July 08: Star turn

Quick: Where is the sun?

Many people, caught off-guard by that question, couldn’t come up with the right answer. Whereas in earlier eras people would locate the sun to figure out what time it was, we 21st century types tell time by our watches, our computer screen clocks and our cell phones. Sunlight’s got nothing to do with it.

Carrie Meinberg Burke, her husband, Kevin, and their daughter, Ava, would probably be able to answer the question, though. If they were at home in their North Downtown house, there’s no doubt they’d get it right. Inside, time and light merge into a single entity. The house, which Meinberg Burke designed in collaboration with Kevin, is called the Timepiece House, and its main living space is, essentially, one large sundial.

Mapping movement

Though it’s tricky to describe, the idea of house-as-sundial is beautifully simple and obvious when you’re standing inside it. The sun enters through a circular skylight, an oculus, and falls through the space as a crisply defined beam of light. Where it lands indicates the time of day (as the sun travels east to west) and the time of year (as the sun travels lower to the horizon in the winter and higher in summer).

The circular beam of light cast by the central skylight in the Timepiece House indicates early morning; as the day goes on, it moves into the open stairwell.

Meinberg Burke likes to tell schoolchildren, when they come in groups to see her house, that anyone can make note of a beam of sunlight coming through a window and landing on the floor—and watch how that patch of light moves over time. What’s special in the Timepiece House is that the walls, stairwells and ceilings are exactly aligned with the various paths of the sun, so that the circular beam of light strikes specific points at important moments—solar noon, the summer and winter solstices and spring and autumn equinoxes.

Meinberg Burke, a Yale-trained architect, had long been studying the question of “how to design a building derived from forces and cycles in nature.” As she designed Timepiece House, she researched the path of the sun as experienced from the specific spot on earth where this house would sit, and recalls that “seeing those data charts was like walking into a hardware store”—replete with tools and raw material. “How to use that information to shape form and light?” she asked.

The eventual answer was this white-walled, minimal space with a central stairwell and slightly curved, sloping ceiling. Nothing here is accidental; every part of the structure is significant, a physical manifestation of light’s presence. The three-and-a-half-year design process began when Kevin Burke, a partner with William McDonough, walked the site and noticed a clearing where the house now sits—an opening in the trees that, in letting light pass through, foreshadowed the central skylight that now defines the house. As Meinberg Burke worked to refine her ideas, calculating sun angles by hand and constructing model after model, she began to think of the beam of light as an almost living entity.

When I visited, I arrived at clock noon—which, because of Daylight Savings Time and other factors, is roughly an hour before solar noon—and Meinberg Burke pointed out how the circular beam was hitting the concrete floor just to one side of the central stairs. She laid down two pens at the edge of the pool of light, and after only a minute they were covered by shadow. At this latitude, she explained, the earth is spinning at 788 miles an hour, so the beam moves steadily, almost rapidly if one is paying attention. During the course of the morning, the light had glided from a point high on the wall, down onto the floor, then across it. At solar noon, it would fall directly down the stairwell, landing on the floor in front of the bottom step.

A spare style and lots of southern exposure define the kitchen; moveable and modular furniture makes the function of the entire floor more flexible.

This silent, luminous journey happens every day, but its path shifts depending on the date. My visit was 10 days before the summer solstice. If I’d come near the winter solstice instead, the beam at solar noon would have skimmed the ceiling rather than landing in the stairwell, because of the sun’s lower angle at that season. (The curve in the ceiling mimics the circular shape of the sunbeam and, interestingly, also makes for excellent acoustics.) Carefully angled half-walls along the house’s two stairwells align with the angle of the sun at the summer solstice and the two equinoxes.

In other words, while the rest of the world is going about its distracted business, light is moving through this house and marking the natural landmarks of time, just by illuminating one area and leaving another in shadow.

Practicing attention

To talk to Meinberg Burke about the design process for this house is to be immersed in heady theory—about the way we live, the way we build and how we perceive reality. She wants her buildings to change the way people see. “I wanted to create an atmosphere of all types of observation,” she says. “The goal was to make this an instrument or lab.”

Meinberg Burke also compares the house to an observatory, but the fact that it would fascinate your average astronomer doesn’t negate its very human appeal. Being encouraged by architecture to pay attention to the daily and yearly movement of light, Meinberg Burke believes, is good for one’s spirit. “[There’s a] relationship to broader cycles,” she says. Kevin Burke adds, “To me there’s almost a spiritual quality to the daylight in there, a kind of serenity and calm to it.”

Taken at the summer solstice, this photo shows how the sun’s various angles are reflected in the building’s form. The sun’s higher position in June makes noon light fall along the steep walls of the central stair. At spring and fall equinoxes, it traces the wall along the stairway on the far wall, and at the winter solstice, it falls along the sloped ceiling.

Indeed, the space has something of the feel of a monastery, where a wider awareness replaces the everyday clutter of life. The Burkes’ furnishings are quite spare, and nonfunctional things—a doll Meinberg Burke made as a child, for example—are corralled in a glass case, like museum pieces. This may sound austere, but “beauty” here is not about the pattern on the upholstery; it’s more about an ambition toward mindfulness, and the idea that a building can be a “focusing device,” as Burke says, for the world’s basic rhythms.

Toward that end, the Burkes have marked crosshairs on their walls and floor where the beam lands at various hours of the day; they’re students of the deviances between solar time and clock time, which is “politically derived,” says Meinberg Burke, a human idea as much as a natural phenomenon. When she’s away from the house for a few days, she says, “I quickly get more connected to my watch.” At home, she can tell time by the location of the beam and the quality of the light. “The light is very balanced” at solar noon, she says. “You can perceive it; it’s the pivot of the day.”

After the better part of a decade living in the Timepiece House, Burke says he is still amazed by the speed with which the sun angles change. “When we have visitors, we’ll say ‘Note where it is,’” he says. A few minutes later, “the amount that it’s moved, it’s just so amazing to see. I still wonder at that.” Traveling often for his work, he calls the calm of Timepiece House an “oasis to come back to…it’s what recharges me to go back out again. Our lives are all so fast, we can be very disconnected from nature; you’re brought back to that any moment that you see the sunbeam.”

Light is eminently functional too, of course; its well-defined presence in this house makes electric bulbs less necessary, and it provides heat. The house’s south wall is mostly glass, protected in summer by vegetation and shutters but, in winter, allowing substantial solar gain and lighting the kitchen, loft-style studio, and bedrooms. The main living space is one floor above the ground, so that the Burkes can spend most of their waking time in the presence of the beam of light, while their bedrooms are on the ground floor.

A lifetime of light

Four times a year, at solstices and equinoxes, the Timepiece House takes on an extra layer of significance. On the first day of summer, says Kevin Burke, “You really viscerally sense that that’s as high as the sun is going to be. The very next day it’s a half-inch moved to the north, a week later it’s noticeably on its way back. It’s the first indication that the days are getting shorter.” An open house the Burkes held on the autumn equinox in 2001—days after 9/11—is memorable to both Carrie and Kevin. “We opened our door and invited friends over,” he says, “and I just remember so many people coming through and not talking a lot. Something about it said things will get back in order, and time will march on. It was really powerful.”

Which brings us to 15-year-old Ava Burke, the only person on the planet to have grown up in Timepiece House. She was in second grade when the family moved in; she remembers playing with her mother’s discarded models as the design process moved along, and later watching the construction process unfold. In that way, unlike the majority of people who, as her mother says, “aren’t taught [solar movement] in our cultural education,” Ava gained an understanding at a young age of, literally, how the world works. “Because I saw it from the beginning, it was easier for me to understand the way the sun moves east to west,” she says, though it took her some years to perfect her explanation of the house for her friends’ benefit.

Meinberg Burke’s office space gets enough daylight that artifical light is often unnecessary.

Ava yearned for a pet when she was younger, and eventually got one, but in the meantime her parents half-jokingly told her that the beam of light could be her pet. Though it wasn’t exactly furry, she allows that “I remember really liking [the beam] when I was little. It was something that other people didn’t have in their houses.” In fact, she once pointed to another beam of light created by a building in Court Square and said to her mother, “My pet got loose.”

An upbringing inside what Meinberg Burke calls a “filter” for sunlight has given Ava a well-developed sense of direction, too. “I remember trying to give people directions to certain places around Charlottesville and saying go north or go south on a street, and people didn’t think that way,” she says. “My house is sort of like a starting point, and I can think visually from there: If it’s in a certain direction it’s east of my house.”

Unexpected guest

One night, shortly after the Burkes moved into their house, they got a surprise. Through all the meticulous sunlight calculations the design had required, neither of them had thought about that other source of light: the moon. “We woke up,” Burke remembers, “and there’s this cool blue beam moving through the house at totally different angles than any sun pattern.” The moon was like a mischievous being, following its own rules, playing chaos to the orderly relation of sun and house. “It struck me,” says Meinberg Burke, “that the moon is a reflector. That is sunlight bouncing into here.”

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