A great architect creates order from chaos, whether building an Olympic stadium or a backyard pavilion. In the case of Robert M. Gurney, the challenge was the latter when a DC real estate developer and his wife asked him to design a pool house on their property, which backs onto mature woodlands. They loved a pavilion the architect had designed for friends in Great Falls, and entrusted him to execute a similar concept that would complement their contemporary Bethesda home. Both avid swimmers, they envisioned a structure that would double as a shelter from the sun and a venue for entertaining.
Gurney studied the site. First, he decided, the property’s existing pool house and its 30-year-old pool would have to go. “The pool house was in the wrong place, it was the wrong size and it was falling apart,” he explained. “It had no relationship to the house or to anything else.”
Starting with a clean slate, the architect proposed a comprehensive program that would “organize” the landscape in terms of both form and function. From the gate that leads guests from the front driveway into the backyard, Gurney created an orderly progression of outdoor spaces via the use of bluestone paths and walkways, terraces and walls, pavers and plantings. “One of the things I tried to do with all the new terracing, paths and walkways was have some relationship to the house and tie everything together as much as I could,” he said.
Gurney even orchestrated the views, working with landscape architect Thomas Rainer of Rhodeside & Harwell to selectively plant trees along the property line. “The idea was to control the views and what part of the [neighbor’s] house we want to see and what part we don’t want to see,” Gurney said. He pushed the pool house itself as deep into the forest as zoning would allow. “I wanted you to feel as though as you were in the woods.”
Anchoring the pool in the southeastern corner of the lot, the pool house comprises a single room under a gabled roof. Its apparent simplicity defies the rich detail, precision and rigor inherent in its design. With finely hewn organic materials, the pavilion serves as a threshold between the structured garden and the woods beyond. “I wanted it to feel like an outdoor space,” Gurney explained.
One side encompasses a sitting area and stone fireplace, all framed in glass. The other side, defined by dry-stacked slate walls, houses a long island of stainless steel. The floors are Pennsylvania bluestone and the ceilings are clad in Douglas fir. Behind the main room, a mahogany volume contains a powder room, mechanical systems and storage.
The pavilion protects residents from the elements while enveloping them in views of nature’s scenery. Frameless, floor-to-ceiling glass with mitered edges practically blurs the lines between indoors and out. From the island, a cut-out horizontal window echoes the lines of the new pool. “The pool went hand-in-hand with the design of the pavilion,” said Gurney. “The width of the pool is the exact width of the stone wall and the mahogany structure in the back. There’s this dimension pulling through the whole project.”
Bluestone pathways and walls of varying heights create a series of outdoor spaces, some designed for entertaining, others more private. “It was important that the hardscape didn’t overwhelm the project,” said Gurney.
The clients turned to landscape architect Rainer to select plantings and blend the new landscape into the existing grounds and the woods beyond. “We wanted to give the pool house a setting so it could breathe a little bit,” Rainer said. “It needed some ground to sit on.”
Working in the confines of the small backyard, he massed informal beds of perennials around the pool, shifting to more relaxed, natural grasses around the property’s perimeter. Near the pool house by the woods, he planted a tight grove of stewartia and a cover of palm sedge. “We wanted to give it a woodland glade feel so when you’re sitting there in the pool house it feels like the woods come right up to you. When you blend a garden setting with a natural setting,” Rainer explained, “you sometimes have to turn up the volume on nature to make it read.”
Mammoth glass doors—12 feet wide near the pool and eight feet wide on the other side—pivot 180 degrees to invite breezes into the pool house when the weather is pleasant. Heating and air conditioning—and even heated floors—enable the homeowners to enjoy the retreat year-round. “It’s a little contemplative space, if you will,” said Gurney. Though it has no kitchen, the owners enjoy breakfast daily and often entertain guests in the sleek, light-filled space.
“I am really pleased that at the end of the day it turned out they liked the space so much they really want to be in it,” Gurney continued. “It’s simple and minimal—but at the same time rich with material.”
Maxwell MacKenzie is a Washington, DC, photographer.
ARCHITECTURE: JOHN RIORDAN, LEED AP, project architect; ROBERT M. GURNEY, FAIA, lead architect, Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Architect, Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: THOMAS RAINER, Rhodeside & Harwell, Alexandria, Virginia. CONTRACTOR: TED PETERSON, Peterson & Collins, Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR: RUPPERT COMPANIES, Laytonsville, Maryland.