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Natural History

Belzberg Architects

Project Name

Natural History

Project Status



  • Tinguely Development
  • Landscape Architect: Belt Collins
  • Benny Chan





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Project Description

Case Study
Natural History
A House In Hawaii Cultivates The Space Between Nature And Nurture.

A custom home is abstract at heart, a repository for the values and ideas that make the owners who they are, and a reflection of the local culture, flora, and history. But on Hawaii’s Big Island, such references often become clichés. Think kitschy Colonial-esque architecture, Hawaiian shirts, and the leis given to tourists getting off the plane. This house and garden, designed by Santa Monica, Calif.–based Belzberg Architects, doesn’t so much assimilate the island’s history as allude to it. As principal Hagy Belzberg puts it: “There were a series of architectural-language icons we worked toward, and away from.”

The landscape is the center of attention here, and the owners had envisioned living the indoor-outdoor life in a series of pavilions. But when zoning codes put the kibosh on separate structures, Belzberg and his team mapped out a scheme that beautifully displays the ocean view, cooled lava pools, a volcanic mountain range, and mango and papaya groves. Upon entry from the motor court, an outdoor hallway connects four pods—the garage and guest rooms, a kids’ pavilion, a theater, and the living areas and master suite—before slipping into a zero-edge reflecting pool that points into the distance. The pavilions’ giant sliders erase the lines between inside and out and allow for passive cooling.

The outdoor hallway and pools are off-axis on the 1-acre lot, oriented toward a volcano in one direction and the ocean in the other. That shift inspired the sawtooth plan and string of side gardens. Each pavilion has an outdoor bathtub or shower, a covered seating area, and fruit trees. “It’s the idea of sitting in your own garden, picking a mango, and creating a private fantasy world between the pavilions,” Belzberg says.

Materials are spare, consisting of local and recycled resources. The house is clad in teak planks (repurposed railroad ties) and stacked basalt lava rock, which also covers the patios, reflecting pool, and swimming pool. The dark pools, too, create otherworldly images, reflecting a sky swirled and askew. “Hawaii has beautiful sunsets and clouds, and the pool is a giant mirror,” Belzberg says. “In the evening when you throw open the living room doors it expands the sky two-fold. The black pool reflects the images into the room, like a horizontal periscope.”

The design of a new house asks the question: How does the architecture acknowledge its context? For Belzberg, the entry sculpture is a figurative take on an ancient Hawaii tradition in which the host presents arriving guests with a gift, usually in a basket. The elliptical, upside-down basket is made of about 1,200 woven strips of marine plywood. The kit of parts was digitally scripted in-house, CNC-fabricated in Los Angeles, and shipped to the site.

“Their cabinet maker erected it with a screwdriver in a day and a half, but a framer could have done it,” Belzberg says. He describes the ribbed piece as “a place to pause and reflect before walking into the house. It says ‘welcome’ and celebrates the threshold.” A fitting gesture for a house that frames the world around it.
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