Catching up with the Client: Presidio VC Offices

When a venture capital firm approached Feldman Architecture in the hopes of renovating an office space in San Francisco’s Presidio Park, the architects faced a challenge:  How could they design offices fit for a firm based in innovation, one that both shapes and reacts to the most striking ideas for the future?  How would they create a space where the only constant is the constant advancement of the elusive cutting edge?

On a recent afternoon, the venture capital firm’s Director of Operations walked me through the architect’s solution:  a light-filled office whose materials pay tribute to the surrounding Presidio Park, fostering both calm and creativity within.  It was clear that, just as the design team had refused to view the space’s pre-existing concrete structural columns as obstacles and had instead embraced them as inspiration for the space’s organization, they had welcomed the challenge of the project as a chance for creativity.  “What comes through about the design,” she told me, “was that elements that may have been challenges were viewed as opportunities.”

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One of the office’s strengths is a profound connection to the building’s location, where ferns cluster around the trunks of Coast Redwoods and wildflowers abound in the spring and summer.   As the firm traded the dark, cramped spaces of their old offices for a space with more natural light, they were determined to create and maintain a strong visual connection with their natural surroundings.  In the Presidio VC Offices, visitors are greeted in a high-ceilinged lobby, where sunlight washes in from the surrounding Presidio Park, coating the ivy of the room’s living wall with the sheen of natural light.  In each direction, compression corridors branch off from the reception area.  Private offices line the hallways, and the large windows on their exterior walls paired with the glass doors on their inner walls allow light to flow into the offices and through them, spilling into the compression corridor at their core.  The complimentary textures of wood-paneled walls and ivy in the reception area and the trunk-like columns that progress down the office halls replicate the forest outside and its dappled glades of towering trees.  The office fosters a calm productivity, void of the frantic energy that so often settles over industrious offices.  “I love watching the look on people’s faces as they walk through the door,” the Director of Operations said.  “Our lobby is striking and vastly different from most downtown office spaces.”

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While the office’s effects are immediate, she believes it takes familiarity to fully appreciate the more subtle strengths of the design: the way it captures different views from the conference rooms and private offices, or how it frames the fog hovering over and retreating from the Golden Gate Bridge in the kitchen window.  Staff members have noticed and embraced the clear visual language of the design, the dark accents repeated throughout the space, and the coherence of its palette.  And, slowly, they have added their own subtle embellishments to its warm, clean canvas.  A few pieces of art and silly décor elements personalize the space, but largely, the Director of Operations says, they allow the design and architecture to speak for themselves.

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She appreciates that the office, created for hard-working, ambitious individuals, is anything but imposing.  Its simplicity invites ideas and visitors, alike, and renders the space adaptable.   For a past event in the office’s cavernous library, the firm rearranged the modular furniture to accommodate easels and cocktail tables, and, recently, they transformed the space into an intimate setting for a ‘fireside chat’ discussion.  It’s an agile space, both adaptable for weekly events and prepared for the possibility of bigger changes down the line, tapping into the timelessness of the trees outside its windows.

– Abigail

This fall my wife and I traveled to Barcelona with a contradicting agenda:  Relaxation and exploration.

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We’re no strangers to Western Europe, but neither us had made it to Spain in our previous travels.  We decided to stay in the city for a full week, wanting to sink in and get to know Barcelona.  The only items on our agenda were to relax and gain a renewed perspective.

We stayed at a small apartment on the edge of the Eixample and Gracia districts with ceramic tile floors and a vaulted brick ceiling.  Heavy wood French doors opened onto a small balcony that had enough room for a cafe table and chairs.  The street below buzzed with cars, scooters and pedestrians.

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The Eixample was once a middle class neighborhood on the outskirts of the dense Gothic quarter.  In recent years, it has become home to high-end retail and trendy dining.  The neighborhood scale is defined by large blocks and tree-lined boulevards that terminate in octagonal intersections intended to provide increased openness and ventilation.

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In sharp contrast, the Gracia to the north is an energetic, unpredictable neighborhood. Many streets are scaled to fit only pedestrians or scooters.  Dense blocks of cafés and markets open up into unexpected plazas with children playing and adults socializing.  The Gracia feels like a tight-knit community   ̶  a city within a city.

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The northern tip of the Gracia is capped by Antoni Guadi’s Park Guell.  The park reflects Gaudi’s naturalist style and free-form organic tile mosaics.  At first glance, the park resembles a greatest hits album.  All of Gaudi’s architectural styles fit neatly into one park.  A closer look reveals an artist in his prime experimenting with organic shapes and skewed structural forms.

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Later, we found Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion tucked among stately civic buildings.  Van der Rohe’s flawless modern details provided a few quiet moments and a lot of inspiration.  The pavilion is constructed primarily with steel, stone and marble slabs  ̶  heavy materials that paradoxically achieve lightness, texture and a unique warmth.

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We explored the city’s culinary scene alongside its architecture and found that both traditions are deeply rooted in history.  Tapas and pastries rule the streetscape.  Every block of the city seems to boast a beautiful pastry shop and multiple cafes spilling onto the sidewalk, where residents enjoy their ritual late-afternoon beers and salty snack

Just as Gaudi experimented in his work, many local chefs in Barcelona are taking risks by studying food on a molecular level and reassembling tastes and textures into something modern yet familiar. Bodega 1900, located in the Poble Sec neighborhood, presents itself as a classic Vermuteria – a casual gathering place for tapas and Vermouth.  Chef Albert Adria, a stalwart in molecular gastronomy, uses modern cooking techniques to recreate classic tapas in unexpected ways.  Though many of Adria’s dishes are conceived through the lens of modern technique, they remain soulful and deeply rooted in Barcelona’s culinary history.

Experimentation seems vital to the Catalan capital; Barcelona remains vibrant by respecting its collective history and embracing artists that forge a new path forward.

On our final morning in Barcelona, we embraced the spirit of experimentation by emptying our pockets of all our spare Euros and purchasing enough pastries to cover our small kitchen table.

 

 

Catching Up with the Client: The Lantern House

On the eve of the completion of the Lantern House, Feldman Architecture and Northwall Builders welcomed friends and colleagues into the Palo Alto home to celebrate the culmination of their joint efforts.  The late-October evening was warm enough for guests to mingle on the patio and stroll out onto the lawn.  Inside, they explored the expansive basement quarters and marveled over the master bedroom’s wide windows opening over the backyard.  Among the partygoers was the home’s owner, an entrepreneur and graduate of Stanford Business School who lives and works in Southeast Asia.  He had flown in for the week to see his nearly-finished home, a trip he had made only sporadically throughout the house’s design and construction.

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Indeed, the distance between the client’s home and the Lantern House in Palo Alto had created a new kind of collaborative design process: one mediated by video conference calls and fourteen hours of time difference.   At first, these challenges seemed daunting to the Stanford alum, who had always appreciated the proximity to the projects he’d been a part of in the past.  “I actually like to crawl on the floor and look at the lines,” he explained.  “The inability to do that was very tough.”  In order to collaborate on a project without regular visits to the site, he had to “redo his psychological disposition.”

Soon, though, he learned that collaborating remotely still afforded him the ability to engage extensively in the design process.  And, he learned to trust his team from afar; “The good thing is that I had absolutely the right team,” he says.  His design team was “rockstar,” his architects were “topnotch,” and their ability to work together was their most important attribute.  Feldman Architect’s Steven Stept, in particular, he says, possessed the ability to merge multiple teams into one: “Steven thinks two steps ahead.  He also thinks like a builder.”

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Not only did the client learn that collaborating across a great distance was both possible and rewarding, but he developed new aesthetic preferences, as well.  At the start of the design process, the home’s grey color scheme was never at the top of his priorities.  Now, he’s copied the Lantern House’s palette of “greys and whites mixed in with a little bit of glass” for his office in Southeast Asia.  Similarly, he was unfamiliar with roof gardens before working with Feldman, and is now very much taken with the concept and intent on installing lights in his own.  The most impressive feature of the new house, though?  The kitchen, says the client.  “I come from a place where the kitchen is tucked away and covered.  In America, the architecture is built around the kitchen,” he observed, referencing the home’s great room that includes both cooking and living areas and opens onto a covered patio through sliding glass doors.  As the largest room in the house that is filled with natural light during the day, it is certainly the hub of the home.

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During the process of designing and constructing the Lantern House, the client learned that his work would require him to delay his move back to the Bay Area; he would have to rent the house for 2-3 years before moving in himself.  This knowledge – that he was building a house for strangers in addition to himself and that his move to Palo Alto would not come on the heels of the project’s completion –- added a new challenge to the design process.  “It’s been difficult to be detached emotionally from the project, knowing it’s going to people who will not love it as much as I would,” he explained.  On the evening of the celebration, he was left with mixed feelings – thrilled to see the physical structure built from his ideas, disappointed that, at the end of that October evening, he would leave right alongside the rest of the party’s guests.

– Abigail

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Catching up with the Client: Nicole on Fitty Wun

“I’m just going to sit here and enjoy the noises,” reads a quote scrawled in red marker and attributed to the family’s oldest son, one of the many funny phrases salvaged from the three boys’ childhood and preserved on the wall in Fitty Wun’s kitchen as a Christmas present to their mother.   All of the quotes are goofy, both nonsensical and honest in the way that only small children can be, but this sentence in particular stands out as appropriate for the space.  From the kitchen, I look up into a three-story atrium that stretches from the ground level entry-way, through the home’s open public spaces, to the bedrooms and quiet office above.  Ringed with a steel staircase, this cavernous vertical space is often full of the clamor of boys bouncing off the walls, running their house through cycles of chaos and control, with their mother, Nicole, presiding over the activity from its central hub in the kitchen.  “The house completely deconstructs when everyone is in it, but this is a house that my kids can’t break.  We built this house to use it,” she says.

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And use it, they do.  On weekday nights, the family’s oldest son camps out at the corner of the table in the dining room at the front of the house, a pile of homework in front of him; his younger brother spreads his toys across the floor of the family room; and the third perches on one of the red stools at the kitchen island, close to his mother.  “This is where the school bus drops off.  This is my corner of the world,” Nicole says of the kitchen, where she often finds herself “flitting around, cooking, and checking on homework.”  From it, she can see through the dining room out on to the quiet Cole Valley street in one direction and into the family room at the home’s rear façade in the other.  She can call up through the atrium to any room in the house or downstairs to the family den, where cartoons of baseball parks across the country line the wall.  From her “command station” in the kitchen, she is constantly visually and audibly connected to her family; Fitty Wun is first and foremost a family house.

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The family first purchased the house in 2006, drawn to it not for the structure itself, but for the garden space behind it.  At that point in time, the house was just one floor, and all three boys shared a single room.  There was no way the structure could accommodate the family’s three boys, two cats, one dog, and active lifestyle; they began to develop concepts for the home’s renovation.  Among them were three ‘must-haves’ that remained intact throughout the entirety of the design process, and Nicole enjoyed watching her family’s visions turn into their quotidian spaces: “The process was really fun.  There was a lot of laughing.  I miss that process – the word collaborative was exactly what it was.”

While the family knew that space in the city was a luxury, their first ‘must-have’ was an open, communal living area, which they preferred to packing in extra bedrooms or bathrooms.  Today, the kids only sleep in their bedrooms; the family prefers to live together, in shared spaces, at the center of their home.  In addition to being set on an open central space, the family was intent on putting the outdoor spaces of their home to good use.  Nicole’s favorite spot in the house is its crowning green roof, and the sliding glass doors between the living room and the backyard where the boys and their friends congregate to play basketball and run barefoot are almost always open.  “That whole concept of living indoors and outdoors?” she says, “We actually do it.”  The third and final ‘must-have’ was a quiet office that would function as a pocket of calm in an active household.  The architects responded with a floating pod that hangs above the atrium and its echoes bouncing off the walls, presiding over the activity from a quiet, removed perch.  It’s where the oldest son and his father retreat to watch The Walking Dead every week; the pod has become the residence’s “man cave” as the boys grow older.  Still, their mother insists that no one in the family ever does more than “pretend to be a grownup,” and if the house has weathered well under the weight of growing boys’ feet, the family’s sense of playfulness has remained equally intact.  “Our idea of art is superheroes and Legos,” Nicole confides.

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I visited the home on a recent Wednesday morning, when a rare sense of calm had settled over Fitty Wun.  The family dog napped in the sunshine, the plastic figurines that usually lie strewn across the living room rug had been tucked away, and the home’s Hallmark swing hung still and empty.  The sunlight streamed in through one side of the atrium as we climbed the stairs towards the green roof, and by the time we descended back down towards the entryway, having explored the loft spanning the boys’ bedrooms and looked out through the master bedroom’s full height windows onto the green backyard, it filtered in through a second side, bound to peek its way through each edge of the atrium’s rim before setting.  No matter how many times the sun circles and sets, though, the home doesn’t lose its everyday, Lego-laden charm, says Nicole: “We love this house every single day.”

– Abigail