YOU’VE HEARD THIS before from creative people, but it always resonates: the inspiration ignited by the joys of a family’s summer house.
“It’s very personal for me,” Paul Masi, an architect who lives in East Hampton, said recently, describing what drives his work.
“My parents built a house here in ’64.” He pauses. He smiles: “And I always go back to how happy that house made my family.” He searches for that happiness and tries to build it into every design.
“I really believe houses have that capacity,” to alter your state of mind, to lift your spirits, to find pleasure in every corner, “in the most mundane things, like taking a shower. I want you to look forward to taking a shower, sitting, and reading.” Masi is one half of the architecture firm of Bates Masi, whose story is also a happy and serendipitous one. Talent, luck, and timing collided to form one of the most significant residential architecture firms of our region.
Harry Bates’s emergence as a tastemaker of modern architecture in the Hamptons began in the late 1960s along with the modern boom at that time. By the early ’90s, Bates had had a full career, while Masi had just graduated from college and was working for the noted architect Richard Meier. Having decided that he wanted to teach, Masi accepted an offer from Harvard for graduate study, but he needed a summer job. While opening the family’s summer house that spring in Montauk, he was on his hands and knees, starting a fire with newspaper, and, quite by chance, saw an ad from Bates’s firm.
“I thought, ‘Here’s my chance to get another summer out here,’ ” Masi said in an interview with The East Hampton Star at the time. For his part, Bates was dubious — and he was also beginning to think that the time might have come to quietly ease out of the business.
“But we had so much fun,” Bates said. “It was a real kick in the pants for me; I discovered I didn’t want to retire at all.” That summer birthed a partnership of the most meaningful kind: rookie and old hand, naive enthusiast and seasoned veteran.
More than 40 years separated them.
Architecture is an art form guided by science, math, history, clients, and patrons. It attracts thoughtful people, intrigued by problem solving and the complex layers of each design challenge. Masi says he is always designing, sometimes his brain imagining and creating spaces in the quiet of night, solutions and spaces emerging from that half-sleep. By morning, fullblown concepts arise and take shape later on rolls of tracing paper.
Harry Bates and Paul Masi are thoroughly steeped in the passion of it, which is now well documented in their first monograph, Bespoke Home, available online and at East End bookstores. Rigor, intensity, modernity, lightness, detail, pattern, textures, enthusiasm, joy — all these characterize Bates Masi work, as does its founders’ devotion to both new and old materials (stone, glass, rough-sawn wood, copper, steel). The firm seeks only projects that challenge them in every sense.
“Build Me a Bargain” was the headline over a New York Times piece on a Bates Masi–designed 1,500-square-foot house at Barnes Landing in Amagansett. Price of construction in 2005? $228,000, or roughly $190 a square foot, a bargain even then.
By contrast, Bates Masi has designed restaurants and commercial spaces in New York, and complex (and understatedly grand) houses around the East End, the Northeast, the Caribbean, and in Russia.
Bates Masi designs are multidimensional, influenced by the natural environment of the East End: the dunes, the abandoned bunkers of Montauk, the sea, and whatever other inspiration unfolds. They stand in sharp contrast to the opulent, shingle style neocolonials that surged in popularity beginning in the go-go ’80s and continue to dominate our streetscapes today.
The firm’s new office on North Main Street in East Hampton, with its copperwalled interior and a rough-sawn exterior, evokes peace and airiness on the inside and fun all around: a surfboard and bicycle-storage room, with a light-filled indoor shower that feels like it’s outside, and rooftop deck for Friday after-work beers.
Bespoke Home, the book, is the story of the firm’s work, following the timeline of projects from Bates’s solo work in the 1960s to today. It is organized project by project, beginning with a house aptly called the Tree House. And you might discover that all Bates Masi houses feel a bit like houses lifted up among the branches.
Close your eyes and imagine your ideal tree house, and chances are you’ll find similarities between your vision and a Bates Masi home: a tree house with rooms whose sliding walls open it up to the great outdoors in the summer and slide shut intimately in the winter, whose walls might be mesh cages filled with stones, whose shower opens one side to a bedroom and another to a secret outdoor space beyond.
“Their work takes advantage of what is almost invariably a larger budget, a more expansive program, a wider choice of materials, and an altogether different level of technology than that which was available to a previous generation of modernist architects,” the architect and author Paul Goldberger writes in the introduction to the book. “It is fair to say that their deepest commitment is to producing modernist architecture that proves modernism continues to evolve, that it has ongoing, fresh life within it, and that it can yield as much warmth and serenity as any traditional architecture.” If not more.