Modernist Road Trip

By Edward N. Film, A.I.A., LEED

Tucked away on a remote bay on Deer Isle in Maine is an art school that was designed by a significant modern architect.  Last fall, I took a trip to visit this school which is called the Haystack Mountain School ( 

The school was designed in 1960 by Edward Larrabee Barnes on a steep rocky site.  The school is divided into a number of pavilions built on stilts around the site with mossy granite underneath so the architecture is close to nature but only connected to the ground in the most tenuous way possible.  The trees have grown up over the years between the buildings connecting the architecture with the site even more.  It gives an immediate connection with nature not usually associated with modern architecture.  A 10’ wide staircase runs up the hill to the entrance on the top.  The staircase is wide enough to act as a social space for the students.  Smaller walkways run across the hill perpendicular to the stairs which give a level of separation between the public stair and the dormitories. 

The artist workspaces and cafeteria are strung out along the top of the hill.  There are five or six large studios each devoted to a different medium; wood, metal, textile, and ceramic, for example. 

Each one has large north facing clerestories which provide plenty of indirect, glare free, natural light.  Small ribbon windows run the length of the building and frame the view of the water to the south.  The buildings are detailed as minimally as possible with no corner boards or gutters.  Inside is exposed wood structure and the space is as flexible as possible.  They are like little factories for making art.  They are unheated and un-insulated since the site is not used in the wintertime and every spring they have to be checked for new damage from the weather or from wildlife as they are opened up for the next season.

The dormitories pods are smaller 30’ square cedar clad pavilions with steeply sloped roofs further down the hill.  They have no plumbing and all the sanitary facilities are in separate buildings which reminded me of a summer camp.  Since the school is built on ledge there’s no place for septic fields so the waste is piped down to a tank at the bottom of the huge steps where a pump constantly runs to push the waste to the top of the hill to be processed.  It was annoying to be “at one with nature on the coast” in the middle of nowhere and have the constant buzz of a pump in the background.  Due to the dampness, the moss grows freely on the pavilions which are attractive as they increase the connection with nature, however they shorten the lifespan of the siding.

Overall it was a handsome, sensitively designed, group of buildings on a beautiful site that fit in with a difficult landscape quite well and it was an excellent example of mid-century modernism.  So if you’re an artist looking to perfect your craft, you can sign up for classes, or if you’re just an architect looking for a site to see on a road trip, Haystack is a great destination.