“Chickens are the new frontier,” the architect Pietro Cicognani tells me, as he barrels down the Long Island Expressway at top speed. “There’s a chicken war in the Hamptons. People don’t want Bentleys or haute couture. They want to save endangered heritage chickens.” I’ve known Cicognani for decades. In addition to his considerable architectural chops, he is one of New York’s great charmers and easily gives the best bear hug in the city. (He comes by bear-hugging honestly: His grandmother was the daughter of Piotr Stolypin, one of Russia’s last prime ministers under the tsars.) Cicognani’s work draws from an eclectic mix of architects and styles, including Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, Islamic architecture , and his beloved Baroque. His commissions from him are also eclectic and remarkable, including a church in Venice, which he is about to convert into a family residence, a private mausoleum in Delaware, and his own apartment from him in Rome. Lately, though, Cicognani has become the master of the high-end, top-of-the-line, brilliantly over-the-top chicken coop. And today I am to behold his greatest masterpiece from him to date.
We arrive at Woody House, the East Hampton home of Katharine Rayner (known as “Kathy”), a noted philanthropist (she sits on the boards of the New York Public Library and the Morgan Library & Museum) and keen gardener, who has commissioned Cicognani for previous projects. The property, which originally belonged to Pan Am founder Juan Trippe, is sandwiched between the ocean and Georgica Pond, as heavenly a piece of land as one can find in the Hamptons, buzzing with bees and fluttering with butterflies during the summer, and always circled by the chicken’s natural enemy, the hawk. On a wintery day, the sky a severe Atlantic blue, I can almost imagine the lushness of the gardens in bloom, but I content myself with the steam lifting off the lap pool. After we climb to the main house, I espy the cupola of Cicognani’s chicken coop against the icy gray of Georgica Pond.
“It looks like an Armenian stone church,” I tell him, and he agrees.
Rayner arrives to fortify us with glasses of prosecco, and then we walk through the maze of shrubbery and rose gardens toward the chicken basilica, which is flanked by a guesthouse (Rayner: “The chickens are permanent, unlike the guests”) and a pair of cedars. Soon we are surrounded by many brightly colored examples of Gallus gallus domesticus. Rayner is a funny and irrepressible steward of these noisy, at times combative creatures, and she greets them like long-lost friends at a Vassar reunion. “Silky! Sophie! Georgia! You older girls are showing off now.” They cluster about, pecking at the feed, playing hard to get with the amorous rooster. One rare chicken of Polish descent, white and with a fashionable topknot, catches my eye. Rayner suspects this exemplar of endangered chickenhood may be blind, but chicken aficionado Isabella Rossellini later tells me it’s the bird’s pompadour of feathers that makes it hard for her to see. In any case, my love of these beautiful, well-fed creatures is contradicted only by my desire to eat them.
Above the reclaimed doors and columns of the chicken temple Cicognani has written in Latin, “In Hoc Loco Gallinarum Fuit,” which translates to roughly “In this place there once was a chicken coop.” It turns out that after the project was completed, Rayner fell in love with it to the point of wanting to make it her personal space. Eventually, her love of her feathered companions de ella overrode her affection for Cicognani’s architectural whimsy de ella, and the chickens were allowed to flourish beneath a Latin motto testifying to their near eviction.
Although from afar the coop reminded me of the churches of the Caucasus, Cicognani was first inspired by the Chinese pavilion of Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, near Berlin. Up close, one can also see how the Foro Boario in Rome played a role (in addition to his Russian heritage, Cicognani’s ancestors hail from Italy). The interior is swathed in sharp, pale, ecclesiastical light, yet the overall effect is one of Northern European coziness, a space in which to admire the chickens in their earthly divinity as they roost peaceably in their laying boxes.
The design was admirably carried out by master builder Neville Burke, with interior design provided by Shatzi McLane. There is a classical frieze of lichen and pine cones; wood shavings conceal checkerboard tiles. The roof has been designed to span four half ellipses, two short ones and two long ones, providing for an interesting yet calming geometry throughout. Cicognani also reached out to his friend Isabella Rossellini, who in addition to being an actor, author, and philanthropist also acts as a conservator of rare chicken breeds.
“He called me many times wanting to make sure chicken welfare was respected,” she wrote me in an email. “I suggested to him to give the chickens some kind of branch or stick where they can wrap their feet, because they like to roost and not keep their feet flat on the floor like us. Of course, they also need cozy spaces to lay their eggs.” Rossellini said that, in part due to industrial farming, the 20 billion chickens around the world are genetically similar, conjuring for comparison a world in which almost all dogs were part of a monoculture of pugs. Her de ella chickens and Rayner’s are an attempt to diversify and preserve the lines of these endangered creatures.
Rayner tells me her girls have been laying eggs at a prodigious rate, helped by the radiant heat and the comfort of their environment. “We had four dozen eggs one day, and we don’t even have four dozen birds,” she says. Rossellini notes that heritage breeds are far more fit than modern breeds.
This conservation work is serious, but there is something inherently funny and charming about these cluckers as well. “Isabella has a rooster that looks like Andy Warhol,” Cicognani tells me, smiling as he pictures the bird. “He is a very good-looking chicken,” he says. We adjourn for lunch in the loggia, watching the Atlantic lap at the shore in the near distance, and then wave a final goodbye to the inhabitants of Cicognani’s mad new creation. “These are the luckiest chickens in the world,” he says.
This story appears in the April 2022 issue of Town&Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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