• The slope of the roof mimics the slope of the site. Photo by Dror Baldinger, AIA.

Project Ridge House, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Client Kay and Bill Jones
Architect Welch Architecture
Design Team Clifford Welch, AIA; Dean Bowman,
John Wheeler
Photographer Dror Baldinger, AIA

Houses isolated in natural settings are, at their best, deferential and referential. The Ridge House in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, by Dallas architect Cliff Welch, AIA, accomplishes both in its architectural dialogue between a man-made structure and the natural environment.

A narrow and sharply turning road follows the steep terrain to the top of the Gros Ventre Ridge where the Ridge House is located. With every turn in the road, the scale of the Grand Teton Range becomes increasingly spectacular. The architectural challenge in the presence of such a magnificent site, with its overwhelming views and ever-changing climatic conditions, is not only what to do, but also what not to do.

Travelling the narrow approach road, it is difficult at first to visually locate Ridge House. One has to turn onto the steeply descending driveway to see it. Once in view, the building’s organizational parti clearly reveals itself: a concrete, board-formed garage tucked into the hill; and a singular, extruded volume following natural contours and narrowly touching the ground before dramatically cantilevering over the sloping terrain.

In addition to the visual effect it achieves, cantilevering a portion of the footprint along its longitudinal axis and parallel to the natural grade also minimizes the impact of construction on the site. To further integrate the house into the land, or imply that the house is emerging from the ridge, native grasses and sagebrush are seamlessly blended onto the garage’s green. In the winter, it accumulates picturesque snowdrifts.

Taking into account that the structure would be set against the rugged and visually complex landscape, the architect chose a singular form. At no point does the house try to upstage the beauty of the surroundings. The slope of the roof unobtrusively echoes the slope of the ridge, with its low edge facing the Grand Teton Mountain Range. The exterior material palette of Western Red Cedar and Oakley Ledgestone was selected for its timelessness and durability, and also to aid the visual blending of the house into the landscape through similar colors and textures.

Ridge House’s outdoor space just in front of the entry door begins the man-made promenade that the architect takes us through before the grandeur of the Grand Teton Range and the valley below are revealed from inside the house. The views from this protected, transitional space are deliberately blocked by the mostly opaque front elevation. Though a sizable section of the elevation is indeed glazed, the glazing is only to reveal another transitional space, this one internal, which is dominated by a large painting from the owner’s western art collection.

Just around the spatially compressed foyer, the main reveal finally unfolds — a breathtaking panorama of the Grand Tetons. Walking around the open and expansive space, framing the photographs I was about to take, I recalled the famous story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s visit to Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Wright, the story goes, turned to Johnson and said, “Here I am, Philip, am I indoors or am I out? Do I take my hat off or keep it on?” (Architectural Digest, Nov. ’85). This is the strength and beauty of the space that Welch created in the Ridge House. It is a space that is at once protective, where one can find shelter from nature, and expansive, where one can feel an immediate connection to nature. Elevated high above the valley below, and aligned with the mountain range, the sloped-ceiling space feels like front row seats in nature’s ever-changing, seasonal spectacle.

Removing still another layer of spatial separation from the outdoors is an exterior terrace, which is brought under the continuous roof of the house. The terrace provides an outdoor room that is sheltered from driving snow, and from winds that can exceed 100 mph.

The home’s interior is calm, light, and airy. As with the external forms, the spaces carved within direct our attention to the views outside. White walls exhibit diverse works of art, many of which are by local artists. The same Oakley Ledgestone that clads exterior walls is used internally, bringing the exterior and interior architectural expressions into gestalt. Completing the internal material palette is a reclaimed Tigerwood floor. Natural light penetrates deep into the interior, bounces off the reddish floor, and fills the house with a warm glow.

In an era of relentless pursuit of object buildings and computer-generated forms, Ridge House stands as a singular example of relevance, suitability, and reverence. It demonstrates the enduring power of restraint, site-specific considerations, and architecture that is in settled dialogue with its context.

Dror Baldinger, AIA, is an architectural photographer in San Antonio.

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