Dan Weber and Neil Dipaola were not instant friends. They began working together when Dipaola joined the planning and development side of an architecture firm in Santa Barbara where Weber was a partner. Dipaola recalls with a laugh, "Dan was somebody I had to earn over time. I would say, ‘Good morning,’ and he’d respond, ‘Good morning, yourself.’" The tides shifted, however, when Dipaola turned the tables and hired the firm for a progressive, mixed-use housing project in downtown Isla Vista. Over the past eight years, the duo has embarked on five collaborations, incubating not only friendship but also creative kinship. This partnership has culminated in a midcentury modern clubhouse for the new AutoCamp location in the Russian River Valley, 90 minutes north of San Francisco.
AutoCamp got its start in Santa Barbara when Mesa Lane Partners, the real estate company where Dipaola now serves as CEO, purchased an RV park. "It looked like a neglected property. The first thing we wanted to do was restore dignity to the people living in the park," he says. After capital improvements were finished, the next goal was to bring new faces into the vacant lots. The company hit on the idea that the Airstream, with its iconic stature in Americana, would inspire young professionals to explore small space living. Before the restored Airstreams were ready for long term rentals, however, AutoCamp saw steady traffic in overnight stays that burgeoned into the luxury camping experience it is known for today.
"The Airstream provides a unique experience," says Dipaola. "One moment it feels like you’re camping, and the next you’re feeling pampered." Guests may ramble through the outdoors by day, but at night they retire to luxurious accommodations featuring solid walnut cabinetry, marble tiles, and Malin+Goetz amenities.
For the Russian River location, Dipaola enlisted Dan Weber Architecture to design the site, the Airstream interiors, and a clubhouse around which the AutoCamp community would revolve: a place where guests could check in, gather around a fire pit, play a game of checkers, or listen to a record. They faced a major challenge, however: the building would have to withstand the frequent—and possibly catastrophic—flooding that plagued the area.
"It was a really out-of-the-box project," says Weber. "We didn’t know exactly what this building was going to become, if it would be multiple buildings or be enclosed. We had no idea how the flood and budget constraints would influence the design. Neil insisted on us providing creative material before he defined what he wanted. He’d say, ‘I don’t know what I want because I don’t know what’s possible yet.’ It was a risky way to go. It required a high level of trust."
Thankfully, the rapport between Weber and Dipaola granted the architecture firm license to do something extraordinary. Taking the Airstream as an aesthetic cue, the designers looked to midcentury masterpieces like the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe and the Kauffman House by Richard Neutra for inspiration. The resulting 3,000-square-foot clubhouse offsets the sheer verticality of the surrounding redwood forest with stark horizontal planes. The roof appears to hover above the pavilion, supported by a steel beam "spider leg"—another nod to Neutra—that bridges the divide between indoor and outdoor space. Elevated four feet above grade, the structure is comprised of unyielding materials to brace against disastrous floods like the deluge that submerged Guerneville’s roads in 1986: board formed concrete walls, locally harvested redwood ceilings, and blackened steel that will patina over time. "The material palette had to be robust enough that a tree floating through the building wouldn’t damage it," explains Weber.
The choice of material, while practical, also speaks to AutoCamp’s integration of the rustic and upscale. The clubhouse makes a grand first impression for guests who check in at the suspended reception desk, milled from a 15-foot-long redwood stump. "We wanted it to be an emotional experience where people expect one thing and get another," says Dipaola. "When you walk inside, you feel like you’re in a W or St. Regis hotel." The open floor plan allows views of the surrounding meadow, adjacent creek, and silver Airstreams in the forest.
"It’s very rare that architects get the chance to create a building as expressive as this one is, and as bold and pure in form as this is," says Weber, who treasured the opportunity to work with such an open-minded client and friend. "It’s been a really, really fun project."
August 15th is the grand opening of the Russian River location. To book your reservation, visit the AutoCamp website.
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