A craggy hill with heart-stopping water views provides the perfect setting for a crystal palace.
Photography by Tim Griffith
It's the right address, but where’s the house? From the street, high in the Oakland hills, all that’s visible is a short strip of grass-softened driveway, walls of clear glass, and a panoramic view of San Francisco and the Bay. But wait. There, to the left, seems to be a doorway. And beyond that door, hidden behind a translucent wall, a stairway appears that cascades down a steep slope, leading to the house itself.
As visitors step inside, most gasp audibly at the dramatic and startling effect of the spectacular view framed by floor-to-ceiling glass. But then, says one of the owners, “You can almost hear them saying, ‘I could never live like this.’ ”
“Like this” means pure modernist architecture in all its glory—minimalist, clean-lined, parsimonious in color, and limited in materials—and just what the owners wanted when they moved from the sprawling suburban house where they had raised their family.
When the homeowners decided to build on the hillside slope, they chose Kanner Architects, a Santa Monica firm that has excelled in rigorously modern design since its founding in 1946. Although the company is often associated with the quirky ’60s-inspired movement called pop architecture, architects Stephen Kanner and Damian LeMons worked in a stricter and purer form for this Oakland house.
“We’re identified with the funky shapes of pop architecture, but for this project, we opted for something more purist and minimalist,” says LeMons. “And she was the right client. She didn’t want walls.”
Wherever possible, the design incorporates translucent and transparent materials to maximize both views and light. In addition to the soaring window walls, the barriers on the west-facing balconies are clear glass (the glass was done by Lon’s Glass and Mirrors, Inc. of San Leandro). Inside, the dining room table, a rectangle of glowing gold-colored resin, is at bar height, with chairs to fit, so diners can look straight out over the living room furniture toward the setting sun. And all the lighting comes from ceiling fixtures, eliminating the clutter of lamps.
Even with so much glass, the house feels remarkably private. The sidewalls are curves of raked plaster, 16 inches thick, barring the view of neighboring houses. The property slopes toward several acres of municipal land, so it’s unlikely that any new structures will impinge on the view. Even downstairs, where the master bedroom and bath form a single room, the freestanding bathtub and open shower don’t feel exposed. Outside the bedroom, a 36-foot infinity edge lap pool runs parallel to the windows, the glass wall providing a protected swimming area.
“This was a complicated custom house,” LeMons recalls. “The curved walls are an engineering feat because you can’t just lay them on the ground. I talked to the contractor every day, and I came up here every two weeks.”
The owners also wanted the house to be welcoming. “It’s a challenge to make all this steel and concrete appealing and comfortable,” one of the owners admits, so she gave careful thought to details, large and small, that would make the house if not exactly cozy, at least personal. “Stephen Kanner likes everything to be rectilinear, but I wanted some curves,” she says.
One compromise was the round tabletop that hovers above a corner of the square kitchen island; it was specifically designed so the owners could face each other while seated, as opposed to the usual side-by-side arrangement of a kitchen bar. The homeowner confesses that while she’s not crazy about wood, she chose Lyptus, a reddish-toned farmed eucalyptus, and mahogany for the stairs because, “The wood definitely adds warmth.”
When it came to furnishing the new house, her husband was adamant that above all, the furniture should be comfortable. “I wanted all three kids to be able to sit around and talk with us,” he says. So instead of the familiar icons of modern design—furnishings that make an aesthetic statement but don’t invite a leisurely sprawl with a book—they opted for clean-lined but traditional pieces. In the living room, facing the pale green marble-framed fireplace, a U-shaped sectional sofa covered in chenille was designed specifically to make conversation easy.
Touches of pure fun and unexpected color also lighten the mood. A brightly painted table and chairs, bought several years ago in Santa Fe, stand in a corner of the living room. A guest powder room features a sink and counter made of a single piece of flexible plastic.
These playful elements are the perfect counterpoint to the boldness of the inventive design. The happy result is an effervescent tribute to modernism.Joan Chatfield-Taylor is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Architectural Digest, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. ■