Tour a Distinctly Modern Home in Jackson, Wyoming

How does one marshal the most traditional building materials and architectural details—stone, wood, shingles, pitched roofs—into a house that functions and feels distinctly modern? That was the challenge faced by Brian Messana and Toby O’Rorke, partners in the New York City–based architecture firm Messana O’Rorke, when they were enlisted to create a vacation house in Jackson, Wyoming, for Messana’s brother and sister-in-law. The homeowners were clearly drawn to the site’s abundant natural splendor (specifically its spectacular views of the Grand Tetons), but, like their architects, they had little interest in stereotypical domestic interpretations of the American West, replete with antler chandeliers and overstuffed wing chairs in plaid fabrics. They were looking for something decidedly more contemporary.

Messana O’Rorke’s work, newly chronicled in the monograph Building Blocks (published by Rizzoli, including an essay by yours truly), privileges the orchestration of monochromatic planes, minimalist volumes, and poetic light over theatrical assemblages chockablock with color and pattern. In other words, frontier kitsch is not their strong suit. “This particular area of Jackson has very specific architectural standards. There are restrictions on the height of the structure and the pitch of the roof, the kinds of materials you can build with, and the amount of clear, uninterrupted glass,” Messana says, elaborating on the stringent building codes. “We had to adapt our usual palette and lexicon, but our fundamental approach remained the same. Our work here is still focused on clarity of form and space.”

Inspired by the pared-down, vernacular residences of nearby Mormon Row—a late-frontier settlement built by members of the Church of Latter-day Saints—Messana O’Rorke’s design straddles the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, resolving the potentially conflicting demands of contextual sensitivity and contemporary brio. To lighten the visual impact of the 5,000-square-foot structure, Messana and O’Rorke broke it down into four volumes attached by glass-enclosed hallways. (The architects refer to the glazed connectors as gaskets, evoking Le Corbusier’s famous dictum that a house is a machine for living.) From a distance the dwelling, dubbed Junegrass, reads like a series of discrete pavilions arrayed in a line against a stunning mountain backdrop.

The pavilions are variously clad in stained cedar siding, cedar shingles, and rustic stone, again accentuating the impression of independent structures. In the central volume, where the kitchen and living room are located, massive pocketing glass doors open the interior to the surrounding landscape and views, at least in obliging weather. At the front of the house, a firepit set beside a reflecting pool provides the ideal spot to appreciate the setting sun. On the opposite side, a courtyard created by staggering the various pavilions is outfitted with an outdoor kitchen and dining table. “The beauty of the scenery impacted every move we made. We were constantly looking to frame views and manipulate sight lines to build expectation and heighten the drama,” Messana explains.

In characteristic Messana O’Rorke fashion, the quietly confident interiors are designed for both contemplation and invigoration, reflection and inspiration. The rooms are crisply detailed with wide-plank French oak floors and vertical elevations of fumed, wire-brushed oak in a warm gray stain. Simple granite floors and walls of Carrara marble wrap the home spa. “There aren’t any unnecessarily loud architectural details or splashy materials,” Messana says. “For drama and delight, it’s hard to beat the Wyoming landscape.”