The world is a beautiful place with an overabundance of scenery to discover — majestic mountains, rugged cliffs, raging rivers, and landscapes so incredible that they hardly seem real. As humans, it is next to impossible to compete with the splendour of the natural world. We are, however, capable of taking in the vernacular of our landscapes and finding impressive ways of integrating ourselves into these environments. Long gone are the days of living in caves, but for many around the world, ‘Living On The Edge’ is not just an Aerosmith song; for some, it has been a way of life since the 12th Century.
Ostrog Monastery is known as the pearl of Montenegro’s spiritual community. Built 900 meters above the Adriatic Sea, this gem is vertically carved high into the rock face of the Ostrog cliffs. The monastery consists of two churches, known as the Lower and Upper Churches; the Upper Church was built into a natural cave in 1665, while the Lower Church dates back to the 18th century. The monastery is dedicated to St. Basil, the Orthodox Christian Saint of Miracles, who moved to Ostrog seeking refuge from the Turks. Here he and his thirty monks lived high in the cliffs, where they could preserve their spirituality and lead austere, ascetical lives.
Today, Ostrog is one of the most visited holy places; it has become the destination of more than 100,000 pilgrims of all denominations every year. St. Basil’s body, which is whispered to have miraculous healing powers, is preserved in a reliquary in the Lower Church.
Suspended high up in the Himalayan mountainside of Northern India’s Kashmir district is Phuktal Monastery. Home to Gelug Buddhist monks, this mud and timber monastery resides at the mouth of a natural cave on the cliff face of a gorge. Believed to have been visited by monks and scholars 2,550 years ago, this isolated site now holds a monastery that includes several prayer rooms, a library, kitchen, guest rooms, and accommodations for 70 monks.
Phuktal is only reachable by foot, which is ideal for monks in search of peace and solitude; it has long been a place for meditation, learning, and teaching.
Amongst the most awe-inspiring cliff dwellings in the world, without question, are the Meteora Monasteries in Greece. With a name that translates as ‘hovering in the air’ or ‘in the heavens above’, these dwellings were constructed atop formations of monolithic pillars and colossal boulders, geological occurrences that are common in this part of the country. During the Turkish occupation in the mid-15th century, the monks from the region migrated up the rock formations and began building monasteries. For centuries, access to the monastery was intentionally very difficult; long ladders bound together and large nets were used to bring both supplies and inhabitants to the top. Just as the eagle’s aerie is perched high in the sky, so too is the intention of the Meteora Monasteries: for seclusion, protection, and the safety of one’s kind – and perhaps a closer proximity to God.
Architect John Lautner was a pupil of one of the most prominent architects of our time, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s philosophy of ‘organic architecture’, based on the idea of integrating a home into its natural setting, is one that had an enormous influence on Lautner. His architectural precociousness is truly personified in his space-age home designs of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
One such famous estate, floating high above the Coachella Valley and offering all-encompassing views of the San Jacinto Mountain, was the home of Bob and Delores Hope (1973-1980). The Hopes had commissioned Lautner to design a home that took full advantage of the surrounding vistas, all while building into the slope of the mountainside. This was not a huge task for Lautner, considering the hundreds of cliffside homes he had designed in Southern California; however, the Hope home was, by far, the largest home he had ever conceived. With over 22,000 square feet of living space, the house was built to resemble a volcano, equipped with a modern day oculus that allowed light into the centre of the home. Boasting a glimmering copper roof, poured concrete, steel beams, and glass, this home resembles the sun rising from the earth — simply ethereal.
Another of Lautner’s impressive designs was the Malin Residence, also known as the Chemosphere (1960). The home was commissioned by a young aerospace engineer named Leonard Malin. The site upon which it was built is a 45-degree slope given to Malin by his father-in-law.
Lautner developed an industrious plan that ultimately solved the difficult topography: to construct the home atop a 50-foot concrete pillar, resting on a substantial concrete pad, buried into the rocky hillside. Along the pillar is a series of steel ‘spokes’ which act as support for the outer rim of the home. The octagonal shape of the home resembles a flying saucer—à propos considering Malin’s profession—and is constructed with glued laminated timber and crossbeams, comparable to the construction of the ribs of a ship’s hull. With very few external walls, the face of the structure is outfitted with eight large picture windows, taking in the gorgeous views of the San Fernando Valley.
Hovering high up in the sky not unlike a flying saucer, perhaps this home fulfilled Malin’s dream of finding some peace and quiet amongst the stars.
It’s impossible to write about cliffside dwellings without paying homage to another one of Lautner’s impressive homes, the Elrod House, a.k.a the James Bond house from 1968’s Diamonds Are Forever. Regardless of whether you’re a die-hard Bond fan, this house is so impressive that it was seemingly inconceivable at the time. Built into 8 feet of bedrock, the home is submerged into the edge of the hill. Rock formations actually protrude into the rooms, while the ‘flow’ of the home follows the shape of the natural boulders of the surrounding landscape.
The home’s concept is that of two intertwined circles, one creating negative space and the other positive, all while being connected by a 60-foot concrete dome. Attached to this space-age dome are 9 large ‘petals’ that are separated by clerestory windows, allowing celestial light to flow through. Part cosmic, part mathematical, the underlying concept is truly out of this world. No doubt it provides the homeowner, interior designer Arthur Elrod, with some breathing space — some yin to his yang, as well as sweet serenity from the hustle of the city.
Today there is an abundance of conceptual designs that aren’t for the faint of heart, so if you are looking for the greatest views, you may just have a bout of vertigo! One such concept home is the “Cliff House” by Modscape, designed to dangle from the cliffside in Victoria, Australia. The architect drew inspiration from the manner in which barnacles adhere to a ship’s hull, clinging to its surface and essentially becoming one with the boat. Similarly, this home is not just an object inserted into the landscape, but rather an extension of the cliff itself, offering a real sense of organic unity. The design is also based on a series of modular components that stack on top of each other, all while being anchored to the rock face using heavy engineered steel pins. This home is literally a cliffhanger waiting to be executed!
From the monks of centuries past who looked to take the edge off while seeking peace in mountainous caverns, to the talented mid-century architects who wished to live on the edge with their exciting execution of construction, to the modern-day engineers on the cutting edge of some exceptional home concepts, it’s not hard to find inspiration in our beautiful planet. The common denominator with these cliffside dwellings is the fact that, whether suspended, perched, or floating, all of these dwellings bring us closer to nature —uplifting our souls and grounding our spirits.