Monthly Archives: November 2013

The House as Architecture Gallery

At Home With Ace Architects and the Grand Tour

All houses tell stories but at Rancho Diablo, the Contra Costa County, California home of Ace Architects founders and authors Lucia Howard and David Weingarten (their new book is Shingle Style: Living in San Francisco’s Brown Shingles, published by Rizzoli, with an introduction by yours truly), the narrative is a lively page-turner about architecture itself. First there’s the

2013-09-17 17.48.35original structure, an unusual two story brick and timber ranch house by Bay Area architect and scientist Lillian Bridgman dating from the 1920s (photo by DG). Then there’s the collection of more than 3,000 vintage souvenir buildings amassed by David and Lucia and their partner Margaret Majua — including miniature cathedrals, Eiffel Towers, Egyptian obelisks, war monuments, and


Roman columns. Not to mention the collection of 18th and 19th century architectural prints and romantic landscape paintings, which vividly complement the Lilliputian landmarks. Most of the objects illustrate the idea of the European grand tour: that is, they were created as mementos. But now with so many in one place — I’d call them “monumementos” — it’s possible to see the world without leaving home. Ironically, the objects themselves have traveled: the collection has been shown in museums across the country and will appear next at the San Francisco International Airport early in 2014.

And finally there’s the addition designed to store and display so many diverse objects while making the house more livable. For example, here’s the new double-height living room and painting gallery. Note the stair-wrapped


fireplace and ovoid balcony cut-out, inspired by the work of early Bay Region architect Bernard Maybeck, who designed San Francisco’s iconic Palace of Fine Arts for the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. Cowboy, the Welsh Corgi, seems very much at home on his divan, if not a little underwhelmed by all the visual references. But wow! To other breeds it can be a sensory overload and a lot to take in. Even the garden is metaphoric — a beautiful desert-inspired landscape


that’s studded with barrel cactus and century plants and oriented toward views of Mt. Diablo — hence the compound’s name. I have known David and Lucia for many years, but every time I visit I am astonished anew and admire once again their wonderfully innovative eclecticism. An architect’s house is often a design


laboratory, but this is one where the bubbling beakers — and even the pool addition — are fairly brimming with creativity (garden & pool photos by Joe Flecther). So let’s take a closer look. The gallery wing contains an alcove devoted to the display of etchings by the great eighteenth century artist and


print maker Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Because the space was limited and the prints large, Lucia and David designed tall shallow cabinets with door panels that open on long sturdy piano hinges. Prints are hung inside the compartments and on the interior and exterior of the doors — effectively tripling display space, as you can see in this photo showing the yellow cabinet door that’s partway


open. Here’s another view of the same alcove. Each of the two cabinet door fronts holds a single tall print of a commemorative Roman column. Model versions of the same or similar landmarks are in the foreground. This ingenious storage and display solution is an adaptation of a similar system at one of David and Lucia”s favorite buildings (and mine, too): Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. It’s the remarkable house and artifact collection of the great early 18th century architect who designed the Bank of England, among other landmarks. (Naturally a souvenir model of that very bank is in the Howard, Majua, and Weingarten collection.) As you can see here, Soane’s panels swing open

Picture Room Recess displaying Nymph, Derry Moore_360px

open for views into adjoining rooms. It’s worth noting that Sir John amassed 30,000 drawings alone, not counting his thousands of paintings, models, and architectural fragments. So — something to aim for! (Photo by Derry Moore, courtesy the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum.)

And where do the inhabitants of Rancho Diablo actually live? We have seen the gallery living room. Here’s the new kitchen, with its handsome hooded cooking

Rancho Diablo kitchen

island and doorway to the patio. It’s modern, with a nod to architectural history in the elegant tile wall resembling rusticated masonry. The latter theme

Ranch Diablo bathroom

continues in the new bathroom — more 18th century allusion but, thankfully, with 21st century plumbing and fixtures. The bedroom includes a sitting area with space for just a few building models and, naturally, a painting of the Colosseum, which acts as a stage set landscape for the souvenirs on the floor.


Here, reality and representation are beginning to merge in a Through The Looking Glass sort of way. The room’s barrel-vaulted ceiling, which is barely visible in the photo, adds yet another visual link to the painting, in the Colosseum arcades. For some architects the dialogue between object and


setting, or structure and site, just never stops! The arid garden slopes down to the infinity-edge pool — like a mirage in the distance (photo by Joe Fletcher). At the far edge of the garden is a clearing surrounded by fluted concreteRanch diablo planterplanters like this one. It’s where fantasy, history, and practicality combine, recalling the columns at the Palace of Fine Arts, mentioned earlier. The architects poured tinted cement into molds made of sonatubes. So here we have come full circle: some architects’ homes are a never-ending story of invention. (All photos by Ace Architects unless otherwise noted.)

To read more about the souvenir building collection see Monumental Miniatures, Souvenir Buildings from the Collection of Ace Architects, by David Weingarten and edited by Margaret Majua.

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New Modern House Rooted in Nature

A Landscape for Living

This architecturally stunning hillside house in Kentfield, California, by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects is a study in what I would call “dynamic opposition.” It occupies a narrow bench on a steep oak-studded slope with spectacular views south and west toward Mount Tamalpais and San Francisco Bay and feels both

Kentfield house  ext 1 TGHsuspended and anchored to the site. It also makes deft use of concrete, glass, salvaged wood, recycled stone and planted roofs to further celebrate nature. As you can see in the floor plan, the house wraps around three sides of a long,


narrow pool courtyard. The curving lines represent the retaining wall and stairway — cleverly expressing the site’s contours as a physical part of the design. Driveway, entry and garage are at the far right; the living room and kitchen/dining area edge the long side of the courtyard; and the master suite hugs the retaining wall at bottom left. In the view below, looking toward the entry, you can see how stair and wall stabilize the  hill and anchor the house

Kentfield house ext 4 TGH

while giving the main living spaces breathing room. The courtyard stones are pavers recycled from a village in China that was slated to be submerged for the Three Gorges Dam. A flat living roof covers most of the house like an extension of the hillside, and it’s punctuated by shed roofs rising over the living room, kitchen/dining area and master bedroom. These are angled to capture the views, promote airflow and hold photovoltaic and solar hot water panels. Arrival is around a blind curve at the end of the road. Ahead is a blank entry

Kentfield house ext 3 TGH

facade beside the curving retaining wall, which continues behind the garage and into the pool courtyard. The hill falls away to the right. The surprise is inside:

Kentfield house living room TGHThe soaring living room reaches outward to frame the view of Mount Tamalpais and inward to embrace the pool courtyard across the glassed-in gallery. It’s a remarkable room because it frames such different views while at the same time drawing your gaze down the hall toward the kitchen and out the sliding door to the deck. The cinnamon-hued walls and floor are elm from salvaged tree trunks. The deck runs all the way from the living room to the kitchen, where

Kentfield house kitchen TGH

window walls slide away to open the space to the mountain vista. Again there is a dramatic opposition: the airy void across the balcony juxtaposed against the solidity of the kitchen island surfaced in stone. In the breakfast area the view of

Kentfield house kitchen view of mt. tam

Mount Tamalpais is framed by the window wall and acquires the majesty of Mount Fuji in a Japanese woodblock print. You are at once grounded and in flight, and the house becomes a landscape lens. The master suite is behind the

Kentfield house master bath TGHbreakfast area and includes a marvelous skylit and translucent-walled shower that restates the theme of opposites: a sunlit retreat where there is no view. A sophisticated water management system protects the slope by collecting excess runoff in a cistern under the garage for measured dispersal over time.

Kentfield house distant view

This distant view shows how the house tucks into the treetops — like a wildlife viewing station in Africa — which seems fitting because the owner, who took this shot, is a fine nature photographer (by

The great Bauhaus painter Paul Klee once said that “art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible.” This house simply and elegantly brings the setting into sharper focus and makes it habitable: nature nurtured.

Interior design by Margaret Turnbull.

All photos by David Wakely, unless otherwise noted.

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