November 1, 2009
Deformscape: From Backyard to Optical Illusion
Appearances are deceiving in one contemporary-art collector’s backyard.
Spoiler alert! The Japanese maple in Jeff Dauber’s San Francisco backyard is not at the center of a carbon-sucking vortex. Sorry, sci-fi fans, but the Berkeley-based architect Thom Faulders’s perfectly flat deck only looks like its far corner has its own warped gravity. Ever since Francesco Borromini’s Gallery Spada, in Rome, forced perspectives and architectural patronage have gone hand in hand, but whereas the Renaissance architect employed a mathematician to make that arcade seem longer through foreshortening, Faulders used 3-D–modeling software to achieve Deformscape’s dipping effect.
“I wanted someone to barf when they look at it,” says Dauber, a senior executive at Apple. “The deck looks like it is sloping away from you.” Dauber is not your standard-issue Silicon Valley techie; he’s covered in tattoos and owns an impressive, challenging collection of contemporary art (including a mosque made out of gun parts, by the sculptor Al Farrow). Five years ago, he hired Faulders to transform his Potrero Hill residence into a bachelor-pad-cum-art-gallery (see “Puzzle Master,” June 2006). The architect gave the space visual interest while still preserving it as a backdrop for Dauber’s art. Notably, the ceiling and walls, which appear to undulate, are made of a smooth pattern of interlocking CNC-milled MDF panels. Pattern is an obsession shared by architect and client: it’s apparent in almost all of Faulders’s architecture and, of course, on Dauber’s body. With the new project, Dauber wanted an outdoor room for entertaining and was unsentimental about building over the sloping 550-square-foot yard behind his house—especially since it would provide him with a new canvas. “I needed more walls because I couldn’t add another limb,” he jokes. With the exception of a few programmatic demands—built-in grill, concealed sound system, outdoor heaters, irrigation, and, naturally, nausea—he gave Faulders free reign.
To maximize the amount of usable space, Faulders delivered a bare white surface that would emphasize the lone tree. “It was like designing a swimming pool to create a flat deck,” he says. He modeled a vortex around the maple in the program Rhino, collapsing the resulting wire frame into a 2-D pattern that could be used to produce custom-milled, marine-grade plywood tiles, each of which was then positioned by hand. Installed, what seem to be painted black lines are, in reality, gaps: the tiles sit atop industrial-fiberglass grating that allows rainwater to drain through to the tree’s roots. “It’s really difficult to build an abstraction,” Faulders says. “The final product has nothing to do with materiality or how it was constructed. All the intensive labor disappears.”
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The effect is best seen from the two spots in the house with views of the deck (the office door and the bathroom window), vistas that are tailored to Dauber’s height. Even Faulders is left out. “Part of the challenge is that it was custom designed for me,” Dauber says, “and I’m six inches taller than Thom.”