written by:
photos by:
July 7, 2011
Originally published in A New Slant on Family Fun

Far from pandering to the whine of youth, this urban play garden fosters thoughtful interaction in a protected setting within the bustle of San Francisco.

Rather than resist the natural slope of the Buena Vista Heights backyard, landscape architect Eric Blasen composed a well-considered, minimal, multiterraced space.
Photo by 
1 / 4
The view from the uppermost level of the yard looks down to the slide and the sloped lawn, sandbox, and, beyond the gate, bioretention unit and mulch.
The view from the uppermost level of the yard looks down to the slide and the sloped lawn, sandbox, and, beyond the gate, bioretention unit and mulch.
Photo by 
2 / 4
Looking out from the roof deck gives an expansive panorama of the San Francisco skyline, but a peek over the edge reveals the minimal lines of the backyard below.
Looking out from the roof deck gives an expansive panorama of the San Francisco skyline, but a peek over the edge reveals the minimal lines of the backyard below.
Photo by 
3 / 4
The floor plan.
The floor plan.
Photo by 
4 / 4
chaiken hamilton backyard
Rather than resist the natural slope of the Buena Vista Heights backyard, landscape architect Eric Blasen composed a well-considered, minimal, multiterraced space.
Project 
Chaiken / Hamilton Residence

Too often, backyards take a backseat to the immediacy of interior renovations, and, after the fact, connecting the spirits of the two is a challenge. For Jen Chaiken and Sam Hamilton, the imminent arrival of their twin daughters signaled that it was time to tackle the “hillside of weeds” behind their San Francisco home. The project required negotiating not just an exigent landscape, but also a litany of complicated municipal codes based on the bordering city street.

In spite­­—or perhaps because—of the restrictions, Chaiken and Hamilton were determined to approach the project on their own terms. “We wanted to enjoy the process,” Chaiken says. The couple chose nearby San Anselmo landscape architect Eric Blasen and his business partner and wife, Silvina, for the venture. Blasen’s interpretation of imaginative play aligned with the couple’s desire to create a space that catered to both the whims of children and aesthetics of adults—a yard that would be more Tadao Ando than Magic Kingdom. Inspired by the Japanese architect’s approach to concrete, Blasen decided that the same minimalist aesthetic could translate well in a play space.

The view from the uppermost level of the yard looks down to the slide and the sloped lawn, sandbox, and, beyond the gate, bioretention unit and mulch.
The view from the uppermost level of the yard looks down to the slide and the sloped lawn, sandbox, and, beyond the gate, bioretention unit and mulch.
More than anything, however, “the site drove the design,” Blasen explains. “The big ‘aha!’ moment was when we decided to create usable space out of the slope,” he says. They honed in on a gently terraced scheme in which each of four levels offered a different platform for play with one additional condition: The area must also be a beauty to behold from above. The three-story house has both a balcony and roof deck—the adult playground—from which an unbroken vista of the entire city can be seen. Looking down to a pleasing view was as important as looking up and seeing the skyline.

The floor plan.
The floor plan.
Before construction could begin, however, preparations had to be made to ensure that the new space wouldn’t put any pressure on the city-owned fence abutting the yard. Nine load-bearing steel piers were drilled 20 feet down to provide the skeleton for a new 44-foot-long wall along the southern edge of the garden—18 inches in from the existing partition—to meet municipal building requirements.

Once these structural accommodations were made, the design began to take shape. The flat upper terrace, which hosts a cantilevered concrete bench and is primarily where the parents sit and watch activities unfold, leads into a steep slope with three side-by-side elements: steps, a sloped lawn, and a concrete slide. “Everyone gravitates toward the slide,” Chaiken says of the feature, which harks back to a less-litigious time when public cement slides were more common. Accent details, like the flat handrail and stone stairs, mirror those repeated both inside the home and out front, respectively; Blasen worked directly with architect Tim Gemmill to ensure a cohesive feel between the spaces.

Looking out from the roof deck gives an expansive panorama of the San Francisco skyline, but a peek over the edge reveals the minimal lines of the backyard below.
Looking out from the roof deck gives an expansive panorama of the San Francisco skyline, but a peek over the edge reveals the minimal lines of the backyard below.
A small sandbox and herb garden—valuable real estate for fresh additions to daily meals—share the lower level. Beneath that is a small area that the couple anticipated would be an ideal place for Hero, the family dog, to do his business, though, as it turns out, he’s not particularly fond of that spot; instead, the mulchy, fenced-in space serves as the entryway to the small shed where garden gear and warm-weather toys are stored away in winter.

It took a few years for the twins—now six years old—to begin enjoying the yard. But today, it’s a favorite spot on sunny days at home, and even when the cloud cover hangs low, the space manages to retain heat within its sturdy walls. Plus, between its promise of play or quiet time, it nearly always provides an answer to the age-old kid conundrum: “Mom, I’m bored. What should I do today?”

 

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

30degree pendants by wrong.london
The Danish design brand never disappoints.
May 02, 2016
practical magic brooklyn renocation kitchen caesarstone countertop stainless steel ikea cabinetes green vola faucet
A creative couple flips the script on their family home, a former workman’s cottage on the northern edge of Brooklyn.
May 02, 2016
history lesson kansas city outdoor backyard facade porch saarinen round table emeco navy chairs
An architect pushes the vernacular architecture of Missouri into the modern realm.
May 02, 2016
mission possible san francisco renovation facade exterior french doors cedar
A dilapidated lot in San Francisco gets a second chance.
May 02, 2016
Eames Demetrios of Kcymaerxthaere
The Eames scion and "geographer-at-large" traverses the globe on behalf of Kcymaerxthaere, a network of markers and monuments that tells fictional tales about real-life communities.
May 02, 2016
marcel breuer architect letter office kansas city snower house
See a glimpse into the office of a master architect.
May 01, 2016
Santa Monica living room with an Yves Klein coffee table
Dwell editor-in-chief Amanda Dameron talks us through Dwell's May 2016 issue.
May 01, 2016
house that sottsass built maui hawaii memphis group home renovation ettore facade colored volumes
In Maui, of all places.
May 01, 2016
two of a kind padua italy matching family homes facade green roof doors color
For Dwell's annual issue dedicated to dream homes , we visited homes from Haiti to Italy. Here, we introduce you to the photographers and writers who made it happen.
April 30, 2016
houseofweek
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
April 30, 2016
W House living room
Our best reader reactions this week.
April 29, 2016
Vineyard house illuminated at night
Rammed-earth construction fuses this Portuguese house to the environment.
April 29, 2016
vintage Scandinavian furniture Kathryn Tyler
In southwest England, interior designer Kathryn Tyler built her home around her ever-expanding furniture collection.
April 29, 2016
steel facade home Seattle
On the sandy shores of Fauntleroy Cove in Seattle, renowned firm Olson Kundig Architects crafts a subtle home with striking steel accents.
April 29, 2016
seperate piece renovated guesthouse eames storage unit cork floor tiles living room
An architect and an interior designer put the tools to the test for this impressive renovation.
April 29, 2016
Ceramics by WrenLab
Manhattan doesn’t get to have all the fun during NYCxDesign. Brooklyn is set for the return of BKLYN DESIGNS at the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint from May 6-8, 2016. Here are just a few exhibitors we are excited to see this year.
April 29, 2016
n0a6974 dxo
Architect Diego Revollo refreshes an apartment with a standout kitchen.
April 29, 2016
img 8652 1
The city of San Francisco has been eagerly awaiting the reopening of SFMOMA for years—and as the May 14th opening approaches closer everyday, the anticipation continues to build for art enthusiasts both near and far. This morning, we were given the opportunity to explore the newly expanded space before the crowds roll in. After a series of speeches, remarks, and tours, we left the grounds feeling thoroughly inspired and excited to share what we discovered.
April 28, 2016
gramercy 1 ar53319
A family doesn’t have to travel far for a private oasis away from the busy city.
April 28, 2016
Renovation of 1967 Hamburg apartment with Vipp kitchen.
In our April issue, we showcased an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with a striking, matte-black kitchen from Vipp. The 77-year-old company became famous for its iconic pedal trash can before venturing into kitchens and other tools for the home. This isn't the first time that the Danish company's products have graced our pages, and here we've gathered additional examples from our archive that show how the brand's minimalist black kitchens are always a win in modern interiors.
April 28, 2016
Zafra residence living room.
A man and his wife make an emotional return to an apartment building he loved as a kid.
April 28, 2016
the garden inside concrete dining pavilion indoor outdoor custom cabinets thermador dishwasher refrigerator
A skylit conservatory doubles as a verdant dining parlor in Sonoma County, California.
April 28, 2016
Details of the Calico collection.
Calico Wallpaper founders Nick and Rachel Cope showed us through their home in our March Issue, now step inside their studio.
April 28, 2016
william krisel pow 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
April 27, 2016
Dwell on Design and designjunction at ArtBeam
It's all part of Dwell on Design + designjunction's three-day event, featuring a program of talks chock-full of leading figures in design, architecture, urbanism, and beyond—coming up May 13-15 at ArtBeam in New York.
April 27, 2016
seattles mariners floating house prefab facade exterior fiber cement panels
A prefabricated floating home drops anchor in the Pacific Northwest.
April 27, 2016
royan treatment living room stone fireplace vintage new furnishings
French designer Florence Deau effortlessly mixes the old with the new.
April 27, 2016
modern netherlands 13 noordeinde schoolhouse parquet herringbone floors stove
Take a lesson from this school-turned-home.
April 27, 2016
The sidewalks of Copacabana in Rio De Janero, Brazil, designed by Roberto Burle Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York City takes it outside with a celebration of the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
April 26, 2016
Waterfront home in Belvedere, California
A 1960s home infested with powderpost beetles had to be sacrificed before this this Zen-inspired house could happen.
April 26, 2016