The Move to Modern

Photography by: Marion Brenner

People often remodel houses, but few houses have the power to transform people. In a quiet Palo Alto neighborhood of old homes and ancient trees, one small, elegant, modern residence has done just that.

The house is the culmination of a lifetime dream of Roger Fisher, who says he has always loved modern architecture, and has fond memories of an Eichler-type house he once lived in. “I knew that if the opportunity ever arose, I’d like to build a house from scratch,” he says.

The chance came when he and his wife, psychotherapist Lore Castellano, bought a small piece of property across the street from the Mediterranean-style house in which they had raised their children. While waiting to build the home, they lived in a cottage on the property. “I had six months to play with the orientation,” recalls Fisher, who does future modeling for a semiconductor company. Although he is a minimalist, and his wife describes herself as “almost the opposite,” they agreed they wanted a light-filled, one-story, two-bedroom house that left as much space as possible for the garden on the small lot. They also wanted a green, environmentally sensitive house.

Working with Oakland architect Lindy Small, of Lindy Small Architecture, they decided on a 2,000-square-foot structure. In the front, it faces the street squarely, but the rear window walls slant on a diagonal. The windows face south and east, for all-day sunlight, but the solid mass of the house protects the site from hot afternoon sun from the west. Slatted wooden shades protruding from the roof eliminate at least 30 percent of the heat that would otherwise hit the windows, and smooth, green concrete floors both unify the interior space and act as a cooling element.

The oblique angle of the rear of the house, which creates a courtyard, embraces the garden, blurring the line between outside and inside. In addition to half-barrel skylights, an angular pop-up skylight in the ceiling of the living room lets in more natural light, and gives a glimpse into the canopy of a graceful oak tree.

The garden, designed by Monterey landscape architect Bernard Trainor, is as precisely laid out as the house. A series of rectangles — pavers separated by grass, a tiny lawn, a gravel-floored patio — are punctuated by seating-height cement walls and softened by olive trees, lavender, and other drought-resistant plants. It’s all low-maintenance, except for the section given over to Lore Castellano’s lush jungle of tomato plants and other vegetables.

Inside, carefully chosen materials and a minimum of detailing unify the space. All of the cabinets — in the front entry, the kitchen, and the shared study — are in the same shade of dyed maple. Kitchen and bathroom countertops are concrete, and the kitchen appliances are sheathed in stainless steel. In this neutral palette, sparks of color come from Moroccan kilim rugs, Guatemalan pillows, and Castellano’s folk art, handsomely framed in niches in the living and dining area walls. (In the interest of minimalism, some of her folk art pieces and other memorabilia are now stored in a shallow, six-foot-long cabinet constructed for this purpose along an outside wall.)

Castellano, a veteran of Victorian and Mediterranean houses, says, “I’ve never lived in something so modern — and I love it. The lines are very clean, very calming. Anywhere in the house you can see the outdoors — birds and trees and clouds — through skylights as well as windows. “I don’t like clutter any more.”

Nor is she the only one to be influenced by the house. When her son and daughter-in-law announced that they wanted to get rid of a lot of stuff before moving into their new residence in San Francisco, she asked them whether this house had influenced them. Yes, they said.

That’s the power of good design.

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