Geometric Beauty

A Lake Anna modern is all angular elegance on a lakeside peninsula.

Paul Warchol

Photography by Maxwell MacKenzie and Paul Warchol

Spool along three-digit state roads, through the hills that line the shores of Virginia’s Lake Anna, and the scenery becomes a predictable mélange of docks and boat trailers parked at 1970s-era A-frame cottages tucked into pine-forest lots. But wind your way down Lakewinds Lane on the southeastern side of the lake, in Spotsylvania County, and the traditional lakeside landscape gives way to a radically different vista. A long, white wall heralds one’s arrival at Jim and Nora Buisson’s sleek, modernist home, functioning as a sort of threshold between the pine forest and glistening water on the other side. Situated on a bed of grass with commanding 270-degree views of Lake Anna, the house seems like a perfect piece of geometry on a pristine little peninsula.

Lake Anna is one of the largest freshwater bodies in Virginia, and certainly the most unique. It’s got two sides—a private, warmer side to the north that receives discharged water from Dominion Power’s North Anna nuclear power plant, and a cooler public side to the south. Nora Buisson, a retired customer service representative for US Air, and her husband Jim Buisson, a physicist retired from federal government service to a private consulting business, owned a home on the northern end for roughly 20 years. Not long ago, the couple decided that they wanted more acreage and started casting about for a larger, flatter property on the south end of the lake. “We started out looking at farmhouses,” says Nora Buisson, with a wry smile. But in January 2000, they settled on a comfortable four-bedroom house on a spectacular seven-acre parcel of land that reached out into the lake and offered 2,600 feet of shoreline.

Five years later, the Buissons made two more big decisions. First, they sold their primary residence—a condo in Alexandria’s Porto Vecchio development—and opted to live at the lake year-round. Second, they agreed to renovate the Lake Anna house. A friend put the Buissons in touch with a builder, who in turn sent them to Alexandria architect Robert Gurney. The couple liked his work and quickly signed him up for the project. The Buissons wanted to redesign and enlarge the house to make room for the families of their four grown sons, who like to escape to the lake for weekends and vacations.

What started as a residential makeover soon became much more. “The scope of the renovation project kept growing,” recalls Gurney. “And I can’t even remember at what point I said, ‘Hey, how about a new house?’” The Buissons said yes. Jim Buisson found a company that would move the existing house to the back of the property—a move that enabled him to divide the seven acres so that the old house could be sold. That left a clean, if smaller, spot on the lakefront for a new house with the views and access that had drawn the couple to the property in the first place.

Gurney and the Buissons then began collaborating on the design. While most clients approach their architects with a wish list of rooms, the Buissons also brought Gurney a manifesto of ideas—starting with the most basic. “A big goal,” says the architect, “was to take advantage of the views of the water. They also wanted a floor plan that opened the living room and dining room up to the kitchen area, so that everyone could be involved in whatever activity was going on in those spaces.”

Looking back, Nora Buisson says, the process by which their original, seemingly modest ideas evolved into an edgy, open tour de force was subtle but profound. “I had always liked a nice clean look,” she says, “but we didn’t set out to have a modern house.”

That, though, is what the Buissons got, after two design attempts—and the resulting 7,000-square-foot home, completed in 2007 after a two-year construction process, achieves much more than they could ever have envisioned, says the couple. “You hear the word ‘modern’ and see pictures of modern houses and think they are beautiful but can’t be comfortable to live in,” says Nora Buisson. “But it’s just not true. This house is incredibly comfortable to live in—and so light. We have amazing light and beautiful views almost everywhere.”

The entry, living and sleeping spaces certainly fit that description. They are arranged linearly to maximize lake views and to take advantage of a southern exposure. The house was built inside two L-shaped brick walls connected by a bridge enclosed by glass. As with most new construction nowadays, energy efficiency played a major role in the design. Large overhangs and sensor-equipped, motorized shades provide both privacy and energy efficiency, blocking the sun’s harsh light during the summer yet allowing it to penetrate deep into the interior during the winter.

Mahogany-clad walls at the eastern end of the house enclose service rooms—the laundry and garage areas. The main living areas are encased in what appears to be a giant, three-dimensional trapezoid. It features glass walls at either end and is draped with a cantilevered copper roof that reaches over the southern side of the house. Three floors of living spaces constitute this central portion of the house. Gurney elevated the house to be even with the horizon—and the resulting effect is mesmerizing as you look through the expanse of glass to the lake. “It’s almost like we’re floating on the water,” says Jim Buisson.

From the linear organization of rooms to the polished, rich reddish-brown hues of the Brazilian cherry floors offset by white walls, the architecture articulates a distinctly nautical aesthetic. “With the house on level with the horizon,” says Gurney, “looking toward the lake simulates the feeling of being on a boat. Overall, my goal was to create an experience of emerging from the woods to the house, which is presented as a solid white wall through which you pass as you go into the house. And then this incredible vista of water opens up.”

Therese Baron Gurney, of Baron Gurney Interiors in Washington, D.C., and wife of the architect, worked to give the inside of the house a spare, elegant look. She works with her husband on most of his architectural projects. In the central living space, two dove-gray sofas flank a soft white rug and a custom-made coffee table—it has a natural steel base with a limestone top. The only other furnishings in the room are a facing pair of leather Utrecht chairs made by Cassina. The Buissons say that the chic, diminutive chairs, which were an extravagance, are deceptively comfortable and one of their favorite spots to relax, read and enjoy the lake view. “It’s all about the right piece of furniture in the space,” says the designer. “I have such respect for Bob’s architectural design,” she adds, “and I want to take it the next level.” Therese Gurney started working with the Buissons while construction was still underway, and understood that there would be questions. “Taking that leap into a modern environment for the first time can be so overwhelming,” she says.

Working with Therese, the Buissons selected neutral tones that would not distract from the extraordinary land and waterscapes that seem to invade every interior space. A black, rectangular dining room table and matching chairs define the dining area, which is separated from the living room by a built-in beech console that doubles as a media cabinet. At one end of the console is a gas fireplace that’s visible from both the dining and living room spaces and vented through a stainless steel column that rises up through the ceiling. The console is topped by white granite, which contrasts starkly with a pair of black- and blue-flecked granite counter tops that stretch the width of the adjoining kitchen and provide casual eating and working space. Just outside the glass walls is a weather-resistant, wrap-around deck of Brazilian walnut stained to match the cherry floors inside the house, seamlessly blending the interior and exterior.

Much of the new home’s practical functionality is built in. “All we really had to do was pick out stone, wood and the few other pieces of furniture for the living room and dining room,” says Jim Buisson. Adds Nora, “When we designed this house, we realized that we really didn’t own any furniture that would work here. So we distributed lots of furniture around the family.” Both the home’s floor plan and the new furniture groupings subtly dramatize the spectacular setting of the home, between the wooded landscape and the wide lake.

A narrow center hallway bisects the first floor at the main entrance. A floating tread staircase with steel wire railing leads to the second floor. In the opposite direction, solid cherry stairs lead down to a walkout basement with a recreation area and media room.

The master bedroom suite is located opposite the living areas on the first floor. The bed—more an element of the architecture than furniture—extends from a beech-paneled freestanding wall that hides floor-to-ceiling cabinets, closets and drawers accessible from the other side. A footboard conceals a remotely controlled, hidden flat-screen television. Adjacent to the bedroom is a light-flooded bathroom complete with oversized white tub and floor-to-ceiling southerly views of the lake. A wall covered with pale green stone stretches the length of the room, which includes an open shower and a slatted teak floor. A frosted glass floor-to-ceiling panel separates the shower from double sinks in white stone.

Upstairs, in an office lined with beech cabinetry, Jim’s desk overlooks the lake. “I can sit at my desk and see everything … the boats, the picnic table and sand beach,” he says. Two guest bedrooms span the western end of the house on that level and offer access to an upstairs deck.

Despite the expanses of white wall throughout the house, uninterrupted by molding, the Buissons have so far largely resisted the addition of art. The exception is a small watercolor in the entryway along with simply crafted vases and bowls. “We really don’t need to add anything,” says Nora. “The views almost everywhere are so beautiful.”

The Buissons say that while they adore spending winter months inside the house, they are often outside during the rest of the year. Jim asked Gurney to create a slate patio on the south side of the house, where a full outdoor kitchen and dining area have been installed. This being a house on the shore, one can bathe outside, too: A luxurious Brazilian walnut-encased outdoor shower is in the back.

Gurney says that both he and the Buissons took “a curious path” to the project, but in the end, “there is a great sense of things all working together.”

The owners couldn’t agree more. “It is absolutely spectacular,” says Nora. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” •

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