A Floating World

Just chalk it up to human nature. We tend to like what we know and, in the case of one young couple from central Marin, that meant traditional homes. Yet when they purchased their 10-acre grassland property, they chose Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects, which is best known for its modern designs.

“Modern architecture really speaks to us,” the homeowner says. “It feels very real, balanced and connected to our lifestyle.”

Saitowitz, influenced by modern masters Le Corbusier, van der Rohe and Aalto, is a professor emeritus of architecture at UC Berkeley and has been the subject of numerous books, magazines and museum exhibitions. When he first sketched his vision for a 24-foot-wide home that would span a ravine using post-tension slab construction at the site’s lower elevation, “we were hooked,” the owner says. “Previous plans for the property had placed the house high on the hillside to capture the Mount Tam views, but by building on a low point of the property we preserved the rest of the valley for us to look up into.”

Saitowitz envisioned a rusty bar floating in the landscape. “The idea of a bridge was a way to make a flat area with the least impact on the hills,” he says. “It’s a delicate object that spans and just touches the natural landscape very lightly.”

Yet “it’s got a very clear presence and juxtaposes itself with nature,” he adds. “It doesn’t try to get ‘grovelly’ or imitate nature; it sets itself up as a strong counterpoint to the landscape.”

Dubbed the Bridge House, the 5,500-square-foot two-level home won a coveted Excellence in Architecture award from the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects this spring. “The vote was unanimous,” says AIA jurist Lawrence Scarpa of the Santa Monica firm Pugh + Scarpa. “The ideas were fresh: the building connected the landscape but, more than that, it floated over the landscape.”

Three structural elements—the garage, the living area, and the pool with guesthouse—are divided by courtyards, an idea inspired by the couple’s trip through Andalusia. They frame the view and, like the patios on the lower level, encourage indoor/outdoor living.

But repetition is the design hallmark, most notably in the extensive use of rectangles and glass and floating elements such as the fireplace and bubinga-wood built-in dining buffet and family room entertainment center.

Clad in corten steel (even for the garage bifold door) and glass — clear in the windows, etched in the railings and many doors — the home reflects the family’s casual lifestyle. “The house feels homey, cozy and organic to us,” says the lady of the house. “The open spaces and clean lines leave us room to fill in that space with our energy, our mess, and our moods.”

On the lower floor, windows with offset mullions bathe the rooms in a soft light and offer an intimate perspective on the front grounds’ no-mow lawn, oaks and ornamental trees. The children’s two bedrooms and Jack-and-Jill bathroom, their open playroom, a guest room/music room and a large laundry room are centered between the two adult spaces on either end of the floor—his office and library on one side and their master bedroom suite on the other. All are connected by a perimeter corridor with walls that serve as a revolving exhibit of family photographs and artwork.

“We really wanted the house to be able to grow with the children and with us,” the mother says. “The downstairs playroom adjoins their bedrooms and bath, so they really ‘own’ that space. When they are older, that will be the computer spot and library for them.”

Her light-suffused office fills a glass-enclosed niche off the master bedroom, which divides behind the bed and partition into two perimeter aisles, each with a sink and countertop of Lago Azul, but with access to a central dressing room, shower and lavatory.

Upstairs, the view and ambience change: here 11-foot-high custom Fleetwood sliding doors open the entire space to broad up-valley views and form a corridor that, along with an opposing solid wall corridor, connect the living and dining rooms, kitchen and family room.

“My favorite thing about the house is the way in which the outside really informs and shapes our experience inside the house,” the owner says. “Every room has a view that is wonderful and different.”

In winter, twin seasonal creeks rush over a rock outcropping before traveling under the house. Jackrabbits, deer, even a bobcat appear in the golden grasses and, overhead, red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures carve sweeping arcs in the sky while swallows dive and dart below. “We sit in the family room and look out the window at what we call ‘the bird show,’ which comes to a spectacular climax during the evening hours when the bug-hunting is best,” the homeowner says.

The view, she adds, “is our entryway,” and the lack of a grand foyer or  staircase and the abundance of pocket doors—as well as the Murphy bed in the pool guesthouse and the compact kitchen with easy-to-clean honed black granite countertops, twin dishwashers and concealed pantry—were deliberate choices. “We wanted a house that was very space-efficient.”

They also sought furnishings that weren’t typical of California modern homes, so they explored the work of top designers from South America with San Francisco interior designer Marc Melvin and kept to a color palette of blues, browns and grays. “We focused on Brazil’s rich history of modern architecture and modern furniture makers of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” Melvin says. “Once we had chosen some key pieces of furniture for each room, we blended furniture from Europe and America together with custom pieces designed by our office to create a cool and sophisticated aesthetic.”

They chose living room chairs by Ricardo Fasanello, a Spinneybeck-leather upholstered sofa and extra-wide dining room chairs by Claudia Moreira Salles, and a dining table by Gregory Warchavchic. Melvin designed the walnut guitar-pick-shaped coffee table and two of the beds.

Despite the home’s size, its design respects the environment with green elements that include careful siting for passive heating and cooling, a photovoltaic system, radiant heat and fluorescent lighting. Native grasses disturbed during construction were repaired by John Merten of Studio Green, who also planted a low-maintenance landscape and developed a series of low-impact trails following existing deer trails.

“It’s not a house plunked on the site out of a memory of what a house should be like,” Saitowitz points out. “Even though it looks different, it feels comfortable and appropriate and it’s very comfortable in its landscape.”

Architect/interior Design
Stanley Saitowitz/Natoma Architects Inc.

Redhorse Constructors Inc.

Interior Designer
Marc Melvin Design

Woodline Designs

Landscape Architect
Studio Green