Framing the View


It’s not uncommon for new buildings to be inspired by what already exists on a site. But when asked about what stood on these four acres before he created a remarkable compound, architect Peter Pfau laughingly answers, “An old mattress.” The origin of the discarded bedding is unknown, but looking at the tawny hills, long rows of green grapevines and mature trees, you can understand why someone would be tempted to stretch out and take in this Napa Valley view. It was the landscape, the shapes of straightforward farm buildings and the simple lines of traditional saltbox houses that were truly the genesis of the design.

“We tried to bring an East Coast sensibility of traditional architecture together with rural forms and a California approach to living outdoors,” says Pfau, principal at Pfau Long Architecture. “The result is a group of timeless buildings with a relationship to their site.” Because the new structures were not bound by anything that came before, they could be placed at an ideal vantage point to the land. Senior project manager Melanie Turner says perfect placement required a lot of consideration, including demonstrating for the future residents what they would view from different levels. “We built a platform to show the owners exactly what they would see from the main floor,” she says. “A pretty tall ladder gave them a view to what they’d see from the second floor.”

Pfau adds that technology was used to fill in the blanks. “We used computer visualization tools to test different window and door placements and the views they would provide,” he says. Landscape architect Ron Lutsko of Lutsko Associates Landscape created colorful plantings and outdoor rooms and spaces that meld seamlessly with the buildings, thanks to large glass doors that slide to eliminate the barriers between indoors and out. 

“The buildings are odes to historic forms—even though they are more minimal and sharp,” says Turner. “To connect them with the site, it was a matter of ‘carving away’ at the structures with large windows and doors.” Pfau adds, “When the glass doors are opened, the interior rooms become more like open-air pavilions.” With that idea in mind, the architects selected the same materials for both inside and out to further blur boundaries. “We didn’t use much gypsum board, which is really a nonmaterial,” says Pfau. “Instead, we used board-formed concrete, rough-sawn boards and industrial metal touches.”

The idea of indoor-outdoor living is one that’s become uniquely associated with California, but the architects say they, like the early Golden State modernists before them, borrowed a Japanese design philosophy. “There’s a concept in traditional Japanese house forms called ‘borrowed scenery,’” says Turner. “It’s a very poetic notion of using the architectural and landscape features to capture a far-off view, and that’s what we tried to do here.”


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