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From Residences to Wineries, Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects Designs With What’s Given



“Our style is that we design with what’s given. We never want a home to compete with a location or the site. It should complement and be in communication with its surrounds,” says Howard Backen, founder and principle of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects (BGK), an award-winning architectural design firm formed in 1996. Its two offices, one located in Sausalito near the San Francisco Bay waterfront and one in St. Helena, produce iconic residences, wineries, restaurants and civic spaces throughout the Bay Area, Wine Country and beyond. We caught up with Backen, and principle architect Luca Pignata, to discuss their design ethos and their first residential project together, Diamond Mountain Residence.

Located on a verdant hilltop overlooking Saint Helena and Calistoga, the Diamond Mountain Residence is an iconic BGK home, built to celebrate and respect its ethereal location. Surrounded by acre upon acre of vines producing award-winning cabernet sauvignon under its winery Constant Diamond Mountain Vineyard, the approximately 4,500-square foot home blurs the lines between winery and private retreat, and indoor and outdoor living. The residence, which was designed for the former owners, a radio tycoon and his wife, recently sold to an affluent buyer represented by Latife Hayson of Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty. The property was listed for $35 million.

Pignata recalls what it was like to visit the site for the first time, and to work on a project of such magnitude: “The size of the property and the scale of the project is much bigger than the architecture itself. It was a wonderful experience to dive into such a challenge.” The challenge was met in part by Pignata and Backen’s ability to work symbiotically with clients, a method that underlies all their work. “The clients that we’re dealing with are really smart. They get it, and you must listen. When you think about it, they’re extremely bright people and they’re there for a reason.”  ‘Extremely bright’ clientele include the likes of Robert Redford, the Mondavi family, Ellen DeGeneres and Ashton Kutcher, to name a few.

What’s BGK’s design ethos? Backen cannot be put in a box: “We don’t have a style,” he says proudly. “One thing that expresses what we do the most is that we basically open up the house as far as you can go.”

For Pignata, the work is about creating an open dialog between the land, the home and the client. “It’s about honesty. It’s about communication with the surrounding environment. A home should shelter, of course, but it should speak and communicate what is important to people. Even remind them of what’s important. You realize very fast that you have a big responsibility at that moment, and you are trying to create something that is respectful and will live with, and be in communication with, that environment.”

“This home, like many of our projects, is on a breathtaking scale,” says Pignata. “A residence of this caliber and clientele deserves the best representation and we’re very excited that a company like Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty represents them.”

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