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Bates + Masi: a sense of place and space

There’s no shortage of architecture that defines Hamptons style — whether it’s classic coastal, mid-century modern, minimalist or the historic shingled cottage. But somewhere in that mix is the quiet work of Bates Masi + Architects

Often evoking a site’s history — a Native American pastureland, Long Island potato barns or Quaker heritage — the firm’s work is entirely bespoke, incorporating clients’ wishes, the firm’s interpretation of site memory and local character.

Natural style

Architect Paul Masi. (Photography courtesy of Bates Masi + Architects)

Though the designs are modern, says principal partner Paul Masi, “I really don’t like saying we focus on a particular style. With that, there’s some connotation of style or fashion that’s transient and fleeting, and I think architecture has a bit more responsibility to be timeless. For us, our focus is not necessarily on the style, but on craft and the experience of living.” 

Masi, who holds a master’s in architecture from Harvard University, joined the firm Harry Bates founded in 1965 in New York City, which by 1980 had moved to the East End, where much of Bates’ work was. Masi was naturally drawn to the area, having spent his childhood summers in Montauk and as a lifelong surfer. And, his design aesthetic also clicked with Bates’, who was some 45 years his senior. After working at Richard Meier & Partners, a modernist-focused firm known for projects such as the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Masi joined the firm in 1998, and has headed the practice since Bates retired in 2017. (Bates died in 2022 at age 95.) 

Their long partnership resulted in a distinct, unadulterated style that garnered accolades. Writing in the introduction to their first monograph, architecture critic Paul Goldberger called their work “fresh, sharp and original,” saying their projects “all had an unmistakable degree of self-assurance and they were marked by a consistent but very subtle kind of elegance.”

Today, with 17 architects and offices in East Hampton and Manhattan, the firm works throughout Long Island and Manhattan, but also has projects in California, Florida and Europe. Since 2003, it has won 229 awards, including numerous honors from the American Institute of Architecture and induction into the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 2013. Masi authored two monographs, “Bespoke Home” in 2016, and a new release, “Architecture of Place” (ORO Editions).

The recent volume examines 10 projects that are true to modernist form, but also consider their relationship to the land, regional history and, in some cases, the future of the land, with its increasing vulnerability to climate change and issues inherent to maritime locales, such as flooding, erosion and water management.

Building belonging

The home at Morris Cove, built on a high water table, created five modular components under one roof, each serving as its own room and its own water-management system. (Photography courtesy of Bates Masi + Architects)

One such project is Morris Cove in Sag Harbor, a home constructed of five modular components that harmonize under a sloped, slightly cantilevered roof, with a common purpose of mitigating a historic water issue. When Masi and his team took on the project, they researched the history of the site — a peninsula with water on two sides — and found that more than half a century ago, the parcel was not natural land mass, but had been created with materials dumped after local dredging. A previous house on the plot had failed, Masi says, because it lacked elevation and, with exceptionally high groundwater, was subject to constant flooding and erosion. 

“For us, this project was a lot about water management and how to habitat on this very unique piece of property,” he says.

The unique solution was to design a roof that, after a rain event, would harvest and direct the water to areas that served as sort of holding tanks until the water level subsided and the captured water could slowly be released into the ground. Masi elevated the entire structure above the water table and created small courtyards with rocks and natural features within the modules that would hold and filter the water out.

“The water comes in, is captured, and we do it in such a way that we celebrate it, so it’s telling the story of what the house is doing but each one of those courtyards is holding the water until there’s a chance for the groundwater to subside after that rain event,” he explains.

“It’s really being able to take all that information and start a dialogue about a solution that could be good not only in terms of performance, accommodate the budget and the clients’ lifestyle and how they desire to live, but also solve this environmental issue the property had.”

On one level, the wood-clad structure seems at home in its habitat of natural beach grasses and coastal shrubs. Each of the modules features a water-facing glass wall and the home has transparency throughout. It was also an opportunity for Masi to use a variety of materials; the firm often is engaged for interior design, including furniture fabrication. Here, he created a copper-clad custom coffee table, echoing the ceiling and other design elements, choosing a material, like the house, with a relationship to water. 

“Copper weathers well and creates a patina and patterns you wouldn’t get with other materials,” he says, “and in this project, it worked well with and celebrated the water.”

Back to the land

Another material-driven concept was realized in the Stony Hill project, built on old pasturelands in Amagansett. Again, Masi’s research turned up site history that would inform its design. The old woodlands had been cleared by Native Americans and the land was used as hunting grounds after the grasses naturally grew back. Upon settlement in the 17th century, settlers used it as communal pastureland, setting up a grid of sorts to manage grazing and growth. Livestock rotated through the pastures, moving onto the next when it was fully grazed, allowing the depleted pasture to regenerate.

The agrarian zone system informed Masi’s team about organizing the program of the house — how the major and common rooms and wings laid out in relation to each other. It also inspired the replanting of grasses and shrubs outside with varying densities, heights and maturing cycles so that the vegetation provided plenty of visual interest while also performing practical functions such as buffering acoustics, providing privacy or simply making an experience of walking through the brush. 

Researching even further led them to thatch, a rough grass material long used in the U.K. — most often in roofs — and which did, indeed, have a history in Long Island. 

“We got really excited about taking an antiquated building method that’s not really prevalent anymore and evolving that into an interesting, modern structure and how we can bring that into our time,” Masi says. 

The Stony Hill project made use of old building materials, like thatch. (Photography courtesy of Bates Masi + Architects)

Learning of thatch’s ability to endure, similar to wood shingles, and its excellent insulation properties, the team integrated the material in the walls of the structure, packing it in between the framing and exposing the cut cross sections and the nubby patterns made by the cut ends. That theme was extended to parts of the interior, too, in the thatch-stacked walls — an “inside/outside concept that brings the material of the outside into the house,” Masi says.

The project otherwise reflects its agricultural history in the steeply pitched roofs that echo old barns, and vertical design themes throughout the interior recall stands of thatch. Masi used warm, natural materials throughout — oak wood for paneling and finishes, clay tiles and plaster walls. In his notes, Masi writes that the project reflects “the pastoral character of the site, creates a record of the past and enriches the family’s home with deeper meaning.”

That balance between respecting site history and creating an evocative, contemporary home for a client is always part of the initial conversations, Masi says. 

“We encourage [our clients] to be as engaged as much as they can. We like to say, ‘This is a house for you and you’re hiring us to make it reflect your lifestyle and how you want to live, ’” Masi says. “With clients participating in that, we can get that much closer to it.”