Seen from Cranberry Hole Road, it rears up from the dunescape like a boxy brown whale with peaked flippers. On closer inspection, the large, honey-colored wood box turns out to be part of an idiosyncratic modern house that takes advantage of its site on the edge of a nature preserve in Amagansett.
Built in 2000, the structure was an early swimmer in the wave of construction that is proceeding between the Gardiner‘s Bay shoreline and the Napeague State Park, which runs from behind this house and the other relatively new ones to the ocean. It was built for Christian Elvis Dinh, a fashion photographer, and was intended to serve as a part-time photo studio as well as a residence.
Through a friend, Mr. Dinh was able to call on William Louie, a senior partner of the New York architecture firm of Kohn, Fox, Peterson. Mr. Louie normally designs massive urban structures around the world like the multi-floor Moynihan federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, but he undertook this house because it presented a challenge. It had to comprise a living area for Mr. Dinh, his wife, and their small son, and also include a full-scale professional photography studio, which Mr. Dinh thought the South Fork was lacking. Mr. Louie did the concept sketches and a model for the house; he then involved an “architect in association,” Andrew Pollock, a former colleague who had left K.F.P. to found his own firm and had South Fork experience.
The studio section, now mostly used as a living room, is the largest part of the house, 1,325 square feet and two stories high. Outside, at its second-floor level, the exterior wooden cladding is broken only by subtle horizontal grooves. On the ground level, tall windows provide full views of the surrounding dunes and of a deck and pool area, but sliding barn doors on tracks can be rolled over the panes, darkening the room for controlled, artificial studio lighting.
The current owner, John Bradham, a Manhattan lawyer, leaves the barn doors open, although he considers them a plus in case of a bad hurricane, and he rents the space for use as a studio three or four times a year. (Scenes from the documentary about Vogue, “September Issue,” were shot there.)
The room’s spare decor consists of a wall-mounted television screen, a large abstract painting that Mr. Bradham commissioned from the model Audrey Quock, and a swirly nude by Stephanie Panepinto, along with a chrome Klieg light, sofas, a few cabinets, and a giant coffee table. The table hovers over what Mr. Bradham calls the room’s “secret” – taps for hot and cold running water and a drain, which Mr. Dinh commissioned so he could install watery backdrops for shoots. (In fact, he said recently, he never did so.) On sunny days, skylights in the roof admit vertical bands of light, which lengthen and shrink as the sun passes overhead.
A huge round porthole punctures the second-floor wall at one end of the living room, visually connecting it to the residential wing that runs at a right angle to it. Transparent glass fills only half the porthole, making the second-floor balcony slightly vertiginous. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors on the first floor and glass windows on the second overlook the deck and pool and form one side of a bright corridor off of which, on the second floor, are two small children’s rooms, a guest room, and the master bedroom. Theceilings of the main bedrooms rise to airy 30-foot-high peaks — the whale’s flippers. Mr. Pollock, the co-architect, said the peaks met the town’s requirements for a pitched roof, thereby permitting the flat studio roof to be used as a terrace. It is reached by a light-filled stairwell inside and an exterior spiral staircase leading up from the pool area, which Mr. Bradham installed. Because of the low vegetation on the dune plain, the views of both ocean and bay are unobstructed.
The area framed by the “L” of the studio and residential wings contains a hot tub, a fire pit (yes, the fire on this “beach” is in a container), and a long swimming pool filled by the flow from a slightly-higher wading pool. Mr. Dinh recalled that on hot days, his family used to place a table in the wading pool and eat at it with their feet in the water.
Mr. Bradham has used the house for fund-raising parties for the charities he is involved with, which oppose animal testing of medicines (the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) and encourage pet adoptions (the Homeless Animal Rescue Project). He himself has three Maltese rescue dogs.
Primarily, however, he said he values the house for its solitude and access to nature — the deer, birds, and surrounding bearberry and heather. Larry Penny, the former head of natural resources for the Town of East Hampton, noted that trees, except for the pitch pines in the little hollows, don’t stand a chance in the dunes here “as the winds sweeping across from south to north in the summer and vice versa in the winter keep any from getting a toehold. This close-knit dunes plain, as far as I can tell, is the only one of its kind in New York State, maybe all of America.”
Mr. Bradham has put in minimal landscaping on the front of the house, leaving a wide swath of untouched dune between it and the road; at the back, the house is set against the back of the lot where his land connects with the preserved area. In New York City, he lives in a loft, and considers this house “a loft out east.” But he principally appreciates the house for its location in a rare natural environment. He is sanguine about the jocose neighbor who occasionally moves a fake giraffe into his view.
Christopher T. Cory spent summer vacations in old and new houses built on the Amagansett dunes.