Sagatopia

If I’d had this conversation with Stan Allen two or three years ago, I might have laughed at him. We’re standing in the three-bedroom house he designed as his contribution to the high-end stylistic playground known as the Houses at Sagaponac—or, as its former publicist used to call it, “Sagatopia.” It is the sixth house completed in a 32-house subdivision that, if built out, will represent a remarkable showcase of early-twenty-first-century architectural thinking. Allen, dean of Princeton’s School of Architecture, is explaining to me how the scheme responds to a particular concept in the 2000 assignment letter from the project’s original developer, Harry “Coco” Brown Jr., who died in 2005.

“He was calling for self-restraint, not trophy houses,” Allen recalls. As a result, his design is an homage to the relatively humble Modernist beach houses once built in the Hamptons by architects like Norman Jaffe and Charles Gwathmey. The Allen house is clad in the simple cedar siding that was the signature material of such homes 30 or 40 years ago. While it’s full of luxurious features—exquisite bathrooms, wood-paneled ceilings, dramatic skylights, a long lap pool—it’s actually a simple barnlike three-bedroom structure. Decidedly not the sort of McMansion currently devouring acreage in these parts. “Of course,” Allen says, “it’s hard to call a $3.3 million house modest.”

Yes, indeed. A few years ago, before I’d started spending a portion of my summers out on the South Fork of Long Island, in a place that is now synonymous with real estate of the absurd, I wouldn’t have understood how a house priced at more than $3 million could be modest. After all, I have devoted a considerable amount of my time in recent years exploring the possibilities of bargain-basement Modernism. But in three summers I feel I’ve gained perspective.

I remember when the Houses at Sagaponac were announced in 2000. The glittering roster of architects had been handpicked by Richard Meier and included Michael Graves, Zaha Hadid, and Philip Johnson, plus many less famous but cachet-laden names like Reiser + Umemoto and Marwan Al-Sayed. The price range, initially from the high six figures to more than $2 million, seemed steep. Now the only houses that sell for less than a million out here are vinyl-sided Cape Cods way north of the highway that divides desirable from undesirable turf. South (near the ocean) is good; north (toward the bay) and west (of the Shinnecock Canal) are less good.

Over time—really since nineteenth-century New York City artists discovered the stunning beauty of eastern Long Island—the endless vistas of potato fields rolling down to the ocean have been broken up by ever bigger houses, serviced by ever bigger cars and hidden by ever taller hedges.

Personally, I try not to get too emotionally involved with this place because it feels like a lost cause. When I’m out here I hide out in a tiny vestigial farm building that, like everything small-scale and humble, will someday disappear. And I mostly travel by bicycle, sharing narrow lanes with massive Escalades and Range Rovers. As I bike I survey the territory, checking out oddities like the 100,000-square-foot house that Ira Rennert (a man who once owned a majority stake in AM General, the company that invented the Hummer) built on the oceanfront in Sagaponack. From a distance, across the farm fields, it looks very much like a big-box store or a Tuscan-themed shopping mall.

More commonplace—I see one under construction on almost every bike ride—is a form of spec house I think of as the shingle-monster. These are homebuilder interpretations of traditional North­eastern seaside homes, except, of course, much larger: 7,500 to 15,000 square feet. And these go, depending on size, acreage, and location, for anything from $1 million to more than $20 million. Local lore has it that these many-gabled pseudo-historical fantasias are gobbled up by investment bankers, who want something that shouts “old.” Or as Harry Brown once put it, “What we’ve got out there now are imitation McMansions, which are ecologically and economically irresponsible. They are just social disasters.”

On a steamy Sunday morning, I pedal north of the highway and across the railroad tracks (the Houses at Sagaponac are literally on the wrong side of the tracks) to reach the house on Wainscott Harbor Road designed by Henry Cobb, where project architect Nilay Oza has temporarily set up shop. Oza had worked for Brown in Manhattan and now, along with fellow project architect Mark Versoza, runs the show for Reinhardt and O’Brien, the project’s general contractors and new owners (together with Christopher Jeffries and Steven Hoffman, of Millennium Partners, and real estate investor David Hamamoto). This is a change. Oza used to be stuck in the Manhattan office while Brown was on site making decisions, as Oza puts it, “off the cuff.” After Brown died, there was a lull in construction while the project was reorganized. Now these two young architects are trying to impose some order on the process, and together with Meier they will also start retooling the project’s roster, substituting a new generation of up-and-comers for yesterday’s superstars.

To show me what’s been done so far, Oza hops on his bicycle, and I follow on mine. I get the official version of the tour that I’ve done surreptitiously in the past, sneaking around construction sites and peering up driveways. In front of me, Oza, who comes from India by way of MIT, is the perfect guide, gesturing toward wooded lots as we pedal along: “Here’s Keenan/Riley, and there’s Richard Meier,” he says as we coast around a corner. Where the road dead-ends, he points out the future juxtaposition of youngest and oldest architects, “Lindy Roy will be here, and Philip Johnson will be over there.”

So far eight structures either have been completed or are in process. A house by Smith-Miller Hawkinson—two long, sleek volumes at right angles from each other—is the latest. It has not yet been sold. Houses by Cobb, Annabelle Selldorf, Hariri & Hariri, and Shigeru Ban, completed about two years ago, all found buyers. The foundation for a house by Stephen H. Kanner is in the ground, and work has started on the Keenan/Riley. According to Oza, there are also permits for houses designed by Roy, Al-Sayed, Richard Gluckman, Steven Holl, Robert Kahn, and the late Samuel Mockbee. The idea is to fill in the lots along the development’s two main streets to make the area more convincingly a neighborhood.

Most of the houses, of course, aren’t very modest. An imposing tower of a house by Calvin Tsao and Zach McKown lords above a sunken pool and patio ringed by a subterranean level topped by a green roof. Newly completed, this one sold for $4.5 million. Oza calls it “flamboyant.” And Kanner’s house will be largely sheathed in glass. “In-your-face Modern,” Oza says. “No local vernacular.”

Allen may be the only person connected with the project who bought into the “modesty” conceit. And while I personally would love to see a resurgence of truly modest Modernist architecture, I don’t imagine it’s going to happen in this development, or on the east end of Long Island. Brown seemed to think that he could reeducate the Hamptons by creating a model development that would shame the shingle-monsters and their buyers out of existence. But people who don’t see the beauty in modesty don’t shame so easily either. It would take something on the magnitude of the Russian Revolution to actually make the shingle-monsters and their demographic go away. Sagatopia, by contrast, is no revolution. At best it’s a relative utopia, modest only because its architectural style still carries a faint whiff of Modernism’s populist roots—and modest only because everything in the vicinity is so obscenely immodest.

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