Landscape Architecture Magazine BY ZACH MORTICE

The Kua Bay Residence is a simple pitched roof pavilion that works as an enticing collector of ocean views. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

More than half of the world’s anchialine ponds are located on Hawai‘i, also known as the Big Island. They’re formed when fresh water flows downward toward the ocean through porous volcanic rock and mixes with salt water pushed inland by wave action. Where the shoreline dips below sea level with sizable crevices, pools of water are exposed at the surface. It’s a brackish mix, though the salinity can vary, as can the depth and size of anchialine ponds. Some can be more than a dozen acres wide; others are smaller than a bathtub. These pools were vital to native Hawaiians, who would harvest shrimp (such as the ‘ōpae‘ula red shrimp) for food or bait, or use larger ponds closer to shore with higher salinity levels as fishponds. Freshwater ponds were used for drinking water and bathing.

Anchialine pools are characteristic of the landscape of the Big Island, the site of the Kua Bay Residence, and were a source of inspiration for its landscape architect, Ron Lutsko Jr., ASLA, of San Francisco-based Lutsko Associates Landscape. Like the pools themselves, the project has an intimate connection to water defined by the rock-face crevices at its border, and it offers cloistered shelter for local and native species amid an otherwise beautifully barren landscape. The project is a recipient of both a Northern California ASLA award and, most recently, a 2019 ASLA Professional Award.

Simulated anchialine pools line the perimeter of the site, a reference to local Big Island ecology. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

Located on the arid Kona shore, the house and landscape look out to a harsh (and geologically newborn) tableau of sun-scorched lava rock on the island’s dry, west side, a setting it wholly embraces. Life’s scraggly hold on the ascetic pumice ground strongly hints that this place is born of recent volcanic activity and is yet still forming. “You would think you’re in one of the most austere parts of Arizona or New Mexico,” says Lutsko. “It sustains almost nothing. It rains about 10 inches a year.” The house is the product of collaboration between Lutsko (as well as Lutsko Associates Landscape’s Will Gunn, ASLA, and Andrea Kovol, ASLA) and Greg Warner of Walker Warner Architects, who’s partnered on projects with Lutsko for the past 20 years.

The landscape is an intense feat of excavation, much of it completed before the designers ever found themselves on the site, and site choreography. The 1.75-acre site is divided between a long, excavated driveway bordered by a garage and small guesthouse, and a lawn and bosque bordered by the larger main house on two sides, with a pool on the opposite side of the house. It’s a series of layered courtyards that alternately hide and reveal the surrounding landscape. The driveway is carved 12 feet down into the igneous rock, making the path to this seaside residence a bit like entering a quarry. From the beginning of the driveway, you descend into the topography, past craggy rock walls counterbalanced by smooth slate-gray basalt pavers. “You really don’t see a thing when you’re down at the bottom,” says Warner—not the house, not the ocean.

The driveway approach to the Kua Bay Residence is tightly choreographed, with excavated lava rock and a series of Cor-Ten steel baffles. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

As the driveway winds past a garage, artificial view corridor blinders replace geologic ones: A series of Cor-Ten steel gates composed of both semitransparent vertical slats and monumental opaque panels guides you through the site, holding back views of the house till the last moment. It’s a “Richard Serra kind of idea,” Warner says, “a baffle you move through.”

Greg Warner of Walker Warner Architects compares the Cor-Ten steel baffles to the work of the sculptor Richard Serra. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

At the lowest point, the drive turns a corner around the gate and steps up a foot and a half onto a wide lawn with a view of the main house, sitting on a plinth. On the plinth, the view of the ocean and the bay snaps into focus. Past the house, down a few basaltina steps, is a terrace of ipe wood with a zero-edge pool—an irregular hexagon that saves its longest border for views of the scrub grasses and coal-black lava expanse beyond, reaching out to the ocean and mountains opposite the bay.

Landscape Architecture Magazine BY ZACH MORTICE

The plant palette at the house is narrowly focused, deriving from the landscape outside the property line. “We took the plants that grow naturally out in the lava fields, and we pulled them right in,” says Lutsko, including the kiawe mesquite trees planted along the entry drive. The entire landscape is composed of native or long-naturalized species Lutsko calls “canoe plants,” such as taro (also known as kalo). Notably, for a tropical climate, this means no palms, which Lutsko calls an “iconic tourist plant.” (Only one palm species, loulu, is native to Hawai‘i). Throughout, the lusher plants located on the interior of the site closer to the house (ginger, heliconia, gardenia) require more water and maintenance than the hardier varieties, like the mesquite, planted on the lava outcroppings. The simulated anchialine pools are filled with salt water, and use a filtration system to keep clean. Two parallel lines of white trumpet trees (Tabebuia berteroi) make up a small bosque next to the lawn that adds a layer of privacy to the bedrooms of the main house.

The house’s zero-edge pool leads to the arid Kua Bay shore. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

Glass walls cover much of the residence, a simple pitched roof pavilion, and make it an open book and enticing view catcher. The pool terrace faces northwest, so “in the afternoon it’s all about the sunset,” Warner says. “In the morning it’s all about the mountains.” The residence’s guesthouse is likewise unobtrusive, nestled into the earth under lava boulders.

At the south edge of the site, bordering the main house, lawn, and guesthouse, Lutsko designed simulated anchialine pools with exposed rock walls. Warner, who grew up in the Hawaiian Islands, introduced Lutsko to this aspect of Hawai‘i ecology. “That was the concept that we grabbed onto to say, ‘We’re going to bring a water feature into the project, but it’s going to be a modern [expression] relative to what those anchialine ponds do.’”

The guesthouse bedrooms get the most intimate views of the simulated anchialine pools. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

The guesthouse bedrooms get the most intimate views of the simulated pools, with grotto-like lounge terraces tucked into the substrate, outdoors, but wholly enclosed by the rock. At the main house, the straight edge of the lawn defines a mirror surface of still water (aided by reflective dark granite tile lining the pool), next to the mottled black and buff rock. The house and landscape seem to sink into the topography, like a geolithic fortress. The raw presentation of the pond walls called for a bit more client care and attention from Lutsko. “It looks like the excavation off the side of a freeway off-ramp,” he says. “They’re beautiful in that they reveal the layers of lava.”

A site plan for the Kua Bay Residence. Image courtesy Lutsko Associates Landscape.

Here and elsewhere, Lutsko set up striking juxtapositions between the precise and unmistakably designed rectilinear footprint of the house, pool, and lawn, and the excavator gouges and textural imperfections of the rock walls and lava fields. Those moves were foundational. “That was the first sketch we did,” Lutsko says.

But it took some extra attention to ensure that these oppositional forms and textures played well together. At every turn, Lutsko says his team worked carefully to preserve the exposed lava outcroppings while weaving reflecting pools, cobble paving, and the Cor-Ten steel walls right next to them. In areas where the lava outcroppings were affected by the new construction, they re-created the rock faces using boulders from the site.

The pool terrace faces northwest, toward spectacular ocean and mountain views across the bay. Photo by Marion Brenner, Affiliate ASLA.

This contrast of precise geometry and rough, unpolished landscape carves a bit of formality and organization into an otherwise stunningly irregular place. “I have a very strong sense of not wanting to mimic or copy nature,” Lutsko says. He says his intentions are to “own it when we make something. I typically am most comfortable giving it form that is clearly human-inspired.”

The Kua Bay Residence largely bows to the landscape, and accentuates a few of its most extreme elements. In the past, developers on the Kona shores imported topsoil and flowering plants and nourished them by piping in water that converted parts of the coast into the verdant tropics tourists expect. But Kua Bay is strictly defined by what it’s closest to. This sense of confident comfort, amid what appears to be lunar desolation, makes the rock’s embrace sophisticated and smart, if not quite soft.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.