This Silicon Valley Home Uses Curved Architecture in the Most Unexpected Ways

Inside a Silicon Valley Home That Uses Curved Architecture in Unexpected Ways

San Francisco architect Craig Steely‘s 2,900-square-foot home design for a client in suburban Atherton in Silicon Valley brings to mind a medieval walled town. Or, at least, a walk through sculptor Richard Serra’s monumental Cor-Ten steel-walled sculpture “Sequence,” displayed recently for a year at SFMOMA.

Steely, known for rule-breaking, forward-looking architecture — his own home in Hawaii is perched on nascent land near active lava fields — convinced his client, a single woman from Venezuela who is a computer hardware designer, that she could have utter privacy indoors and outdoors in a seemingly roofless house. He proposed an unorthodox amoeba-shaped 14.5-foot-high perimeter cedar wood wall that would both envelop and form her modern home and courtyard gardens.

Atherton home by San Francisco architect Craig Steely
In a suburban Atherton neighborhood, San Francisco architect Craig Steely designed a sculptural single-story home that has a windowless cedar-clad perimeter wall so intriguing that passersby stop and stare. However, rooms like the master bedroom visible here open to private interior courtyards.
Curved architecture in Silicon Valley
The perimeter wall merges with the house on one side and wraps around the kitchen. Its back door opens to a breezeway that connects it to a garage/guesthouse annex.
Atherton home by San Francisco architect Craig Steely
The kitchen also has sliding glass doors that open to an interior courtyard planted with delicate birch trees that, when mature, will provide even more dappled shade than they already do. The courtyard is shared with the dining area.

By Atherton standards, the lot was long and small — just half an acre amid neighboring estates — and as far as views went, there were no arresting vistas to look at. “Just mismatched fences and the backs of neoclassical mansions,” Steely says. Controlling what she looked out at made sense and, in any case, to his mind, the best things about living in the Peninsula are its enjoyable temperate weather and magnificent mature trees.

“The surrounding tree canopy and sky are alive, constantly changing and breathtaking,” Steely says. “Focusing on this view ‘up’ rather than horizontally ‘out’ became our goal.”

His client took only a little convincing to sign on to the unusual design, and anyone who has ever lain on the grass, gazed up at a James Turrell-esque sky and watched birds and clouds go by can understand exactly why.

The windowless perimeter wall, which can be breached through a large square pivoted clear glass door — the town gate, as it were — encircles a couple of at-roofed, lofty living spaces, rectangular with glass walls. Their retractable Fleetwood doors open onto a pair of interior courtyards. Paved with travertine, these are planted with drought-tolerant river birch trees that create a sunlight-and-shadow interplay year-round, but their dappled shade is much needed in summer. The curved shape of the perimeter wall allows for a padded bench for taking o shoes before entering the bedroom wing. A view of the two ends of the long entry breezeway that links the public and private sections of the house.

Curved architecture in Silicon Valley home
Inside the free-flowing living areas, a pantry is contained within its own silo.
Silicon Valley home featuring curved architecture
The building’s seemingly unbroken curved form is punctured by a square pivoting front door. A roof overhang casts shadows that echo those at Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel.
Curved architecture
Looking in through the glass door, you can see the main courtyard around which the public spaces are grouped. The home’s other two courtyards also allow indoor/outdoor living.

At the west end, the master suite and a spare bedroom share a private courtyard in the crook of an L-shaped floor plan. A long breezeway, seamless travertine floors and the ever-present encircling cedar-clad wall help link the covered and open-to-sky spaces literally as well as visually.

Keeping “the finishes inside and outside the same makes all the spaces appear larger and seem like one,” Steely notes. Outside the walled compound on the east side, within a “meadow” of native grasses, a pavilion contains a modest two-car garage and a guest suite that doubles as the owner’s office. A fence is conspicuously absent. The structures and courtyards incorporate existing oak and redwood trees that were saved around the site; the trees serve to “root” the avant-garde buildings as well.

Despite Steely’s high-walled, inward-looking approach, his innovative single-story courtyard house is not at all at odds with its neighbors.

“This curved wood object looks sensuous and beautiful in this landscape,” the architect says. “A square box in its place would not have had the same effect. It would have added nothing new.”

Curved architecture in home by San Francisco architect Craig Steely
The living room’s curtain glass wall, fitted with Fleetwood sliding doors, opens almost fully to the main courtyard. The boundaries between indoors and outdoors are deliberately blurred; the wood-clad exterior wall moves seamlessly indoors as does the travertine courtyard paving. The sky views are ever-changing.
Curved architecture from San Francisco architect Craig Steely
The curved shape of the perimeter wall allows for a padded bench for taking off shoes before entering the bedroom wing.
San Francisco architect Craig Steely — curved architecture
A view of the two ends of the long entry breezeway that links the public and private sections of the house.

This article originally appeared in SPACES magazine

Zahid Sardar

Zahid Sardar brings a range of design interests and keen knowledge of Bay Area design culture as the editor-in-chief of SPACES magazine. He is a San Francisco editor, curator and author specializing in global architecture, interiors, landscape and industrial design. His work has appeared in The New York Times and numerous design publications as well as the San Francisco Chronicle for which he served as an influential design editor for 22 years. Sardar serves on the San Francisco Decorator Showcase design advisory board. 

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