Good Clean 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.
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.
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.
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?”