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Modern Moment

A Lafayette architect hits it big with his livable, contemporary design


Robert Swatt
(ABOVE: Shimmon House in Los Altos Hills)

WITH AN X-ACTO knife, a ruler, and some white museum board in his hands, architect Robert Swatt let his imagination and decades of experience guide him as he began making a miniature three-dimensional version of the Morley home to be built in Lafayette’s Happy Valley.

Van Morrison played in the background as Swatt cut an opening for the door and then shifted his attention to the adjacent entry wall, which he folded back 90 degrees to define the home’s first bold horizontal roofline. He continued clockwise to the kitchen, the living room, and the master suite, then up to the second-floor bedrooms. Swatt defined walls, rooflines, windows, and doors, carefully measuring, cutting, and folding.

“All the moves came together,” the 59-year-old architect says with a boyish grin. “It’s the first time ever that I’ve designed a house and didn’t start by drawing an elevation.”

(ABOVE:The Morley living room - Cesar Rubio)

Turning his typical design process upside down by modeling first and sketching later—“the moves become less fussy,” he explains—is just one of the ways Swatt is spreading his wings as an artist and creating architecture that is truly his own. At the same time, he is generating quite a buzz for homes that defy the negative stereotypes of modernism by mixing sleek contemporary style with warm, livable elements.

With a growing list of commendations to his name and vast experience, Swatt is finally able to focus on creating the California modern architecture that he says has “always been in my DNA.”

Models of Swatt’s wide-ranging projects fill his Emeryville office. They include a cluster of three diminutive, single-room teahouses under construction in the South Bay, stucco-and-wood-clad residences as large as 14,000 square feet, and the recently completed GreenCity Lofts. The 62 lofts, located on the Oakland-Emeryville border, were built using recycled steel and sustainably harvested woods, and incorporate energy-efficient radiant heating as well as other green technologies.

From the start, Swatt’s training was excellent. He graduated from UC Berkeley’s architecture department in 1970 and went on to work under renowned architects Cesar Pelli and Howard Friedman. He established his own firm in 1975, but only in the last decade has he had many opportunities to work on single-family homes.

“There was very little market for this kind of work,” explains architect Pierluigi Serraino, author of NorCalMod: Icons of Northern California Modernist Architecture (Chronicle Books, 2006), as well as three other books about modern architecture. “Bob has survived waves of criticism and hostility. He had to fight a lot to be where he is.”

Robert Swatt
(ABOVE: Robert Swatt - Cesar Rubio)

Swatt became well known in the architectural community in 1993, when he completed Levi Strauss & Co.’s San Francisco headquarters, called the Icehouse, by masterfully renovating two 1914 masonry buildings linked by a glass-and-steel structure. The project received numerous design awards and netted Swatt a national reputation.

His breakthrough as a residential architect came in 1995, when he completed his own home in Lafayette, which was written about extensively and drew a positive response from both architects and homeowners.

What made the residence noteworthy was its clever placement on a challenging hillside lot and its organization, which gracefully accommodates the informal lifestyle of Swatt, his three children, and his wife, Cristina.

The airy living room, which has a terrazzo floor, is set down three steps from a strongly defined entry corridor. A band of skylights illuminates the corridor, which is wide enough to accommodate a buffet or bar for entertaining. (The Swatts enjoy hosting parties, sometimes with dancing.) A series of mahogany-framed windows offer sunny views of the oak-studded parklands to the west.

Swatt took advantage of the upslope of the lot—a potential design problem—by tucking an intimate entry and kitchen courtyard into the hillside.

“The landscape feels like a room by the way the house is positioned relative to the hill,” says Renee Chow, an associate professor of architecture at UC Berkeley. “The sense of what’s inside and what’s outside is not a distinct separation. There’s really a flow between the two.”

These elements—the knitting together of interior and exterior spaces and the use of open floor plans and natural materials—connect Swatt to California’s long tradition of modern architecture. This isn’t the same as modernism per se, which came earlier and was defined by a more austere aesthetic employing predominantly white walls, shiny steel, and lots of glass.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Swatt was inspired by such early modernism. He attended Emerson Junior High School, with its 15-foot-tall sliding doors made of steel and glass, which was designed by Richard Neutra, and his grandmother hired Rudolf M. Schindler, another modernist master, to design her Nobby Knit Shop.

Emeryville's GreenCity Lofts
(ABOVE: Emeryville's GreenCity Lofts - Cesar Rubio)

But Swatt makes it clear that his style is his own—he isn’t trying to copy the architecture of times gone by.

“I’m not into ‘isms,’ ” Swatt says. “Modernism is what they were doing in my grandmother’s time. I like to say that what I’m doing is architecture ‘of our time.’ That’s how it’s modern.”

Swatt certainly would have had more opportunities to work on modern homes had he stayed in Los Angeles, rather than settling in the Bay Area. Modern homes have never been as popular here as they are in Southern California. But since completing his own home a decade ago, modern architecture has started to come into style in Northern California. The renewed interest and Swatt’s growing acclaim have resulted in numerous opportunities for him to solidify his style.

The recently completed Morley residence in Lafayette—as well as other homes Swatt has designed in Portola Valley, Kentfield, Escalon, Sausalito, and elsewhere—carry familiar threads of the design concepts that the architect originally developed for his own home and are easily recognized as characteristic Swatt designs.

“What you often hear about modern homes is that people don’t know how to inhabit them,” Serraino says. “They have too much glazing; they’re cold; they’re austere. People feel like they’re living in a museum. You never have these problems with Bob’s houses. They are so comfortable and livable. People can just be themselves.”

At their core, his homes are playful, building on the artistic tension that develops when sleek modern elements are contrasted with warm, traditional touches, like the use of wood, stone, and other materials that are rooted in the earth.

Swatt’s designs have unusually bold horizontal lines and introduce verticality in small doses for dramatic effect. His entries, for instance, are often low and intimate, but play against an explosion of height and volume that occurs upon entering the living room and other public spaces. The Morley residence, a great example, is set low and wide on a grassy hillside overlooking a creek bed. The stucco-and-wood facade is dramatically horizontal, and a hillside in the background forms a green crown over the top of the flat rooflines.

Throughout the Bay Area, people are recognizing Swatt’s flair for creating modern homes that are light-filled, integrated with the outdoors, and entirely welcoming, and observers say his work only continues to improve.

“The nature of architecture is that it’s a practice,” professor Chow says. “You get better and better the more you do it. I think that’s what you can see in Bob’s work.”

(ABOVE: A home in Inverness Park - Cesar Rubio)

For Swatt, whose passion for modern architecture was out of fashion for much of his career, the time is ripe for him to live out his professional dream.

“The world of design came around and finally I can do what I love. I feel like the luckiest guy in town.”

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