A simple case of cause and effect occurred when Jack Hillmer cantilevered a dramatic wood-framed house into the Oakland Hills, making the view of the grounds from above just as important as the one on terra firma. That’s what the Berkeley landscape architect Stefan Thuilot discovered when he was brought in to design the grounds of an early-1980s house, rebuilt in the late 1990s after it was destroyed by the Oakland Hills fire in 1991. The garden, however, was not destroyed. There never was one. Iconic as the property was, and rare—Hillmer designed fewer than ten homes in a geometric style noted for its expressive woodwork—it was never landscaped.
Unwanted, but necessary, two giant piers that support the house extend down into the 70-by-70-foot space. Thuilot incorporated them into the garden design by reimagining them as tree trunks. He mapped a zigzagging white-gravel path around the piers, which ultimately ends at the final destination: a circular fire pit for conversation.
“In daytime it is a simple gathering area for a group of seven to eight,” Thuilot explains. “At night it’s a poetic environment where the flames create a glowing view of the steel base.”
Conveying a woodland theme, the pit is surrounded by a mass of grasses and the occasional fern. “We basically pay respect to the architecture, but in a playful way,” Thuilot says. “Those piers don’t seem so heavy anymore.”
Now based in the San Francsico Bay Area, Joanne Furio is a veteran print journalist who segued into design over a decade ago. In addition to writing for Dwell, she contributes to San Francisco and the Believer.
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