“WE’RE PLANT COLLECTORS,” Silvina Blasen says. The landscape architect, who lives in this Marin County home with her husband and professional partner, Eric, means it literally. The two collect rare, unusual and sometimes more common plants — first in their experimental nursery, which makes up only part of this lushly landscaped retreat of a permanent residence — and eventually in locations scattered across the expansive site.
“We kept all the trees, we kept all the ground cover,” Silvina says — even the ivy, though they didn’t love it, because it helped control erosion. But within that framework of trees and ground cover, the pair, who have designed landscapes for local firms like Fougeron Architecture and Aidlin Darling, slipped in a number of surprising — and defining — additions.
“We did a lot of native plants, plants that would take the water during the summer and fall seasons,” Silvina says, addressing California’s long-standing cycle of rains and droughts. Yet the landscaping choices are all precise, specific and part of a whole. The overarching idea was to preserve the feeling of being in a treehouse, framing the home’s sweeping views of Mount Tam while protecting the sense of seclusion pervading this hilly landscape. There’s an ease to the experience of being here, a feeling of having just discovered a secret corner of land at the foot of the beloved mountain.
They’re not sure who designed the house, but the flow between one room to the next and clarity of spatial organization suggest some sort of relationship to Joseph Esherick; they hypothesize either the noted Bay Area architect or someone in his office might have been involved. The couple bought the house in 2012 and, in collaboration with Doug Burnham of Envelope A+D, have been working on some of the interiors; Fisher Architecture renovated the bathroom. Alongside these changes, taking their time to study and work with the site, the two of them have slowly and deliberately shaped the landscape.
There’s a sense that this is their laboratory for ideas. They met at an architecture conference more than 25 years ago, when Silvina had her own landscape design and construction business in Buenos Aires. They married, moved to Amherst, and quickly realized that the New England winters did not suit Silvina. They knew no one when they first moved to Marin 20 years ago, but in the years since settling in the area, their business has grown to have a staff of six, with such major projects as Marin Art and Garden Center’s master plan, the AT&T Ballpark edible garden, and the Stanley Saitowitz San Francisco Beth Sholom synagogue design.
On this property, their primary intervention might be in the creation of a sense of procession that leads from street through auto court to house. “When you come in the driveway, you don’t see any architecture,” Eric notes. Instead you pass a sculpture made from the roots of fig trees and enter Silvina’s experimental nursery: home to that extensive plant collection. From there you enter the house, which almost trips down the hillside and is a study in warm woods and stained cedar and custom furniture, all designed to emphasize entertaining and relaxation. A wraparound deck, designed by Eric, becomes a liminal space between inside and out.
On the back side of the house, a terraced garden, constructed with board-formed concrete, contains edible plants. Beside it, a bench overlooks a bocce court that Eric and Silvina make sure is well-loved and frequently used. “It’s nice to give something visual to look at and engage the space, but there’s no maintenance,” Eric says of the court. In the winter the look of the backyard is a bit sparser, but in summer all the grasses grow again and the ground plane of grasses and oak trees shifts.
“When we first purchased the house, we walked through the front door and the window perfectly framed Mount Tamalpais — I thought that the house was sited perfectly and this was the right house for a landscape architect,” Eric says. Even landscape architects don’t always focus on the planted elements when first seeing a house, or not always with this long a lens. In doing so, the Blasens built a home that could grow (in all senses of the word) with them, carefully weaving the aspects they felt mattered — experimental cuttings, a secluded nursery, protection of the view — into a singular space with a sense of restfulness, profound rootedness and visual intrigue.
Summer is here, and spring’s rains have again turned Mount Tamalpais its signature deep green. The trees around the home have filled out to frame the peak with their own rich hues — the result of design considerations reaching far beyond the property’s edges or the experimentation of the past years.