Forward-Looking Architecture

A house with no view other than sky looks within.

Photographs by Darren Bradley

SAN FRANCISCO ARCHITECT CRAIG STEELY’S 2,900-square-foot home design for a client in suburban Atherton brings to mind a medieval walled town. Or, at least, a walk through sculptor Richard Serra’s monumental Cor-Ten steel–walled sculpture “Sequence,” displayed recently for a year at SFMOMA.

Steely, known for rule-breaking, forward-looking architecture — his own home in Hawaii is perched on nascent land near active lava fields — convinced his client, a single woman from Venezuela who is a computer hardware designer, that she could have utter privacy indoors and outdoors in a seemingly roofless house. He proposed an unorthodox amoeba-shaped 14.5-foot-high perimeter cedar wood wall that would both envelop and form her modern home and courtyard gardens.

Atherton home by San Francisco architect Craig Steely

In a suburban Atherton neighborhood, San Francisco architect Craig Steely designed a sculptural single-story home that has a windowless cedar-clad perimeter wall so intriguing that passersby stop and stare. However, rooms like the master bedroom visible here open to private interior courtyards.

The perimeter wall merges with the house on one side and wraps around the kitchen. Its back door opens to a breezeway that connects it to a garage/guesthouse annex.

The perimeter wall merges with the house on one side and wraps around the kitchen. Its back door opens to a breezeway that connects it to a garage/guesthouse annex. The kitchen also has sliding glass doors that open to an interior courtyard planted with delicate birch trees that, when mature, will provide even more dappled shade than they already do. The courtyard is shared with the dining area.

The kitchen also has sliding glass doors that open to an interior courtyard planted with delicate birch trees that, when mature, will provide even more dappled shade than they already do. The courtyard is shared with the dining area.

By Atherton standards, the lot was long and small — just half an acre amid neighboring estates — and as far as views went, there were no arresting vistas to look at. “Just mismatched fences and the backs of neoclassical mansions,” Steely says. Controlling what she looked out at made sense and, in any case, to his mind, the best things about living in the Peninsula are its enjoyable temperate weather and magnificent mature trees.

“The surrounding tree canopy and sky are alive, constantly changing and breathtaking,” Steely says. “Focusing on this view ‘up’ rather than horizontally ‘out’ became our goal.”

His client took only a little convincing to sign on to the unusual design, and anyone who has ever lain on the grass, gazed up at a James Turrell–esque sky and watched birds and clouds go by can understand exactly why.

The windowless perimeter wall, which can be breached through a large square pivoted clear glass door — the town gate, as it were — encircles a couple of at-roofed, lofty living spaces, rectangular with glass walls. Their retractable Fleetwood doors open onto a pair of interior courtyards. Paved with travertine, these are planted with drought-tolerant river birch trees that create a sunlight-and-shadow interplay year-round, but their dappled shade is much needed in summer. The curved shape of the perimeter wall allows for a padded bench for taking o shoes before entering the bedroom wing. A view of the two ends of the long entry breezeway that links the public and private sections of the house.

The windowless perimeter wall, which can be breached through a large square pivoted clear glass door

Inside the free-flowing living areas, a pantry is contained within its own silo.

Inside the free- flowing living areas, a pantry is contained within its own silo.

The building’s seemingly unbroken curved form is punctured by a square pivoting front door. A roof overhang casts shadows that echo those at Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel.

The building’s seemingly unbroken curved form is punctured by a square pivoting front door. A roof overhang casts shadows that echo those at Le Corbusier’s Ron- champ chapel. Looking in through the glass door, you can see the main courtyard around which the public spaces are grouped. The home’s other two courtyards also allow indoor/outdoor living.

Looking in through the glass door, you can see the main courtyard around which the public spaces are grouped. The home’s other two courtyards also allow indoor/outdoor living.

At the west end, the master suite and a spare bedroom share a private courtyard in the crook of an L-shaped floor plan. A long breezeway, seamless travertine floors and the ever-present encircling cedar-clad wall help link the covered and open-to-sky spaces literally as well as visually.

Keeping “the finishes inside and outside the same makes all the spaces appear larger and seem like one,” Steely notes. Outside the walled compound on the east side, within a “meadow” of native grasses, a pavilion contains a modest two-car garage and a guest suite that doubles as the owner’s office. A fence is conspicuously absent. The structures and courtyards incorporate existing oak and redwood trees that were saved around the site; the trees serve to “root” the avant-garde buildings as well.

Despite Steely’s high-walled, inward-looking approach, his innovative single-story courtyard house is not at all at odds with its neighbors.

“This curved wood object looks sensuous and beautiful in this landscape,” the architect says. “A square box in its place would not have had the same effect. It would have added nothing new.”

At the west end, the master suite and a spare bedroom share a private courtyard in the crook of an L-shaped floor plan

The living room’s curtain glass wall, fitted with Fleetwood sliding doors, opens almost fully to the main courtyard. The boundaries between indoors and outdoors are deliberately blurred; the wood-clad exterior wall moves seamlessly indoors as does the travertine courtyard paving. The sky views are ever-changing.

The curved shape of the perimeter wall allows for a padded bench for taking o shoes before entering the bedroom wing. A view of the two ends of the long entry breezeway that links the public and private sections of the house.

The curved shape of the perimeter wall allows for a padded bench for taking off shoes before entering the bedroom wing.

the living room’s curtain glass wall, tted with Fleet- wood sliding doors, opens almost fully to the main courtyard. The boundaries between indoors and outdoors are deliberately blurred; the wood-clad exterior wall moves seamlessly indoors as does the travertine courtyard paving. The sky views are ever-changing.

A view of the two ends of the long entry breezeway that links the public and private sections of the house.

 

ARCHITECT

Craig Steely Architecture, craigsteely.com

PRINCIPAL ARCHITECT

Craig Steely

AIA; ARCHITECT PROJECT TEAM

Luigi Silverman, Ryan Leidner, Toon Kanthaoup and Anastasia Victor

GENERAL CONTRACTOR

Drew Maran Construction, drewmaran.com

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER

Strandberg Engineering, strandbergeng.com

GEOTECHNICAL ENGINEER

Murray Engineers Inc., murrayengineers.com

CIVIL ENGINEER

Lea & Braze Engineering Inc., leabraze.com

LIGHTING DESIGN

Artimede, artemide.com

LANDSCAPE DESIGN CFLD

Landscape Design, cferrislandscape.com

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT

Elias Gonzales

LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR

Siteworks Landscape, siteworkslandscape.com

ARBORIST

Urban Tree Management Inc., urbantreemanagement.com

EXTERIOR

Wall, Western Red Cedar siding from Golden State Lumber, goldenstatelumber.com; glazing, by Craig Steely Architecture, from Collier Windows, colliergroup.com;

KITCHEN

Woodwork, cabinet /custom woodwork by Craig Steely Architecture, from Drew Maran Construction, drewmaran.com; sink from Duravit, duravit.us

DINING ROOM

Dining table/chairs from owner’s collection

ENTRANCE AND DINING ROOM

Flooring, travertine slab flooring by Craig Steely Architecture, from New Marble Company, newmarbleco.com paneling, Western red cedar wall paneling (exterior and entrance) from GoldenState Lumber, goldenstatelumber.com

LIVING ROOM

Couch from Blu Dot, bludot.com; chairs from owner’s collection

ENTRANCE

Glass metal-frame pivot door from Fleetwood, fleetwoodusa.com; Blu Dot couch, bludot.com; chairs/dining table and chairs from owner’s collection; floors, travertine slab flooring by Craig Steely Architecture, from New Marble Company, newmarbleco.com.

This article originally appeared in SPACES Magazine.

Categories: SPACES Feature Story