Land as an Invitation to Build: Eva Hagberg Fisher takes a deeper look at 41 Oaks

After publishing Under the Eaves in the June issue of San Francisco Cottages and Gardens, Hagberg Fisher took an even closer look at our recently-completed Portola Valley project.

When I asked Jess Field what he thought about this project, he said it was a “case study in how the spaces we inhabit can truly weave together with the spaces that nature has already created.” The question of this project, then, is a deep one. What is architecture? What is landscape? what happens when they meet, and how do we see the land as an invitation to the building, and, most importantly, vice versa?

Last week, I visited 41 Oaks with Stan and Jess Field.

What pictures don’t show, and what I will try and illuminate here, is the way in which the house nestles into the landscape. It reminds me of Stan’s earliest project, Miller House at Khyber Rock South Africa. On the drive up, Stan told me that the whole point on that project had been to not touch the boulders; to have the house spring between them. Here, 41 Oaks nestles among forty-one oak trees, protected and beloved for their role in protecting California’s landscape.

The Field office is in the heart of Palo Alto; driving with Stan and Jess out to Portola Valley, where this house is, it’s hard not to suddenly see the flowers on the median in a new light, to begin to pay attention to the relationship between trees and the gravel and the roads.

The point of 41 Oaks is to produce an architecture that is in conversation with nature. “We’re creating porosity in the house and connecting with the trees,” Jess told me. Instead of creating a massive block of living space that is somehow supposed to relate to nature, the team created a series of pavilions that jut into the landscape. The sense of promontory is strongest in the dining room, where a sleek window box cantilevers out over the hillside. Standing there, by the window, the sense is of framed views, of the rain chain that you know, even though it isn’t raining right this second, comes so alive.

Stan tells me that the inspiration trigger was the construct of the “family of oak trees” that invited the resident into their “domain.” We are used to talking about landscape as site. During a visit to Pinon Ranch, Jess reminded me that clients think about sites in terms of plot lines, zoning codes, the human demarcations of property. Stan and Jess’ job is to look at the landscape in terms of land, the domain of nature: mountain lions, jack rabbits, rocks, trees.

“The feeling of being on the precipice generates a heightened sense of anticipation,” Stan tells me. What he means are the adjacencies between the spaces; the glass that delineates the distinction between the domain of the human and the domain of the animal, natural, vegetable kingdom. Visitors move through the spaces and the landscape.

Seeing the house in person, goes beyond the published photographs. We took the approach from the front of the house, the one visible from the street. There’s a landscape wall which extends from the house, with a break in the middle that invites you to step down and change orientation, just for a moment. It’s those kinds of details that make the eye pay attention, that wake up the brain.

And then, inside, warm wood floors and cool concrete walls. Air conditioning is reserved only for peak highs because of the way in which Stan and Jess understand air flow and how materials work with the hyperlocal climate. The two understand this world here, in Portola Valley, so near to civilization but with a feeling of intense wilderness. Jess spent a year hiking across Africa after growing up in South Africa, drawing under Stan’s drafting table. He drew antelopes and lions. Those drawings aren’t here in this project, not overtly, but they’re everywhere in the history of what these architects produce.

The magic inside is in what the lines do, in the flow of the space. “It feels intuitive,” another visitor says, and that’s what the best architecture does. It makes the organization of space feel as though it couldn’t possibly ever have been any other way. The oaks were standing there and then they invited architecture, and here are the buildings.

Bedrooms and offices and living spaces and the kitchen all look out onto the same rolling landscape. We look outside and see where a family of deer pressed the wild grass down. They walk across every night; the inhabitants watch.

“We created this material language out of the vertical concrete walls,” Jess tells me. The cantilevered canopies are almost like the architectural echo of the form of the oak tree, he tells me a moment later. There’s a rock garden, brushed by human hands holding a rake, supporting a sculpture. The furniture is minimal yet inviting. Most of all there is a sense of expansive circulation, of going between and among and over and through spaces. Like in a forest, but here we can see both the forest and the trees.

 

Field