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Modern Love

Theresa Gonzalez | May 11, 2017 | Story News and Features National

Balancing the lightness of a glass-filled cantilever with the structural heaviness of a concrete anchor are hallmarks of a Swatt | Miers house, many of which are sprinkled throughout Silicon Valley. “I like something that looks like it wants to fly,” says Robert Swatt, residential lead at the Emeryville-based architecture firm.

In 2009, Swatt and George Miers were both veteran architects with a strong affinity for California modernism—think part Arts and Crafts, part Bauhaus and part Japanese—who had each racked up enough awards that there was little economic reason to merge their somewhat different practices. Swatt had long been designing acclaimed modern homes (“It’s in my DNA”), after a period of designing commercial work, including the Levi Strauss & Co. headquarters in San Francisco. He admits that residential design isn’t every architect’s cup of tea. “It’s a very emotional thing to build a home,” he says. “You’re dealing with husbands and wives who don’t agree. You get to know too much about their closets. It’s hard work and it’s time consuming, but the art that grows out of it can be so great.”

Miers, a self-proclaimed problem- and puzzle-solver, excels at large-scale public and institutional projects. He’s become renowned for his design of animal shelters, like the LEED Gold-certified Humane Society Silicon Valley, a passion project that started 28 years ago when he reached a pinnacle moment in his career that involved collaborating with Jane Goodall on the chimpanzee exhibit at the Oakland Zoo. (He was appalled, he says, by the conditions of what was at the time the Knowland Zoo during a visit with his daughter, and offered to redesign the zoo pro bono).

So, after 20-plus years working independently with a good amount of success, why did Swatt and Miers decide to partner up? “We did it for one, and only one, reason—and that was to have fun,” says Swatt. Miers adds that his children were off to college, and he was looking to interact more deeply with his peers on a daily basis. “We pretty much see the world the same way,” says Miers of his friend and business partner.

Despite their public-versus-private preferences, the architects have a lot in common. They both studied at UC Berkeley and grew up in California during the midcentury-modernist era. Swatt was surrounded and ultimately influenced by modernist works in Los Angeles, where his junior high school was designed by famed architect Richard Neutra. Light-filled classrooms blending into open courtyards left a lasting impression that would become the foundation for the indoor-outdoor approach that he and Miers, who hails from San Francisco, share. A newly released book, Swatt | Miers: 30 Projects, chronicles the last decade of their individual and joint work in Silicon Valley and beyond (recently as far as India and Spain).

The monograph, which focuses primarily on residential projects in Northern California, first takes you inside one of Swatt’s favorite works: a trio of teahouses—a workspace, a guest house and a meditation room—that Swatt | Miers designed in Saratoga for a Silicon Valley executive. The suspended steel-framed glass boxes are lifted by vertical cast-in-place concrete cores in a way that feels like they’re floating off the landscape. In fact, the architects say they took extreme care to minimize impact to the landscape and tread lightly on the land.

“Most of the towns in Silicon Valley focus their attention on nature,” says Swatt. “Everybody loves California oak trees. Everybody loves manzanitas. Most of our clients want a home that is warm, so while we might have cutting-edge lines and strong architectural forms, we do bring a sense of nature into the building.” Case in point: A giant heritage oak tree on the main terrace of the OZ House in Atherton creates a dramatic focal point through the great room. Mahogany walls warm up the space, while floor-to-ceiling glass, as well as a floating glass bridge that runs east to west on the second floor, invites beautiful natural light inside. The clients asked for a home that felt like a vacation resort in the South Pacific and that’s just what the Swatt | Miers team delivered.

That’s not to say
all of Silicon Valley wants a veritable treehouse. European modernism à la Bauhaus sneaks its way in, and Swatt | Miers has been happy to oblige. “Some clients say they want something as clean as an Apple computer,” says Swatt, which translates in part to white not wood. The ARA House, also in Atherton, plays with light and shadow to create what looks like art forms against its primary material: white integral colored stucco. A three-story, cast-in-place concrete stair core beside the entry interrupts the subtle white to keep things interesting and true to the firm’s dynamic design.

“The basic tenets of modern architecture, especially on the West Coast, are building with the land, open planning and connecting the inside and outside,” says Swatt. While some might shy away from building along California’s rugged hills, Swatt | Miers embraces the challenge. Swatt’s earliest projects were built into the Berkeley and Oakland Hills. “I built these buildings on very steep hillsides that were thought to be unbuildable. They were challenging sites and really, really fun.” (He jokes that he’s not sure what to do with flat land anymore.) With client needs top of mind, Swatt | Miers approaches a project with a sensitivity to views—exciting ones versus meditative ones—sun and wind protection, and privacy to design something that Swatt says is “knitted into the landscape.”

California’s temperate climate and casual lifestyle make open planning and indoor-outdoor living a natural part of its namesake modern design. The Westwind House in Silicon Valley sits perched on a hill to maximize views of the San Francisco Bay and the valley below. The east side of the house was designed with almost all sliding glass doors that open to stone terraces, an outdoor kitchen, a pool, a spa and play areas. Casa Santiago, a work in progress in Atherton, celebrates the outdoors with a Zen garden connecting the home’s two wings, an exercise terrace outside the indoor gym and a sculpture garden that can be viewed from the dining room. “With some of these homes, it’s hard to tell when you’re going from inside to outside,” notes Swatt.

For Silicon Valley especially, this environmentally responsive living goes one step further: thinking beyond the current definition of green living and what the future of it might hold for homeowners. “Our clients not only ask us to consider a world with driverless cars, and less need for parking spaces, but they punctuate their point by referencing recent discussions with their investors who are developing that very technology and are excited to see a project that responds to that new world order,” says Miers.

Beyond the modern meets nature meets technology design, a Swatt | Miers home is characterized by a timeless spirit. By listening to what the land needs, the architects create a sense of inevitability that Swatt says makes one think, “Of course, that’s exactly what should have been there, and I can’t imagine anything else,” he says. “If you achieve that quality, I think you achieved something really wonderful.”

Originally published in the May/June issue of Silicon Valley

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