Mash-Up in the Hills

A San Francisco architect teams up with his artist-clients to create an ongoing work in process.

When Metropolis called the architect Craig Steely to talk about Xiao-Yen’s House, a home he designed for a San Francisco couple (one of whom is named Xiao-Yen), it took the Bay Area architect 20 minutes to start talking about the house. There were so many other fascinating topics up for discussion, from a book called Arthropod to Superstudio’s Continuous Monument of 1969 to the fearlessness of speaking at universities without the smoke-screen of apparatus-laden scholarship. Steely talked about Hawaii and California—the architect works a lot in both states and finds that he can do better work for the place he isn’t in—and the differences between building on hardened lava and a fog-saturated California city. He also talked about the disservice of jargon to the academy, and of the dinosaurs of poststructuralism as they continue to roam through the halls of higher education. He even talked about the architect Paffard Keatinge-Clay—this guy who did a building on Russian Hill full of Darth Vader triangles and concrete sticking out everywhere, a competition he won by doing an eighth-scale drawing. Steely loves him because “he was just so personal and so crazy and just so for real.”

What does all this have to do with a four-story duplex that Steely remodeled for an artist and a filmmaker in the Corona Heights neighborhood of San Francisco, the same neighborhood that he himself lives in? As it turns out, everything. Steely is one of those architects obsessed with form-making, with the social particularities of life that can be changed, moved, or swayed through the introduction of a particular plane or volume, material or exoskeletal stairway.

Something needed to be introduced to the house Andy Martin and Xiao-Yen Wang had bought—that much was clear. Built in the 1880s and jammed into the side of a hill in the center of San Francisco with a prospect that reached over this terminally foggy city, the simple three-story duplex had accrued layers of asymmetrical history and curious materials, particularly wood. Many, many different sizes of redwood. “It had been remodeled by weekend warriors for a century,” Steely says, explaining why the house had taken on a life of its own, a pastiche of a hundred years of seemingly good ideas undercut by too-small budgets and bad ideas executed by too-large budgets. “It had avoided every historical survey that had gone through there,” Steely says. “It was just a mess.” He looked at the dry rot and the ahistorical aesthetic and the general disarray, and thought they should just tear it down and build a new house. The thing is, Martin is an artist and Wang’s a filmmaker, and they had a different feeling about just tearing down an old house, given that they can see the art and magic in everything around them.

Steely liked the couple—“There was a tremendous amount of awesome owner involvement,” he says—and so he decided to listen to them when they said it would be a shame to just erase the history. Still, nothing is worse than nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia, so the architect and clients thought long and care-fully about what would be worth saving. Finally, it was Martin’s artwork—he’s the quieter one (there’s a reason it’s called “Xiao-Yen’s House”)—that gave the three of them, and therefore the house, the final shove to its final shape. They decided to remove everything they believed had been added since the house was built, restore the structure to some semblance of its original form, and then undertake a complete gut renovation and improve the exterior framing. And so, during the inevitable time lag between deciding to dismantle much of the house and receiving new construction permits from the city, Martin began removing those layers of redwood and saving them. “When we began working on the house, we started tearing apart the old framing, beautiful ancient stuff,” Steely says. “And Andy just single-handedly, piece by piece, took apart the entire interior and organized it.” It turned out that Martin was essentially collecting a dissected building; he amassed something like 3,000 or 4,000 feet of redwood board out of the existing house. So the three of them decided to use it. The question was how.

“We looked at using it on the interior, on the floor, but none of those options were something that I liked and they liked as well,” Steely remembers. But they kept working with it. And they kept working with the rest of the house, thinking about how to turn this three-story duplex into the four-story duplex they wanted, and then they came up with the solution. Steely ripped the wood beams into five different sizes, flashed and waterproofed the house, and stuck the wood onto the outside in a completely random pattern. They had thought about using the wood as a rain screen, but Steely didn’t like the way it looked. “It wasn’t as taut and tight as a real skin,” he says.

The real skin, now, is part wet suit, part redwood. To do anything truly random is impossible, of course, but the architect and Martin and the contractor worked together to get it as close to random as they could. Every day they’d head up to the house and lay out two feet of siding, and the contractor would attach it. And the next day, the same—a process of ultratactile construction far removed from most architecture produced in this age of mechanical reproduction. Not that it looks like a fifth-grader pasted it together—“From the distance it has a real kind of solid sort of feel,” Steely says. “It could just be siding, but as you get closer you see the randomness of it and how hand-done it is. It seems handmade, and you can detect the time spent on the labor, but it’s also got a great machine quality.”

That’s just the outside, though, and a good architect does more than make a compelling surface. Because the building had two units, and because Wang and Martin were planning on selling the second unit (although now they’re starting to rethink how easily they can let it go), Steely and the couple ended up carving out occupiable space throughout the existing framed structure, keeping it a duplex but altering its original configuration. A production studio for Wang takes up the lower unit on the first floor, while Martin has a workshop on the ground floor. A second apartment on the second floor is their living space, and a penthouse—with a sod roof—has both a solar panel (which operates as an awning) and space for hanging out and looking at the view (they’re above the fog here, which means they can see down and over the city and the Bay). There’s also the exoskeleton, Steely reminds a curious listener, a galvanized-steel staircase and deck that winds its way up the side of the building, making the structure look like it’s still in process. “How many times have you looked at buildings, and they look so good under construction?” Steely asks. “And then when they’re done they just look like ass.” Introducing the exoskeletal structure was a way, he says, “to save that sort of anticipation of what a building will look like.”

That issue of aesthetics and framing is something that drove Wang and Martin to work with Steely. Talking about the penthouse, she describes how it was before—“You had to crawl through this little well to go up to get a view”—a problem the stair fixed. But Steely realized that when he walked up he’d see a television tower in the distance, a view that was about to be covered by more of this redwood wall. “So he added a long, skinny window just for the TV tower,” Wang says. “And now every time we walk up we see this beautiful tower, and it’s really wonderful.”

It sounds like a too-good-to-be-true story, this tale of a couple who received a little bit of an inheritance, bought a falling-apart house, looked for an architect to help fix it up, found one because their real-estate agent happened to know of an architect’s house just a few blocks away, and then happened to engage in a full-on creative mash-up. But that’s what happens when an architect is willing to relinquish some control in the service of truly trying to give his clients a formal—concrete, one could even say—translation of their social and personal desires. Many architects pay lip service to the idea of collaboration, but Steely not only talked the talk; he was willing to share the hammer. It’s an attitude that Martin and Wang noticed and appreciated. “To my eye, this is a golden age for architecture,” Martin says. “And Craig—he thinks in a very different way from most people.” Part of that thinking is this focus on the connection that got them all there. “With architecture, the process usually gets forgotten, and there are photos at the end, and that’s all that gets projected,” Steely says. “But I love how this project was the process. And they’re living in it as a process.”

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