My own private Idaho

WHEN JAN MCFAR-land Cox first approached the architect Tom Kundig about building a house in the high desert of southern Idaho, she did not know the project would consume nearly a decade of her life.

But as the years went by – most of the delays had to do with selling her old house and getting permission to build the new one – she never thought seriously about abandoning it, she says. More surprisingly, both she and her architect ended up feeling the delays were a good thing.

"We had time to refine and refine and refine," says the 61-year-old artist and designer.

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When a project goes on for so long, and when the client is fighting to stick to a budget amid rising costs, as Cox was, "there's a discipline that starts to come into play", explains Kundig.

The resulting house, finished last summer, is strikingly simple, even for an architect whose award-winning work is known for its uncomplicated forms. A concrete-block box, the house is built around a single large room that combines kitchen, living and dining areas. A narrow sisal-covered staircase leads to a mezzanine bedroom supported by an exposed steel beam. Every detail may feel exquisitely thought through, but the understatement of the construction steers the visitor back to the main attraction: the constantly changing scenery of the Idaho desert.

A walled garden extends the house's modest footprint into the landscape. (At 30 by 100 feet, the garden is as wide as the house but twice as long.) Two years before she moved in last May, Cox began planting rose bushes and grapevines within its 11 foot-high walls. Then she added fruit trees that had been espaliered – trained to grow in a single plane, parallel to the walls – which make for elegant doodles against the concrete.

For Kundig, the "no-maintenance, no-nonsense, inexpensive materials" of the exterior walls are above all a line of defence against a "landscape of extremes", where "it's very hot, it's very cold, it's very windy".

Cox, whose father was an architect, grew up "all over the Pacific north-west and in Europe", she says, and first came to the Wood River Valley in Idaho on a ski trip as a child. In the late 1970s, her parents bought two 20-acre lots in the valley, hoping to build a house on one of them. After they changed their minds and moved to a wheat farm in eastern Washington, Cox says, they sold one of the lots to her and gave the other to her two children (who are now grown-up).

In 1999, Cox, now divorced, found herself looking for "a life project", and a new house seemed to fit the bill. She considered approaching the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, but then saw a house by Kundig featured in a newspaper article and went to Seattle to see it; it struck her, she says, as "very bold, but very sensitive".

At the time, thanks to his growing reputation, Kundig "was starting to have billionaire clients who can't be named", Cox says. She was certainly not in that league (though, ultimately, she admits she putting about 1 million into the house). But Kundig was happy to take on the commission, he says, largely because it returned him to a landscape that is "in my soul".

He grew up in eastern Washington and southern Idaho, where he was fascinated not just by the land, but by the simple farm and mining buildings all around him. He began designing a house that recalled those earlier buildings, with details such as exposed wood and steel beams and industrial-scale doors and windows, while Cox started tackling the logistics.

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Getting the concrete-block walls built to her satisfaction was one such task. The contractor was used to using the blocks for cheap commercial buildings. Cox showed him photos of an earlier Kundig house that used concrete blocks with extreme precision, and "he ended up treating the cinderblocks like a noble material", she says.

Other interior walls are made of wallboard covered in a plaster made from natural clays and pigments. For furniture, Cox began with a round maple tabletop that had been carried west in a covered wagon by her forebears. Other furnishings include a mid-20th century Dunbar sofa and twig chairs she covered in chenille. Accessories, including silverware and glassware, were designed by Cox or by other artists, to whom she gave commissions in keeping with her goal of making the house an integrated work of art.

A skilled cook, Cox has also built herself a large kitchen, with Carrara marble worktops that are almost a foot deeper than standard kitchen worktops, a luxury made possible by the generous dimensions of the room.

For all its comforts, living in the house presents some challenges. Winds are so strong that a snowfall could result in mammoth drifts. Cox is sure there will be days when her long driveway is impassable – she says she is prepared to come and go on snowshoes.

So far during her first winter in the house, the main effect of the snow cover has been to reflect light back into the house, which Cox says makes the place even more beautiful.

She has been reading a new biography of Le Corbusier, which describes a residence designed by the architect for his parents as "the perfect shelter in which to contemplate the universal".

"I can relate," enthuses Cox. "Tom and I would not have been so presumptuous as to have the sublime as a goal, but we sure tried not to screw up what was here."

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