The New Suburbanism
When an urban expat couple decided to build the suburban house they wanted rather than the one their neighbors expected, they ended up with a spare but airy jewel box and no wooden shingles.
Around the time that Scott Ward was fixing to build his dream home—a spare, airy two-bedroom house near downtown Palo Alto, California—many in this neck of the woods, giddy with stock options, were erecting mini-manors replete with mudrooms, pantries, libraries, billiard rooms, home spas, and other accoutrements emblematic of gracious living in England between the wars (or a Ralph Lauren spread of more current vintage). So you might think Ward’s neighbors would be thank-ful for his sensitivity to scale: The house is relatively re-strained at under 2,500 square feet.
Alas, no. In fact, the most printable query Ward heard from his immediate neighbors during construction was, “Is that thing a bank?”
Now that people come to sketch the façade of the “honest modern home” Ward shares with his partner, chef May Lawrence, and teenage son, Brendan, it’s hard to believe it inspired such ire. But this is Craftsman country, where folks are as fervent about covered porches and sloping roofs as their neighbors 45 minutes to the north in San Francisco are besotted by bay windows.
“It’s nearly impossible to build a modern house in a residential neighborhood in either city,” observes architect David Baker. “And if not for a zoning loophole, we couldn’t have done this one.” (Due to a smattering of apartment buildings nearby, the street was considered transitional and thus escaped design review.) “But iron-ically, there’s not that much of a chronological divide between these Craftsmans and the first modern homes Joseph Eichler built here in Palo Alto.”
Architect and client first met when Ward, a New Urbanist developer with a master’s in city and regional planning, hired Baker to design an affordable senior housing quadriplex across from one of his more conventional developments. (“David referred to me as ‘neotraditionalist by day, modernist by night,’ ” jokes Ward.) When he reluctantly left the hep café culture of San Francisco’s North Beach for the leafy embrace of the ’burbs (closer to work, a nearby park for his son), Ward felt that Baker could best fulfill his vision of a “disciplined, radically spare” home—despite the architect’s having earned much of his reputation (and awards) for high-density city housing, some endowed with playful flourishes of the pomo persuasion. Baker, a longtime social activist whose website offers quotes from Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, is known for the kinds of grace notes—fountains, courtyards, gardens, natural light—that enhance daily life, be it in low-income developments, trendy live/work lofts, or the Hotel Healdsburg, a minimalist, luxe hotel in the wine country (which, to Baker’s horror, in turn led to many requests for “neo-Tuscan villas”).
“Let’s face it,” says Baker, still tan from his trip to the Burning Man festival, “custom houses are an indulgence, because one could live in a tent. The pleasure is in creating a jewel box—not how the house photographs, but how it feels to be in the space,” continues the architect, who grew up in a solar-powered, rammed-earth house in Arizona built by his father, a self-taught designer in-spired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian homes.
When approached by Ward, Baker had just returned from Japan, where he was moved by what he describes as the “austere and ethereally beautiful” buildings of Tadao Ando. The opportunity to design an “authentic, calm space” dovetailed with Ward’s desire for a “militant, minimalist house” that would turn its back on the street and the apartment building next door. “It all hinged on Scott’s willingness to have a fairly modest home,” says Baker. “By the time most people custom build, they assume they can’t possibly fit in less than 3,500 square feet.” But for Ward and Lawrence, living in the present translates to a space preternaturally free of tchotchkes. “For Scott, the house itself is his personal statement,” says Baker, “and he had the courage to express his aesthetic, whatever his neighbors might think.”
If some in the neighborhood seemed vexed by its boxy aspect, others were confounded by the materials, despite their elegant austerity. The exterior is clad in panels of Eternit, a sawdust-and-concrete composite made from industrial waste (“a good deal more sustainable than redwood siding,” says Baker), whose bolts create a subtly decorative pattern. “It’s a floating system, like a high-rise,” Baker explains. “You get a crisp look, and because the cracks are voids, the water just runs out.” A built-in mahogany bench provides a permanent niche for plowing through the Sunday papers en plein air.
The side entrance opens into the living room, which is capped with a soaring, double-story ceiling with the volume of a cathedral. Although the lot is slim (50 feet wide and 150 feet long), the space doesn’t seem cramped. “It’s insanely narrow, 20 feet,” says Baker, “but feels gracious partly because of the extended eaves,” which draw the eye outward while shielding the house from the full-on southern sun in summer and providing pas-sive solar heating in winter, aided by concrete floors with radiant heating and thick stucco walls. The room is de-fined by a floating mahogany fireplace console, which partially conceals increasingly private zones—a pared-down great room, upstairs family room, son’s bedroom, and master bedroom, which resides behind a monolithic, 18-foot-tall suspended rolling door.
The structure is exposed inside and out, although Baker designed the beams, columns, and supports to be as deli-cate as possible. “It’s basically a refined, wood-timbered house. Pine tongue-and-groove ceiling planks, fir cross beams, and two steel I-beams—nothing hidden—like a traditional house in Kyoto.” Also classically Japanese is the house’s relationship to the gardens, which surround and play off it. The most public planting faces the street: a grid of monolithic granite blocks softened by waves of Irish moss and tufts of blood grass. The side lawn is shielded from the street by a triptych of panels that echo the house’s façade; big double doors open out from the dining area, creating a true indoor/outdoor experience. And the master bedroom leads to a secluded garden room where a foliage scrim screens out the looming building.
The apartments next door are effectively erased by a long, continuous wall, which reminds Ward, somewhat nostalgically, of “a little piece of the city—like a brick wall in a warehouse.” Along its length, Baker punched out three ground-level “snow-viewing” windows, used in Japan to direct the gaze where it wouldn’t naturally drift. They deflect claustrophobia while retaining a meditative sense of privacy, like looking inward and outside at the same time, and each frames a vignette designed by land-scape architect Andrea Cochran to evoke water in its various states: a dripping fountain, glass ice mountains, and, in the bedroom, a swirling mist of fog.
Almost as soon as the house was built, Ward and Lawrence happened upon two pieces of art that went up even before there was a place to sit. Hung high at the roof line, a 23-foot-long WPA-era mural depicting scenes of men at work attracts clusters of viewers like moths outside the corner windows when illuminated at night. Down the hall, renegade artist Rigo 99’s Wedding Photo Studio, Taipei City, 1999 helped prompt the baby-chick yellow of the kitchen walls and the fabric covering the curvilinear Marco Zanuzo sofa.
“I felt much more confident about the architecture than the furnishings,” admits Ward, who brought in interior designer Charles de Lisle. (In a strange twist, the designer had already seen the facade, when a client who lived next door asked, “Isn’t that the ugliest house you’ve ever seen?”) But de Lisle loved it, and was heartened to learn that Ward and Lawrence weren’t seeking some instant furniture program—“Mies, Eames, Breuer, boom!”—but wanted to pick or custom-make each piece to suit its space. For example, their desire for the living room seating to relate to the fireplace prompted a coffee table with a base of sandblasted firewood and a top screened with the mirror image of a spark plug. When pushed together, the custom couches, table, and stools graphically mimic and fill the same dimensions as the console (a slightly fetishistic detail that has to be explained a few times to be appreciated).
A more relaxed social hub is built around the couch and comfy Cassina chairs on the other side of the fire-place. De Lisle made the I-beam-and-mahogany-plank dining table intentionally narrow, both to foster inti-macy and to place Lawrence’s food center stage. Like the table, much of the furniture in the house is either dauntingly heavy or attached—there’s not a lot of moving things about on whim. In the master bedroom, a Lucite sideboard screws into the wall in front of the glass platform bed, where panels of nightlight drapery embedded with fiber optics hang pillow-side. And out-side the curtainless windows, the trees are finally high enough to screen the walk-in shower from roving eyes.
“The house has grown into itself,” says Ward. “And now that a couple more modern houses have sprung up nearby, we might even end up with a nice little modern-home ghetto! I can honestly say, I never miss the front porch.”