At Home With Ace Architects and the Grand Tour
All houses tell stories but at Rancho Diablo, the Contra Costa County, California home of Ace Architects founders and authors Lucia Howard and David Weingarten (their new book is Shingle Style: Living in San Francisco’s Brown Shingles, published by Rizzoli, with an introduction by yours truly), the narrative is a lively page-turner about architecture itself. First there’s the
original structure, an unusual two story brick and timber ranch house by Bay Area architect and scientist Lillian Bridgman dating from the 1920s (photo by DG). Then there’s the collection of more than 3,000 vintage souvenir buildings amassed by David and Lucia and their partner Margaret Majua — including miniature cathedrals, Eiffel Towers, Egyptian obelisks, war monuments, and
Roman columns. Not to mention the collection of 18th and 19th century architectural prints and romantic landscape paintings, which vividly complement the Lilliputian landmarks. Most of the objects illustrate the idea of the European grand tour: that is, they were created as mementos. But now with so many in one place — I’d call them “monumementos” — it’s possible to see the world without leaving home. Ironically, the objects themselves have traveled: the collection has been shown in museums across the country and will appear next at the San Francisco International Airport early in 2014.
And finally there’s the addition designed to store and display so many diverse objects while making the house more livable. For example, here’s the new double-height living room and painting gallery. Note the stair-wrapped
fireplace and ovoid balcony cut-out, inspired by the work of early Bay Region architect Bernard Maybeck, who designed San Francisco’s iconic Palace of Fine Arts for the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. Cowboy, the Welsh Corgi, seems very much at home on his divan, if not a little underwhelmed by all the visual references. But wow! To other breeds it can be a sensory overload and a lot to take in. Even the garden is metaphoric — a beautiful desert-inspired landscape
that’s studded with barrel cactus and century plants and oriented toward views of Mt. Diablo — hence the compound’s name. I have known David and Lucia for many years, but every time I visit I am astonished anew and admire once again their wonderfully innovative eclecticism. An architect’s house is often a design
laboratory, but this is one where the bubbling beakers — and even the pool addition — are fairly brimming with creativity (garden & pool photos by Joe Flecther). So let’s take a closer look. The gallery wing contains an alcove devoted to the display of etchings by the great eighteenth century artist and
print maker Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Because the space was limited and the prints large, Lucia and David designed tall shallow cabinets with door panels that open on long sturdy piano hinges. Prints are hung inside the compartments and on the interior and exterior of the doors — effectively tripling display space, as you can see in this photo showing the yellow cabinet door that’s partway
open. Here’s another view of the same alcove. Each of the two cabinet door fronts holds a single tall print of a commemorative Roman column. Model versions of the same or similar landmarks are in the foreground. This ingenious storage and display solution is an adaptation of a similar system at one of David and Lucia”s favorite buildings (and mine, too): Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. It’s the remarkable house and artifact collection of the great early 18th century architect who designed the Bank of England, among other landmarks. (Naturally a souvenir model of that very bank is in the Howard, Majua, and Weingarten collection.) As you can see here, Soane’s panels swing open
open for views into adjoining rooms. It’s worth noting that Sir John amassed 30,000 drawings alone, not counting his thousands of paintings, models, and architectural fragments. So — something to aim for! (Photo by Derry Moore, courtesy the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum.)
And where do the inhabitants of Rancho Diablo actually live? We have seen the gallery living room. Here’s the new kitchen, with its handsome hooded cooking
island and doorway to the patio. It’s modern, with a nod to architectural history in the elegant tile wall resembling rusticated masonry. The latter theme
continues in the new bathroom — more 18th century allusion but, thankfully, with 21st century plumbing and fixtures. The bedroom includes a sitting area with space for just a few building models and, naturally, a painting of the Colosseum, which acts as a stage set landscape for the souvenirs on the floor.
Here, reality and representation are beginning to merge in a Through The Looking Glass sort of way. The room’s barrel-vaulted ceiling, which is barely visible in the photo, adds yet another visual link to the painting, in the Colosseum arcades. For some architects the dialogue between object and
setting, or structure and site, just never stops! The arid garden slopes down to the infinity-edge pool — like a mirage in the distance (photo by Joe Fletcher). At the far edge of the garden is a clearing surrounded by fluted concrete
planters like this one. It’s where fantasy, history, and practicality combine, recalling the columns at the Palace of Fine Arts, mentioned earlier. The architects poured tinted cement into molds made of sonatubes. So here we have come full circle: some architects’ homes are a never-ending story of invention. (All photos by Ace Architects unless otherwise noted.)
To read more about the souvenir building collection see Monumental Miniatures, Souvenir Buildings from the Collection of Ace Architects, by David Weingarten and edited by Margaret Majua.
This article was originally written for Houzz.com.
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