House at Martha's Vineyard, by Steven Holl, FAIA.

House at Martha's Vineyard, by Steven Holl, FAIA.

Credit: Paul Warchol


When designing this vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., Steven Holl, FAIA, drew from the part of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in which a sailor tells of how Native Americans on Nantucket used the bones of beached whales as the structures for their houses. Holl interpreted that, brilliantly, in the “inside-out balloon frame” of this beach house for clients Steven Berkowitz and Janet Odgis.

The wood-framed “bones” enclosed a veranda and elevated the 2,800-square-foot, three-bedroom structure above the rolling dunes, with a two-story tower at the back containing an exercise room, master bedroom, and bath. A ladder led from a second-floor deck to a third-floor crow’s nest, evoking Melville’s nautical influence and providing a commanding view up and down the beach.

Cited in the 1986 P/A Awards and completed in 1988, the house also won an Institute Honor Award for Architecture from the AIA in 1989. None of that recognition, though, could save it from demolition—not after subsequent owners, wanting to expand the house, heard their engineers declare it structurally unsound, with rot throughout. Rather than reconstruct it, the owners tore the house down and put the land up for sale.

This tragic end recalls another aspect of Melville’s tale: the illusion of permanence that we ascribe to the structures we construct, be they buildings or boats. The “firm deck” of the Martha’s Vineyard House has ended up “all collapsed” before “the great shroud of the sea,” like the Pequod, smashed by the muscle and bones of the white whale.

Citation; 1986 P/A Awards Jury
Thomas Aidala
Harvey Bryan, FAIA
Janet Reizenstein Carpman
Chad Floyd, FAIA
Malcolm Holzman, FAIA
Thom Mayne, FAIA
Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA
Susana Torre

The house featured an inside-out balloon frame.

The house featured an inside-out balloon frame.

Credit: Paul Warchol

Holl drew inspiration from a Melville passage describing beached whale bones used as structure.

Holl drew inspiration from a Melville passage describing beached whale bones used as structure.

Credit: Paul Warchol

A glass-enclosed dining room afforded views of the sea.

A glass-enclosed dining room afforded views of the sea.

Credit: Paul Warchol

A two-story tower at the uphill end of the house included an exercise room and the master bedroom.

A two-story tower at the uphill end of the house included an exercise room and the master bedroom.

Credit: Paul Warchol

The house was, ultimately, demolished.

The house was, ultimately, demolished.

Credit: Paul Warchol