Harry Weese does the Miesian box.
If you've found yourself on this blog from time to time, you have undoubtedly witnessed my enduring appreciation for Chicago-architect Harry Weese. A bit of an outlier in the history of Modern architecture, Weese is often positioned as an alternative to Mies van der Rohe or grouped with other "eclectics" like Eero Saarinen, Alvar Aalto, or fellow-Chicagoan Bertrand Goldberg. It is true that Weese is somewhat difficult to place within the overarching narrative of Modernism. He was a self-avowed modernist with no real loyalty to the Modern canon. His tendency to experiment often led to buildings that bucked the boundaries of style and program. He progressed with trends without ever really leading them. But maybe because of those things, Weese remains one of the most independent and original architects of the time, a prolific designer and dedicated preservationist who shaped the postwar landscape for more than five decades.
In his design for Shadowcliff, a small residential project near Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, Harry Weese challenges the proverbial glass box. Weese designed Shadowcliff for Ben W. Heineman, president of the Chicago and North Western Railway and an advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson. A transparent retreat overlooking Lake Michigan, the office and guest house is suspended from limestone cliffs in a frank display of the architect's conceptual bravado. Located just below Heineman's main house (the 1929 West Cliff estate), the glass box is almost invisible from the top of the cliff, its sharp angles seemingly disappearing into the surrounding landscape.
Constructed in just six months, the Shadowcliff box hangs from weathering steel beams that are anchored to the rock face. In what might be described as a "double cantilever," two struts project from the cliff at a slight angle, extending about halfway across the structure. From there, beams welded to the main supports continue across the rest of the glass house, allowing it to float, somewhat improbably, over the lake. The entire structure ties back into the cliff, where concrete-filled trenches extend for 20 feet. But for all of its structural heft (the structure was designed to withstand up to 90 mph winds), Weese's hovering box has a remarkable degree of visual lightness. The heavy steel beams are perforated, allowing views to continue through the most solid elements of the suspended spectacle.
Used as an architectural showpiece to entertain Heineman's many politically connected guests, Shadowcliff doesn't just defy gravity- it defies architectural convention. On the interior, teak covers the floors and the ceilings, a reminder of Weese's penchant for natural materials, while walls of glass offer uninterrupted views of the lake that can only be described as spectacular. Perhaps the most dramatic interior element, though, is a porthole-like window cut into the floor of the main room and covered with thick laminated glass. With seating encircling the geometric curiosity, guests could gaze down at the forest below (how unnerving!). Of the glass-covered hole, Weese claimed you could "jump on it," though how many guests decided to take the architect's word for it, we might never know.
You can read more about Harry Weese here.
Image at top:
Shadowcliff, Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, 1968-69. Orlando Cabanban photograph, Chicago History Museum. Also featured in Architectural Forum, Jan.-Feb. 1971.
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