Selling Sunset Headquarters: A Landmark of Environmental Design

Time Inc., the owner of Sunset Magazine, has just announced it is exploring the sale of Sunset‘s historic seven acre campus in Menlo Park, California. I can understand why — the land, which is in the very heart of Silicon Valley, not far

47 Sunset Joe Fletcher patio view

from Stanford University and just a mile or two down Willow Road from Facebook — is undoubtedly worth surpassing Silicon sums (photo by Joe Fletcher). But, speaking as Sunset‘s former senior home editor who wrote a book

24 Sunset cover

about ranch house popularizer Cliff May, the designer of the building (here’s an early Cliff May ranch house on the magazine’s cover), I very much hope that whoever purchases the property understands its significance as an early and influential example of environmental design. Here’s the back story.

43 Sunset buliding garden plan

The original building, from 1951, is at the corner of Willow and Middlefield Roads. Owner Larry Lane told Cliff May: “The building itself must be definitely WESTERN in its general structure and in the material used and in the feeling and atmosphere which it creates. It must give the feeling of belonging to the site. In short , the kind of building that an easterner having read Sunset for a long time and making his first trip to California would expect to see.” At the same time Lane hired San Francisco’s most famous landscape architect, Thomas Church, to design the gardens and specified he wanted an emphasis on native planting and informality “so that the whole area has the appearance of having naturally grown that way.” The result was a remarkable early example ofIMG_6650environmental design — the corporate campus precursor to Apple, Google, and Facebook. (And at Sunset we had in-house kitchens and even a wine cellar decades before Pixar’s “Cereal Bar” or Twitter’s “Micro Health Kitchen.”) The building is an over-scaled, roughly 30,000 square foot ranch house that wraps around a huge lawn extending toward San Francisquito Creek, which is the border between Menlo Park and Palo Alto. The gardens loop around the lawn (like a well thrown lariat, naturally!) following the creek, creating a metaphoric Pacific Coast with plantings representing each of the magazine’s editorial regions

IMG_6653

from the Northwest to the Southwest. The front door is in a closed facade — open it and you “are almost outside again” with a view that runs through the glass 44 Sunset lobby

walled lobby to the very edge of the garden by the creek: a seven acre living room that’s mostly outdoors. Test gardens, test kitchens, and an entertainment wing 45 Sunset patio with table

(shown here) were all added over the years — each element extending the ranch house esthetic and Sunset‘s mission to be both “the magazine and laboratory of western living.” A similarly detailed courtyard building for the books division of Lane Publishing was added across the road at 85 Willow in the 1960s (photos above by Joe Fletcher).

Frank Lloyd Wright toured 80 Willow in 1954 on his way to lecturing at Stanford. Here he is in his signature pork pie hat on the doorstep being

48 Sunset with FLWright

welcomed by Larry Lane’s sons Mel, at far left and Bill at far right, with editor Proctor Mellquist in the striped tie. Later at Stanford, after dismissing the building’s uneven terra-cotta tile floors and the use of adobe for some walls as sentimental, Wright remarked: “It’s well planned, and the ideas are good, and the proportions are simple and I would say it’s one of the best efforts I’ve seen in modern times.” Needless to say the Lanes — and Cliff May — were very pleased.

So, with all that land seemingly almost empty in a time of rapid change and superheated real estate value, how can such a place survive? Even if it became the headquarters for a major foundation, an enclave of Stanford University, or a satellite extension of a high-tech company, pressure to maximize the acreage would be intense. But thoughtful, even extensive, additions and updates that respect its history are certainly possible. An imaginative owner and city administration working with a talented design team should be up to the task. The alternative would be dismaying and a terrible loss. One solution might be to make a deal somehow to sacrifice the north building at 85 Willow in order to save key elements of the main building and grounds at 80 Willow. And then there is the realization that the magazine itself will probably need to move! Lots to think about. I hope you can visit this California landmark before it’s too late. Sunset’s garden is open to the public 9 a.m. to 4 p. m. Monday through Friday.

 

Making An Entrance on Streets and Stoops

Arrivals, Public and Private

A World Series parade changes the urban experience. The passage becomes the plot. Streets fill with people and become vast open-air rooms. This all became apparent today as I joined the crush of fans along Market Street to watch the San Francisco Giants ride by. The constant high-spirited clamor broadened into a roar every time an open-topped bus  — one for every two baseball  players –

IMG_6517appeared. Buster Posey got a big roar but when Hunter Pence, arms outstretched and visible just to the right of the passing tree in the photo above, led the entire intersection around Montgomery Street in a big booming Giants cheer it was deafening. Though he was gliding along everything stopped as the crowds on

IMG_6520sidewalks and those who climbed stop lights, newspaper stands, kiosks, and

IMG_6514trees, along with spectators on the roof terraces and cornice-level balconies of surrounding buildings, joined in. The eminent architecture critic Paul Goldberger has said that ultimately a city’s streets are more important than its buildings — and today that rang especially true. It was the street that celebrated the sense of arrival, in a pageant as old as Ancient Greece or China. It’s not just for defense and toll-taking that great cities like Paris and Rome built grand gateways across key streets; these streets celebrated the culture’s triumphs and occasionally their tragedies.

Houses also celebrate arrival, or passage, though obviously on a more private scale in the way they address the street and shape or shelter the front door. And as we move past Halloween and on toward the holiday entertaining season, front doors become especially important. So here are some entries that make crossing Charles Barnett entrythe threshold something to celebrate. The doorway of this courtyard house in Northern California’s wine country, by Charles Barnett, is part trellis, part open-air gallery, with a vista right through the house to the other side. In a very sleek 

Plus-Node-UID-Architects-1geometric modern house at Fukuyama, Japan, by UID Architects, the large

Plus-Node-UID-Architects-5 plandiagonal arm of the carport doubles as the front gateway. The automobile scale of the carport — which is also very finely detailed — lends grandeur to the pedestrian entrance just inside, noted as “E.” on the floor plan.

Arrival need not be elaborate; sometimes an elemental canopy will do, as Melbourne architect Leon Meyer shows in this design, which is our Plan 496-18.

496-18Everything is in its place, with an open door protected from the weather, and a design that simply say welcome. You’re a winner — do come in!

Genealogy and the Charleston Single House

Sideways

There is something wonderful about opening what appears to be the front door of an early 19th century row house in Charleston, South Carolina — and finding yourself not inside, but outside on a gracious porch running the length of

Stucco front IMG_6329the home. The real front door is halfway down the porch. You have entered an historic Charleston “single house” — so called because these buildings are usually only a single room wide as they follow the porch back from the street.

Whiete pediment IMG_6353The house type developed in the late 18th century: a version of the French plantation house adapted to the street grid of long narrow lots and as a way to mitigate a humid climate — a form of “green building” more than two hundred years before the term was invented. It’s a very urbane approach: the porch doorway preserves privacy for the outdoor space while maintaining the street front. I toured several of these gems recently, while attending a symposium of the Custom Residential Architects Network, known as CRAN, where the presentations were about the influence of history on contemporary residential architecture.

The tour and the talks made me realize anew how richly suggestive the single house is for today. And Skip Gates’ current and very entertaining PBS program about genealogy called “Finding Your Roots” got me thinking about design DNA, so I started looking around and found some direct descendants — no saliva test required.

Genetics and Other Codes

It turns out that the Charleston single house forms the basis for part of the planning code at the iconic New Urbanist community of Seaside on the Florida Panhandle — written thirty years ago by influential planners and architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. In some Seaside neighborhoods this code permits a zero setback on one of the side yards, which allows part of the other yard to be developed as a covered outdoor space. “Natchez House” by Robert Orr Architects and shown here (photo courtesy VRBO — you can rent it!)Natchez house by Robert Orr Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 1.10.08 PM (2)is an especially fine example, with the front door opening to a stately columned porch, and a window over the front door preserving the facade across the upstairs porch as well. The so-called “Charleston Cottage” by architect

Charleston

Scott Merrill, also shown here, is another (photo courtesy The Seaside Research Portal). Nearby, in Rosemary Beach, another community planned by Duany and Plater-Zyberk, are more Charleston-style houses.

Designer Eric Moser even offers an updated version of the Charleston single house as a three bedroom, three and a half bath floor plan on his website. Eric Moser Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 10.55.53 AM (2)Both the living area and the master suite, which are on the second floor, open to the side porch, as do the two bedrooms and gallery on the ground floor (Eric also has two plans in our Katrina Cottage Collection).

Other Cousins, Other Outdoor Rooms

In Plan 900-6 by architect Greg Huddy of C3 Studio, LLC the porch is open to 900-6 the street but runs along the side of the house. The layout shows how the porch is truncated to let the house widen, which makes for greater interior900-6 planflexibility and a connection to the rear garage.

Historic one-story variations on the side porch entry idea have appeared in other areas of the country — the Alvarado adobe at Monterey, California of the early 

Alvarado-Hse-2441

1830s is one example. You can just see the door to the porch at the right edge of this photo (courtesy mtycounty.com). California adobes were also usually only one room wide with every room opening to the porch. Twentieth century ranch

8 early San Diego house planhouse popularizers like Cliff May adapted this idea for courtyard houses, where the front door opens to a covered walkway or gallery that connects the interior rooms, as shown in this vintage plan from the early 1930s by May.

San Francisco architect William Turnbull often found inspiration in vernacular traditions like the single house and one of the employee cottages he designed447-2 sea ranch cottage by turnbull for the Sea Ranch on the Northern California coast in the early 1980s is a much447-2 elevsimplified version — it’s Plan 447-2, shown here. The side porch is shortened but still acts as the entry and the house itself is stretched out while remaining447-2 planone room wide.  The side porch-as-entry is also a strong feature in architect Nick Lee’s design for a ranch house in Sonoma, California. In this house, Plan 888-2,

888-2 porchThe porch extends the entire length of the building. So we are almost back to

888-2 planwhere we started, except it’s a one story house and the porch is open at the front. Yet another interpretation of the side porch is this modern design byjensen architects street facadeJensen Architects, which puts both the porch and the adjacent interior on display as a seamless indoor-outdoor unit. Now Skip Gates would probably ask  Jensen Architectshis celebrity guest to “Turn the page.” But all I can says is that though resemblance to the Charleston single house may not be obvious, the roots are there — or maybe it’s just a great great grandchild on a sideways branch. 

Compelling Ideas for the New Presidio Parklands

Hit Parade

I just attended a marvelous presentation by five internationally renowned landscape and architecture teams offering ideas for shaping a 13 acre parkland site in San Francisco’s historic Presidio National Park. The site — virtually new land — extends from the edge of the Parade Ground at the Main Post over Doyle Drive (Highway 101) and down to the Bay at Crissy Field. In this photo you can see part of the Main Post lawn at the upper left and the hillside-hugging tunnels under construction with the temporary roadway looping around them.Tunnels cropped Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 11.07.10 AM (2)The drop is 35 feet, with dazzling views over the tunnel tops to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin headlands, Alcatraz, and back to the city itself. Tunnel tops Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.52.52 AM (2)The goal, according to project organizers, which include the Presidio Trust, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the National Park Service, is not only to integrate the waterfront with the historic core of the Presidio and celebrate the extraordinary views but also to create “a welcoming place – inspired by history and contemporary needs – that embraces cultural diversity, creativity, learning, fitness, and fun.” The intention behind asking for proposals was to simulate our collective imagination. That process has certainly succeeded: the standing-room-only-crowd was very enthusiastic. As the moderator, architect and educator David Meckel said, “Don’t think of these schemes as finished designs, look at them as a way to understand how each of these design teams think.” In other words, here are ways to start imagining what could happen here — use these ideas to jumpstart your own vision of what might be possible. Here’s what I found especially evocative.

The Power of Simplicity

West 8, a Dutch urban design and landscape firm with offices in Rotterdam and New York, thought about ways to make the site not simply an extension of the Main Post grid or a connector to the water but something in its own right, while at the same time making the slope accessible. They hit upon a descending oval that’s at once a gently sloping pathway, a central lawn, and a view oriented building arching out of the ground. Here’s their overall plan as it relates to the Main Parade Ground.

West 8 Presidio plan 2014-09-05 at 9.13.16 AM (2)The oval is positioned between three key elements — the Visitor Center, the Youth Campus, and the Water Discovery/Wet Lab — and cleverly unites them.

West 8 Presido OvalIn this aerial view you can see how the oval acts as a focal point for framing the vistas, as a pivot from upper to lower levels, and as a sheltered bowl for picnics and other events.

West 8 oval edge view at 9.03.46 AM (2)The building is the landscape, as the rendering of the upper path shows.West 8 oval alt

The design effectively illustrates West 8’s philosophy to “actively create new ecologies.” This is an ingeniously layered simplicity. I love it!

Edges That Unite

Olin, a landscape design firm based in Philadelphia and working with Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, developed a scheme that revels in multiplicity. It extends the grid while transforming it into a series of U-shaped “Pods” to frame views and focus different activities. It adds a strong cross axis “Runway” leading from the Visitor Center to what looks like the prow of a great ship rising out of the sand. Olin Presidio  aerial 2014-09-05 at 9.19.02 AM (2)

Olin calls this the “Arc” and indicates that it might rise and fall with the tide — and that’s definitely imaginative! You can see how it forms a red arc in the photo but it’s easy to free-associate with another ark — floating the floating concept, so to speak.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.25.07 PM (2)Here’s a view of one side: a path below the prow cleaves it into two sections, while another leads through the marsh — I love how the marsh walk literally puts you in the water.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 5.42.05 PM (2)

Architect Tom Kundig is known for designing buildings in a wonderfully seductive “contraption esthetic,” often with key parts that move, like the sunshades at the Arc’s event space shown above, though I wonder how the rest of the Arc would actually work. But it makes me think: Yes, why not make a seaside park that expresses tidal movement! And I think it would be a very beautiful building.

Knit Large

SNØHETTA, a design firm with offices in Norway, New York, and San Francisco, headed a team that developed a series of so called “arcs and strands” to knit the upper and lower sections of the site together and to views and cultural activities.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.54.10 PM (2)

What captured my attention was their willingness to remove an existing building like the Visitor Center and create a new one in a more advantageous place at the edge of the hill. It’s the triangular sod-topped structure at the center of the plan above. The new location would serve as a true introduction to the site and the Presidio at large by framing the great vista. Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.51.16 PM (2)

This view shows the approach to the new Visitor Center — an abstracted hill rising before you that partially hides your objective and then, once you’re inside or on top, reveals everything — bridge, bay, islands, mountains — at your feet.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 2.48.45 PM (2)Another element is also suggestive: a grand partially planted stairway-street. It could be a great meeting place as well as exercise avenue. I can see tai chi happening on alternate platforms in the early morning.

Explorers’ Club

The team led by San Francisco’s CMG Landscape Architecture, which included representatives of the Exploratorium (the famous science museum), presented a design that turned the hillside and marsh into an indoor-outdoor exhibition concourse centered on a new building called The Observation Post.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 3.39.06 PM (2)

The brow of the hill morphs into this glass-walled structure — it’s like a softened and humanized version of the concrete bunkers leftover from World War II that are scattered about the bluffs above the Golden Gate Bridge.

CMG Presidio Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 3.37.10 PM (2)The Observation Post becomes an amphitheater for events and for enjoying views out toward the water and in toward the Main Post itself — effectively turning the Presidio into its own theatrical event.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.07.25 PM (2)

The scheme retains much of the original Crissy Field character will adding overlooks, way stations, and bridges that provide multiple ways to experience — and learn from — the landscape.

Power Point

The team led by James Corner Field Operations, of New York City, one of the designers of the famous High Line there, emphasized the curvilinear nature of the site — as if the grid just above it had started to melt and then spill over into the contours of the land below.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.24.39 PM (2)

Fanning out and over the brow of the hill, in the large concave curve shown above, is the long observation walk, part of what the scheme refers to as “The Point.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.39.42 PM (2)This sweeping promenade has long runs of stair-stepped seating and a sunken railing — so it doesn’t interrupt sight lines.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 5.07.06 PM (2)In some areas the walk projects over the hill to vary the processional experience and dramatize important vistas.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.38.36 PM (2)This sinuous promenade reminds me — in a much abstracted form — of the wonderful serpentine bench railing at the Parc Guell by Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, which James Corner alluded to in this talk.Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 4.54.34 PM (2)And as at the Parc Guell, there is a building under the walkway. In Corner’s case, however, the views are the ornamentation. The curvilinear Corner proposal strikes me as a kind of alluvial echo of — or call-and-response to — the long straight line of the existing, and very successful Crissy Field Promenade on the beach below. (Photo courtesy Parc Guell).

Now, with so many ideas in each scheme to ponder, as well as the new ideas and refinements that these ideas are designed to stimulate, the task of deciding where to go from here will be difficult but hugely enriching. Bravo Presidio!

All the images in this post except for the photograph of Parc Guell are courtesy New Presidio Parklands Project. The Parklands website offers many ways to learn more and add your own suggestions.

 

Tandem Houses Full of Ideas

Parallelisms

I just toured two brand new roughly 1,500 sq. ft. houses that demonstrate strong lessons in making small spaces live large and offer a compelling paradigm for  multigenerational living. Sold within a few hours of going on the market  — part of the “Facebook frenzy” that has turned San Francisco real estate into breakfast-lunch-and-dinner-at-Tiffany’s — the houses were designed by architect Jim Zack, whose design-build firm Zack DeVito specializes in infill developments. Jim explains: “This little courtyard compound consists Continue reading

The Make It Right Houses in New Orleans


Looking Up in the Lower Ninth Ward

While in New Orleans last week on a design jury, I checked the progress of rebuilding in the Katrina-devastated Lower Ninth Ward. It’s several miles east of the French Quarter and Downtown, and just across the canal that connects Lake Pontchartrain with the Mississippi. You can immediately see some of the area’s

Map Lower 9nth Ward

disadvantages: it’s low land level and general sense of being isolated: only connected to central New Orleans by two small bridges; and there’s a high

Flood wallconcrete flood wall between the neighborhood and the banks of the canal (map courtesy NOLA Beez). From the west you still see swaths of empty lots, but now near Route 39, along Deslonde and Tennessee Streets, a remarkable new neighborhood is emerging thanks to herculean community efforts spurred by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, which has brought in big name architects like Frank Gehry and Japan’s Shigeru Ban and big names like President Bill Clinton and his Global Initiative — not to mention Brad himself. It is very exciting

Three Make It Right homes

to see  how much progress has been made. The Make It Right Foundation even offers a self guided tour. The houses are raised off the ground — some high

Concordia Architects

enough for a carport, as shown in the example above by Concordia Architects. There are a few designs that look more sculptural than functional (though community input was the starting point for everything) but I was impressed with how successful most of the houses seemed to be: with livable covered porches for

Billes Partners

natural ventilation in New Orlean’s humid climate, front stoops for hanging out, roof slopes designed for solar panels, among many other features — the house above is by Billes Partners. I was also impressed with the pattern book approach some houses exhibited — in other words I saw the same plan built in different ways: rotated or flipped depending on desired porch orientation, for example. This approach recalls how many American towns developed — with stock plans being adapted to different lots and site conditions. Some locals don’t yet appreciate what is happening here (I am thinking of the two taxi drivers I spoke too — not very scientific I realize!) and prefer the new row houses in the 

IMG_5215

Musicians Village in the Upper Ninth, a laudable project of the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, which I also toured. These houses (shown above) update the old New Orleans shotgun house and they do look neighborly — the smaller lots put the houses closer together for a more immediate sense of community, though I thought some of the porches looked minimal. I can see how the more 

website street view

architecturally ambitious Make It Right houses — as shown here again in a long street view — are not for everyone. They are more experimental, for example, turning the top floor into one large outdoor living room, and to my eye that makes them especially compelling. Bravo to the Brads and Bills who are helping revive a community that builds on the past while looking to the future (all Lower Ninth Ward photos courtesy Make It Right.org).

For more on contemporary infill home plans visit Time To Build blog.

Reaching for Reclaimed Wood

Going with the Grain

Spring is about reinvention, which makes me think about reclaimed wood. I am reminded  of the timbers reclaimed from urban forests that the remarkable Zen priest Paul Discoe mills and then shapes into furniture like his Tenon Bench,

Paul Discoe, tenon bench, redwood IMG_4597where the joint becomes a simple but sculptural gesture of connection and  Continue reading