Text by Sara Johnson
MOA wanted a house that was designed using the Fibonacci sequence, Madden Leitner says: “We thought, ‘Why not set out like they used to in ancient times, when they built the cathedrals and put a geometric mandate on it, and see if we can do it?’ Also, if our intent was to grow these modules—say you started out with two of them and you wanted to connect them—there is a feeling of recombinatory growth that happens in nature that also happens with the houses.”
The team designed two Element House scale models for a 2010 MOA exhibition. “One was a long extruded house, and the other was the branching version we built,” Meredith says. That same year, the latter concept began to take shape: MOA was a contributor to Star Axis, an 11-story sculpture by artist Charles Ross under construction in the New Mexico desert. The artwork, designed to be seen at night, is more than 80 miles from Albuquerque, N.M., so visitors would need a place to stay. Construction on the Element House prototype at Star Axis began in 2011.
Completed this year, the 1,543-square-foot house bears little relation to the art it serves. “It was very clear from the artist’s perspective that they wanted an autonomous thing,” Meredith says. “The worst thing in their mind was that we would try to make a mini Star Axis.” The structure is a collection of modules that recall the iconic peaked-roof-and-chimney form universally recognized as “house,” albeit clad in aluminum shingles. Aside from a few tweaks to the solar chimneys and the orientation, the initial design was not altered for the site.
The three-bedroom, one-bathroom house, which will open to the public when Star Axis is completed in 2017, is not visible from the artwork. “It’s very much about being in that landscape and experiencing each of them independently, but knowing that they’re nearby,” says MOS principal Hilary Sample, AIA.
While there are no current plans to build more Element Houses, Madden Leitner says the initial plan was to create a high-end model (the prototype), a mid-range model, and an affordable model. “There are a lot of functions it could fulfill in the art world,” she says, “but as a house to practically live in, that’s certainly what we hope ultimately Element House is used for.”