The site, located in an area of northeast Wisconsin dominated by crop fields and dairy farms, is an “altered landscape” that has been farmed for generations. Stoic structures of utility and purpose dot the predominantly agrarian scene, quarries harvest the whitest of limestone just below the ground, and native prairie grasses, wetlands, and forests compete for the remaining space.
The specific site is a 16-acre crop field. The site context is understood as a garden with both natural and man-made field conditions. The rotation of crops, planted and fallow fields of corn, soybean, wheat, and oats, along with the apple orchards that hide the occasional pumpkin patch, heighten the sensation of seasonal change. Winter’s silence settles in a frigid field of snow then, a gentle breeze rustles the corn leaves of summer as tree lines along the field edge burst with birdsong.
The client, whose ancestors hail from Lithuania, has northern latitude and its’ changing seasons in his blood. A practicing oncologist and amateur astronomer with an MIT astrophysics degree, he collects significant objects of art and design with a passion. The client brief for Prairie House was simply titled land, sky and seasons and demanded among other things, a sense….of space, of the farmland, of the prairie. Wild apple trees grew along the fence line at the top of the site, reminiscent of a fruit-picking tradition he shared with his dad. Might we plant a memory piece in honor of the father.
Behind two existing houses sits the field. Turning off county road JJ, one first glimpses the field. Following the west tree line at the field edge for a distance, a land bridge crosses the leading edge of a protected wetland, complete with associated flora and fauna indicative of Wisconsin.
After this crossing, the gravel drive is focused between the tree line and the constructed apple orchard. The field is shielded for a time. In the distance, the house is a stoic structure in the landscape, an object of utility that only reveals its’ purpose up close. Stepping out of the car, the sound of the foot on crushed gravel is softer. The house and orchard frame a view that focuses on the field, limestone steps lead down to a cedar deck. Stepping onto the cedar deck causes one to pause and hear the corn grow.
The haptic and other sensory qualities of time, memory and space are subservient to architectural form. The house is a simple 5,000 square foot box clad in a zinc galvanized metal skin, akin to many constructed objects in landscape, such as neighboring silos. Its apparent simplicity is articulated by specific moments of experience. These encompass notions of the house as a tunable instrument - to connect to - and - be responsible to - our environment. And range from compression-release, to intimate conversations by the warmth of fire, to a morning coffee in the sun, to a gallery of “the art and books of a lifetime”, to a silo ladder that ascends to a secret roof-top observatory whose geometry radiates to the heavens.
Client: Dr. Robert B. Geller
Project Size: 5,000 square feet
Project Location: Ellington, Wisconsin
Project Team: Wendell Burnette, Scott Roeder, Matthew G. Trzebiatowski, Joe Herzog
Consultants: Rudow + Berry, Inc. (Structural Engineer); Harwood Engineering (Electrical Engineer); Thelen Engineering (Mechanical Engineer); Point of Beginning (Civil Engineer); Daryll Gregg ( Lighting Design); Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture (Landscape Design)
Contractor: Miron Construction
Photography: Bill Timmerman