these features are imbued with a sense of expansiveness, breathtaking panoramas, and variable heights that are rarely found even in the grandest contractor ranch. Unsurprisingly, site conditions inform the subtle shifts in the level in the house: in addition to expressing the complexity of the program on the exterior, different roof heights highlight views, space, and light. The tension between the placeless industrial modes of production and the contingencies of site is on full display. Indeed, Canyon House seems to reject the stripped-down minimalism that, in standardized houses, became associated with an image of prudence and economically smart living.
Canyon House evokes a middle-class elegance and indulgence of the early-twenty-first-century variety. It summons the sensual tactility of exposed concrete, rough stone, and cedar cladding on the exterior and the interior. This is echoed in the thick walls clad in rough stone in the triangular living room. Corridors juxtapose the cement floors against the sedate white roofs. The master bedroom on the top floor melts into the exterior. Its bathroom wall dematerializes into elemental surfaces and supports. At the middle level, the living room roof flies towards the sky. Supported on pencil-thin red columns, it seems like the petrification of a tensile tent. The floor of the single-loaded corridor leading to and from it floats over the rock shelf. The roof of the ground floor creates the sense of a cave. Architectural tropes abound. A door becomes a curtain here; a thin red pole lifts impossible weight there. The house is alive with disciplinary quotes: Mies’s pavilion, Le Corbusier’s box, Wright’s dematerialization of the wall, De Stijl’s elementalism.
This is nothing unusual for Thomas Shafer Architects, a small, Chicago-based firm that specializes in domestic architecture. Their work is united by an insistence on the house not as a background for life, but as an active participant. Their work emphasizes the agency of the walls and voids, spaces and materials, colors and textures, views and sounds. Their architectural inversions speak not of sensible, efficient living, but of an elegant consumption of space and the self-conscious construction of landscape. Canyon House represents a current stage in the architectural development of the American upper middle class. It points to its valorization of an independent, self-actualizing lifestyle and strategic deployment of architecture as a marker of its social, cultural, and artistic aspirations.
“Shafer Architects: Residence in Salt Lake County.” GA Houses 48 (March 1996): 108.