September 27, 2018
This Surprising San Francisco Residence Features a Hidden Bolt From the Blue
The house, built for a couple by local firm OPA, features delightful dichotomies, includes dynamic, Turrell-like interiors.
Anyone who’s tried building a radical house in San Francisco—where strict rules and nervous neighbors can infamously stymie innovation—knows that it’s not easy to pull off. The crafty solution from local firm Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects (OPA) and their clients Lorna Stevens and Doug Smith, an open-minded couple moving from Marin: create a home with a (mostly) uniform timber facade and hide the fireworks inside. Hence the name, Hidden House.
The residence, located on Lombard Street in Telegraph Hill, is a fascinating study in subversion and split personality. Nothing is what you expect, giving the owners, and their visitors, unending variety, surprise, and serendipity.
The first clue that this place defies architectural norms is delivered by the facade itself, a series of dark cedar slats that bulge out and twist 180 degrees to open up modern iterations of San Francisco’s fabled bay windows. On the top right edge of the screen the architects installed a CNC-milled wedge whose members increasingly ripple open as they make their way up. The architects call this semi-transparent piece the “tear”—a break in the building’s orthodoxy and a subtle indicator of the unusualness inside.
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“We wanted some sort of suggestion of the internal life,” noted OPA co-founder Luke Ogrydziak. “But we didn’t want to hit you over the head.”
Behind the screen, the residence takes on daring dual natures: between a bright blue vertical circulation zone and a raw, understated series of living, working, and sleeping spaces. All are created with what OPA calls “relaxed geometries,” which angle to shape space and light, and infuse a sense of rebellious movement and uninhibited energy.
“It became about freedom and flow,” chimes in OPA co-founder Zoë Prillinger. “You obey your desire instead of disciplining yourself with the convention of right angles.”
The zones’ remarkable contrasts came about through a lengthy evolution. In the home’s first iteration, before the Great Recession put things on hold, OPA had proposed squared geometries and a division between black and white surfaces. But after the project resumed in 2012, the owners asked instead for a bolder homage to their adopted home, California. (Both owners originally hailed from the East Coast.)
“They told us that they would really like to do something symbolic of the feeling of living here—the color, the casualness, the feeling of lightness,” says Ogrydziak.
The blue circulation zone, accented by twisted and angled plate steel and plaster surfaces, refers directly to the bright blue California sky. But it’s not that simple. Client Lorna Stevens, a mixed-media artist and teacher, went back and forth with the architects for almost a year, pulling swatches from the natural world and the work of some of her favorite designers.
“I wanted a happy house. I wanted to bring the sky into the house,” notes Stevens, who admits to being panicked about the intensity of the hue shortly after painting was done. Ogrydziak and Prillinger convinced she and her husband to stay in the house for a few days and see if they came around. After some time staring at the colors, watching them change with the light throughout the day, they indeed did.
“Now I appreciate it,” says Stevens. “ Sometimes it goes a little purple. But it’s fascinating. You want something that changes and evolves.”
The western side of the house, containing the kitchen, offices/ studios, living room, dining room, and bedrooms, is intentionally rough around the edges. It’s filled with jutting, exposed plaster, recessed sharp lines of LED light, expanded metal, matte stone and concrete, sheetrock and plywood—all responding to the owners’ desire for casual unpretentiousness and to the architects’ love of testing limits.
“It doesn’t feel resolved in the way you feel architecture being resolved,” says Ogrydziak. “It’s posing issues of tension. It’s not about closure, it’s about possibility.”
In some cases the push and pull of these spaces feels like another California phenomenon, an earthquake, struck the site. But the angular shifting intentionally tells the story of the lengthy design process and helps enliven the home. The pronounced folds above the top few floors were a result of a neighbor’s late request to lower the building’s height to preserve views. The odd angles of built-in furniture, cabinets, and counters help animate the space. The architects called these offbeat elements “creatures,” giving them names like “Sandcrawler” (kitchen island), “Tempest Claw” (master bed), and “Nugget” (guest bed).
The sharp edges continue outside, as a small, somewhat otherworldly backyard. Painted concrete and aluminum wedges form benches and angled enclosures surrounded by delicate shrubs, petite plantings, and a light white birch tree. Smith’s first-floor office opens via large sliders to this scene, while Stevens’ studio is underneath it, lit by an angular skylight. The team got permission to paint their neighbors’ facing wall in a razzle dazzle camouflage pattern, creating a bold statement while somehow meshing with the overall palette of the house itself. A metal spiral stair at the top level opens a rooftop space with a hot tub, and surprise panoramic views of the city. Like most of the home’s elements, the clients had to be talked into this idea.
“We tried never to say no,” says Stevens, whose enthusiasm and trust grew as the project advanced. “Nothing was cavalier, it was all carefully considered. They brought us on their journey, and I’m glad they did.”
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