“You’re in a 180-degree glass box. You feel that you’re not tethered to the ground at that point.”
A pen. Some paper. A bit of inspiration. A quiet place to think. Of all the things a writer needs, it’s the last one that’s the hardest to come by.
That was the challenge posed to New York-based architect Eric J. Smith by one of his long-time clients: build a writer’s studio that would function as a tranquil sanctuary where he might fully embrace a lifelong love of the written word. In so doing, Smith created not only the perfect place to write, but a four-walled metaphor for the act of writing itself.
“The building represents the creative process,” Smith says. “You approach it from what’s a very solid, almost impenetrable structure—there’s only one portal going through.”
As Smith points out, that effort to open the door (whether literal or figurative) will be immediately familiar to anyone who has stared at a blank page. “When you’re looking at a blank piece of paper, you have to find your way in: What’s the inspiration; what’s the thought?”
For Smith, that parsing started with a proper consideration of what had come before. Smith’s firm had already worked on two previous projects on the 25-acre estate, about an hour northeast of Manhattan, renovating the main house in a grand, 1920s New England style, which honoured the design traditions of the region.
This time, however, the owner shared a distinctly different vision: a small, stripped-down, essentialist space whose sole purpose would be to enhance and amplify the work going on inside.
Smith faced two diverging roads: he could design a bold, bauhaus-inspired monument that would dominate the landscape and stand outside the property’s existing design language. Instead, he opted for a road less travelled: bring traditional and contemporary design together in a way that respected not only the client’s vision, but the rich history of the region, as well as the ebb and flow of the land itself.
“That was an interesting dichotomy,” Smith says. “It was as if maybe we had discovered the remnants of an old springhouse, or root cellar, or some other building that was there, and it was kind of in ruin, and we kind of restored it, and then we repurposed it. [The idea] was to strip it all down to just stone, wood, steel, and glass. Each of those are honoured into themselves, as if [the building] had been there for a long time and the forest grew up around it.”
From the outside, the studio is a study in architectural counterpoint, with modern elements interacting with traditional materials to create a beautiful harmony with the surrounding site.
On one hand, a solid, levelled-off cube clad in traditional stacked stone gives the studio a feeling of mass and substance—a thick-walled, castle-like feel intended to shelter the poet from the distractions of the everyday. On the other hand, exposed steel beams create a cantilevered room surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling sliding glass panels—an airy, floating feeling intended to open the mind and help the imagination soar.
The glass offers a view of a picturesque wood, where a gently flowing brook chatters and babbles in the hollow below the studio.
“The cantilever allows you to project yourself out into the future, out into the space,” Smith says. “You’re in a 180-degree glass box. You feel that you’re not tethered to the ground at that point. You’re in the middle of the woods—you [feel] breezes there, you can hear what’s going on. It’s very exciting that way.”
The end result is a kind of creative refuge from the hustle and bustle of modern life, a place where the action of entering in and moving through serves as an echo for what happens in the mind. “The idea is that you decide to enter into this kind of creative space by leaving everything behind you,” says Smith.
Walking past the built-in bookshelves in the narrow hall to stand in the spacious central room gazing into the woods beyond, you feel outside the realm of human endeavour: The walls sink into the ground, the glass melts away, and you become one with both the physical and the metaphysical.
And as Smith says, that was the point. “[You] walk up through the woods, [then] you’re forced into a very small pocket of space before it then expands back out. So your mind recalibrates. Everything kind of quiets and settles. And then it expands to bigger ideas.”
Which, as any poet or architect will tell you, is a pretty good way to describe the act of creation. Your eyes wander into the woods (literal or figurative), and you notice something: a lonely cloud; a bird coming down the walk; a wet, black, bough; a red wheelbarrow.
Your spirit wakes from its slumber. Your pen has motion now, and force. And you begin to write about the rocks, and stones, and trees—and all the bigger ideas that come with them.