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Reconciling Opposites

It could have been a schizophrenic disaster. When architect Efthimios Maniatis, 55, set out to build a house for Roger and Mary Downey in Corrales, north of Albuquerque, the main challenge was one of integration. The house had three clients: Roger wanted one kind of house, Mary wanted a second variation, and the monster cottonwood tree that dominated the lot demanded a third.

Maniatis set out to make them all happy.

“It wasn’t easy,” he says. “Mary is quiet, shy, and sensitive. Roger is loud, opinionated, and big—bigger than life, yet extremely focused and minimal. He only wears the same three pairs of pants, three shirts, three pairs of shoes. And I had to build a house that worked for both of them.” Not only did the house have to suit the owners’ wishes, it also had to respect the tree’s.

“The tree was my third client,” says Maniatis, “but not just the tree. The tree was emblematic of the land and the neighborhood. This house isn’t being built in New York or Wisconsin or Atlanta. It’s a New Mexico house, and it was very important it felt native.”

Roger Downey agrees. “I’m a huge Frank Lloyd Wright fan,” he says. “This house satisfies his core concerns: It’s natural to the site; it makes the building belong to the ground.”

The result is a stunning synthesis: a bold, modern house (for Roger) blended with softer, Santa Fe-style architectural themes (for Mary) that are fused together in a way that—quite literally—worships the tree.

The Downeys’ house is actually a collection of four square boxes totaling 3,400 square feet and arranged in a slightly curved line. The boxes echo New Mexico’s predilection for family compounds, but they’re linked by a massive hallway, and that hallway is all Roger.

“Roger likes to pace,” says Maniatis, “but he paces like a buffalo. I built a hallway for that.”

His buffalo hallway is 120 feet long and almost 10 feet high, with two-foot-thick walls of rammed earth on both sides and polished concrete floors. It’s a beast. But it ends at Mary’s room.

Actually it ends with a transition into Mary’s room. The hallway tapers into “the bridge,” a smaller hallway, quiet and calm. The exterior is clad in rusted steel, while the interior is lit Japanese style, with thin horizontal windows at ankle height.

“Think of it this way,” says Maniatis. “Roger’s energy is very high. I wanted to create a space—the bridge—that calmed him down before he reached Mary’s room.”

Mary’s room is also known as the meditation room. The interior structures are copied from a church in Truchas; the ceiling is a giant skylight.

Of course, the couple also shares a few spaces, so Maniatis designed for that as well. The living room, for example, is a place of mutual coexistence. While the back wall is more Roger—three feet thick, of rammed earth—the rest of the space is Mary: wood floors, white plaster around a fireplace, and a classic Santa Fe-style beamed ceiling.

And the tree?

Well, capping the house is a series of cantilevered slabs of steel. The area beneath the steel and above the rammed-earth walls is all windows.

“We built it,” says Maniatis, “so you couldn’t ignore the tree. The house faces the tree, the roof lines converge on the tree, the windows that line the living room reveal the tree.”

The tree is also front and center when one crosses another distinctive feature. On the other side of the line from Mary’s room is the guest house, which connects to the main compound via an outdoor walkway. Its roof is a floating plank of rusted steel, but the sides are open, and the tree, of course, is visible.

“I think if Wright were alive to see it,” says Roger, “he would like this house. It’s open, simple, and different. Most importantly, as he stressed, it brings the outside in.”