The Oz house is the latest in a series of crisp, clean-lined modern residences that Robert Swatt has designed in around the Bay Area since he established his office in Emeryville in 1975. Two years ago he merged with George Miers, a like-minded contemporary, and their 20-member firm has remained busy through the recession. San Francisco is still a bastion of tradition, but the affluent region that surrounds it is more progressive.
“A lot of our clients have taken risks in business and they are not afraid of trying new things,” said Swatt. “Building Grandma’s house is not the way they want to go.”
A young couple with three children found a 2.8-acre site in Silicon Valley and commissioned the architects to replace an unsightly old house with an expansive dwelling where they could walk around barefoot and commune with nature. He moved to the U.S. from South Africa; she grew up in a New York brownstone, and they shared a Mediterranean-style house in Palo Alto before deciding to break loose. Swatt, meanwhile, was inspired by memories of an old hotel in Maui with a lofty, open-sided lobby, and the central feature of the Oz house is a double-height great room that is fully glazed at the entry level and clad in Honduran mahogany boards at the upper level. You enter under a low wood canopy and then, as in Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, emerge into a soaring sky-lit space and take a few steps down into the living area. Glass sliders open to the south terrace, the pool, and a sweeping view. A wood soffit is suspended over the dining area to give it a feeling of intimacy; the space above is a children’s playroom.
The great room links a pair of two-story white stucco wings, one of which is set at an angle to define an L-shaped plan. Radiant-heated epoxy terrazzo floors flow out into the kitchen-family area at one end and into a media room and guest room at the other. Stairs lead up to the master suite and the children’s bedrooms, which are linked by a steel-framed glass bridge that overlooks the living area.
The clarity of the geometry and the abundance of natural light make the house an ideal foil to the landscape and to the giant oak that shades it. Cross ventilation provides sufficient cooling on all but the hottest days, while white roofs, photovoltaic panels, well-insulated walls, and double glazing minimize energy consumption.
Swatt is a protégé of Ray Kappe—they are both Berkeley alumni and were shaped by the woodsy tradition of Bay Area modernism before moving off in a different direction. The consistency in Swatt’s residential designs is founded on a few timeless principles, which he defines as: knitting the building to the land; open planning (both vertically and horizontally); and connecting inside and outside (both visually and physically). The Oz house has far exceeded its owners’ expectations and may encourage admiring friends to be more adventurous. What a contrast with many upscale communities of Southern California, where houses are valued for their excessive size and are forced into a straitjacket of stylistic conformity.