Project Of The Year
The jury rhapsodized about this trio of outbuildings in California’s Silicon Valley, naming it residential architect’s 2010 Project of the Year. “There’s just a clarity and simplicity,” said one judge. “It doesn’t falter.” Architect Robert Swatt, FAIA, and his client envisioned the structures as Western, modern versions of Japanese teahouses, and the panel appreciated this approach. “It’s a contemporary expression of a historic typology,” observed another juror.
All three outbuildings sit uphill from the main residence, a Swatt-designed renovation of a 1960s modern house. Each teahouse serves its own specific purpose. One holds a meditation space and sits off by itself, while the other two—one for sleeping and the other for work-related creative thinking—are connected by a full bath. The buildings display top-notch detailing, from the pristine intersection of materials to the way the glass-and-steel boxes cantilever out from the concrete shafts anchoring them in place.
Those concrete core elements shoulder all of the buildings’ vertical and seismic loads. In doing so, they allow the rest of the project to appear nearly weightless; the glass-and-steel components never touch the ground. Such a clear juxtaposition was essential, according to Swatt, who likens the floating portions to tents and the masonry portions to caves. “It’s that contrast of tent and cave, of light and heavy, that’s important for me,” he says.
The Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, which finds beauty in imperfection, also informs the teahouses. Rough, natural-looking items such as the board-formed concrete cores and unfinished cedar floorboards provide a counterbalance to the smooth, flawless glass and steel.
The effect is entirely intentional. Swatt had the wooden board forms wire-brushed, so that the wood’s grain would translate over to the poured concrete. And builder Andre Neto and his team salvaged the floorboards from a deck on the original house.
Swatt relished the opportunity to design the teahouses. “They’re just garden structures, so we could be very pure about it,” he says. “It’s just space and light. They’re extremely simple, and are meant to be.” He gives credit to Neto, whom he describes as “Phenomenal,” and to interior designer Connie Wong, another integral project team member. The owner’s vision played a crucial role, as well. “This is the opposite of multipurpose,” Swatt says. “They’re special buildings for special purposes. That was [the client’s] poetic idea.”
The jury members remarked on the thought and care that obviously went into the project, which they called “Exquisite” and “Transcendent.” “It’s lovingly, lovingly developed and detailed,” said one judge. “It’s close to being perfect.”