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Standout in a Crowd

In architecturally conservative San Francisco, this house built on a 20-foot-wide lot proves that modern design can fit—literally and figuratively—in any neighborhood.

The houses that circle San Francisco's Buena Vista Park run the gamut from wedding-cake Victorian to Scandinavian modern. Architect Cass Calder Smith aimed to create a façade that contextually relates to the adjacent ornate ones yet is purely modern.

Sitting above the tie-dye-dipped corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco is Buena Vista Park, the city’s oldest and most beautiful hilltop recreation spot. The park, which was established in 1867, was eventually encircled by large, ornate Victorian homes. Infill throughout the 20th century resulted in an odd assortment of lot sizes and a mix of architectural styles. It was here that inveterate bachelor Martin Roscheisen recently found a small house squeezed between two grand old painted ladies.

“The house was built in 1946 and really wasn’t much of anything,” explains Roscheisen. “What I did see was potential. The lot is situated high up on the hill and it’s adjacent to the park. It has amazing views of Cole Valley, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean.”

It was keen foresight that brought Roscheisen from Germany to the United States in 1988, and it was that same vision that helped him drive several Silicon Valley technology ventures to success a few years later. His knack for seeing potential where others might not, and his ability to move from concept to completion, propelled him to purchase the house and take on the daunting renovation project.

A mutual friend introduced Roscheisen to Cass Calder Smith, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley’s architecture program, and one of the Bay Area’s rising architectural stars. Known for designing sleek modern interiors at standout restaurants in and around San Francisco, Smith was excited to take on the project and add to his growing list of residential work. “The existing house was typical of its period: a postwar shoe box with lots of tiny rooms and very few  windows to take advantage of the great location,” Smith affirms. “We decided to start over.”

Neither the owner, a self-declared "card-carrying-modernist," or his girlfriend, Stephanie Kiriakopolos, miss having a big bulky refrigerator.


The two-year-long collaboration commenced with a series of candid conversations. At about the same time, Roscheisen launched a new company dedicated to pioneering solar technologies, and even swapped his sports car for a gas/electric hybrid. Attention to sustainability became a guiding principle, and also meshed with Roscheisen’s desire for a home that was modern, highly textured, and a reflection of his European heritage. Most of all, the house had to be casual and comfortable. Restrictions, including a lot that was only 20 feet wide, figured prominently in Smith’s thinking. Com-munity concerns about changes to the historic character of the neighborhood ruled out building anything taller than the original structure. The architect settled on a solution that would fit within the footprint of the original home, limit resource use, and make the house feel much more spacious.

Inspired by the language of classic modernism, Smith synthesized the celebrated idiom with his own contemporary standards, assessing how Roscheisen would interact with different areas of the house and even gauging how much time he would dedicate to each. The result was an innovative design for an 1,800-square-foot home that stripped away the excesses of personal accumulation and focused attention on transparent and rational living. That logic and sensibility can be traced back to de Stijl master Gerrit Rietveld, who, with his longtime collaborator Truus Schröder, championed progressive ideas for diminutive spaces with the groundbreaking 1924 Schröder House.         

The results of Smith’s design are captivating from the outside in. The blocky, rectangular front façade is softened by thin, stained-cedar slats set horizontally over dark blue plywood. An inset garage, also clad in cedar, and a deep, overhanging eave give the house playful dimensions and instant interest among its larger, more colorful neighbors. Windows on the second floor run the width of the fascia, further lightening the structure and offering expansive views of Buena Vista Park.

With no internal walls or visual barriers, each interior environment flows generously into the next. The first floor consists of a single bedroom and bath area framed by sliding glass doors. The spacious walk-in shower offers the best views of the sensational vista. A private raised patio in the small backyard further extends and expands the space into the outdoors.

The unifying elements of walnut and steel—with a little marble and concrete thrown in—continue downstairs in the bathroom and bedroom.

With only one bathroom in the original floor plan, Smith admitted concern and even considered adding a half bath for guests. “Martin loves to entertain, but he was very clear that we shouldn’t give up any more square footage,” the architect explains. Smith solved the problem by tucking a small guest room, with full bath, under the patio.

The upstairs is imaginative and open, a warm meld-ing of dark walnut, stainless steel, expansive glass, crisp white walls, and ample natural light. A 30-foot-long multifunction workstation is set off axis from the rect-angular plan and energetically shoots through the room toward the Pacific. Designed by Smith, it’s the home’s main engine, serving simultaneously as the dining table, kitchen, and home office. Starting at one end in walnut, it flawlessly morphs into stainless steel midway down. The unit includes plenty of storage, and a matching stainless steel dishwasher and small refrig-erator are slipped under the hip-height counter. A flat-panel monitor sits across from the sink, connected via optical cable to a computer that provides Internet access and runs the home’s extensive media center.

When asked about the decision to forgo a full-sized refrigerator, or even an oven, Smith says, “It wasn’t just about saving space. The house is in many ways a simple machine that responds to the homeowner. In that respect, we’ve done away with superfluous items that wouldn’t get much use.” For Roscheisen it was an easier choice: “A smaller refrigerator is perfect. I try to eat fresh and there’s always enough room for a few bottles of wine.” Between the sitting area and the full-height windows that drape the rear wall is a futuristic hearth of spun steel. The Fire Orb, designed by architect Doug Garofalo, is suspended from the ceiling and can rotate 360 degrees. Its irresistible curvaceous form evokes the plastic-fantastic designs of the 1960s, befitting the house’s flower-power locale.

The additional levels of meaning built into Smith’s design transcend a simple bachelor-pad approach. Here, along Buena Vista Park, the neighborhood’s Gold Rush and psychedelic roots inform its modernist pedigree. Need and space drive content, so that objects in the home share divergent and unexpected roles. And with today’s traffic-clogged commutes and mountains of email, the best revenge just might be an evening with close friends relaxing in front of the Fire Orb, watching the sun drop below the Golden Gate.

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