In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the most fashionable architect in America was arguably Stanford White of the firm McKim, Mead & White, so, naturally, it was he whom the founders of Shinnecock Hills, the first formalized golf club in the country, called upon to build their clubhouse. That clubhouse was, and still is, a sprawling yet homey, elegant yet modest manse in the gray-shingle Victorian style commonly found on the sand hills on which it sits in the summer resort town of Southampton, New York. Its "housing form" style set the standard for clubhouse architecture that still exists today.
A few summers ago I’d been to Shinnecock to cover the U.S. Open. I’d stood on the famed wide-plank veranda, which is the biggest porch I’ve ever seen—it’s so long that members could lose weight pacing it. But on a recent Sunday morning I drove past it on my way to a brand-new, radically designed golf clubhouse that lies ten miles to the northeast of Shinnecock. If Stanford White’s creation was "Mr. Tambourine Man," then Roger Ferris’s clubhouse at the Bridge is Dylan going electric at Newport.
It is 80 percent glass (shock!), with the rest of the exterior made of zinc steel, a deep gray-blue metal that picks up both the Great Peconic Bay, visible below, and the sky. The building looks more like a contemporary airport terminal than any clubhouse I’ve ever seen. Sitting on the highest point of a hilly 520-acre tract, it offers a 270-degree view of the water, Sag Harbor, Shelter Island and the Connecticut shore across the Long Island Sound. The clubhouse, which opened last spring, is only twenty-two-feet tall at its zenith, and it rises there at a very gentle slope, so the structure seems to lie on the landscape as a cat does on a lap. "It’s gentle," Ferris told me from his Westport, Connecticut, office. "It’s formidable in terms of its sculptural articulation, what I call the ’radical gesturalism’ of it. But it’s also light and transparent and poetic. It’s not screaming, ’Look at me.’"
If it is screaming anything, in fact, it’s just the opposite. The sharp corners, the giant eaves, the edge of the vast patio—everything points outward. The views inspired the design, and the design defers to them. Even the men’s locker room has a grand window offering a panorama of the course and the bay. (Note to members: Wear towels, please.)
The building’s most prominent feature is its gently arcing triangular roof panels, five of them (a sixth is atop the separate pro shop) joined in the middle to form what looks from above like a flexed hand. Ferris calls them the "blades," and they are designed to capture the prevailing wind to cool the interior naturally (there is no need for air-conditioning in this eco-friendly design), to provide shade on the massive ground-level Chinese-granite terrace that surrounds the building, and to collect rainwater with which to irrigate the course. They also, not coincidentally, look kind of like a car engine’s turbine wheel—an homage to the land’s previous life as the Bridgehampton Race Circuit. The design combines this past with the present. "It’s about flight," Ferris said. "It’s about swinging the golf club. It’s about arcs. It’s about tension and energy. So we think we’re speaking to golf that way."
But if history is any indication, such a design will not succeed. "When new hard-edge buildings enter a golf environment, there’s something scary about them," said Houston-based architect Robert McKinney, who has more than two dozen clubhouses to his credit. "Most of the time, particularly when it’s textureless, it’s just not really a warm and inviting place. In a clubhouse, you’re taking meals, taking a shower, relaxing with your friends, having a drink and so forth. Most people seem to be more comfortable in a traditional environment than in something you’d expect for the replacement of the World Trade Center."