In Mill Valley, California, just north of San Francisco, an angular modernist house clad in dark timber overlooks Richardson Bay. Its rectilinear grid-oriented layout, spread out over three levels, gives it a sense of orderliness that contrasts with the wilderness of the coastal cliffs. But as beautiful as it may be, its boxiness and simplicity eventually proved too much for the owner, who started to see them as reminders of the constraints and pressures of the world outside.
Not long after that, the San Francisco-based OPA Architects was commissioned to soften it up. Specializing in designs that impact our perceptions and emotions, OPA wanted to give the house a more personal touch that enhanced its harmony with nature while leaving its modernist spirit intact. Infusing the space with organic shapes completely changes the way it feels, starting with the new front steps, which ooze out from beneath the entrance like fluid. From there, your experience of the home is something like merging with the sky.
Throughout the home, spaces like the living areas, bathrooms, corridors, and bedrooms are enveloped in sculptural white masses that surround you like a hazy embrace. Painted stark white, these forms create new voids and alcoves, softly connecting from floor to ceiling like pillowy stalactites. When you gaze out the floor-to-ceiling glass facing the bay from the higher levels, these spaces feel like an extension of the region’s signature moody fog. Outside, the theme continues with a new cloud-like canopy installed over a second-floor terrace.
The architects ask: “Why can’t architecture be more like nature – changeable, varied, and uninhibited? Our client wanted to return home and feel a sense of private freedom, a release from the conformity of the world outside. In this project, we softened her existing modernist house by infusing it with an atmosphere of clouds. The clouds scatter freely throughout the house, and dissolve and soften it in different ways. The clouds erode and blur the order of the rational modernist grid, creating a sense of space that floats and drifts.”
“Moments of softness are encountered unexpectedly – the interventions are like a mist that has settled unevenly. The softness dissolves the entry, melts the stairs, wafts through the house on all three floors, and a lonely cloud is trapped above a sheltered terrace.”
The result is a home that looks normal (albeit luxurious) from the street and neighboring houses, but offers a sense of release and relaxation as soon as you step inside. The unexpected nature of the renovation is a big part of its charm. The design is reminiscent of the sculptural traditional houses of Greece or the “landscape houses” of 20th century architect Jacques Couëlle, all of which use rounded forms resembling natural shapes.
But you’d never guess that the interiors of “Softie,” as OPA calls it, looked like this if you weren’t invited in for a visit. Couëlle’s cave-like creations embrace irregularity and softness as a whole, looking just as strange and unusual outside as they do within. Maybe what “Softie” shows us most is that no matter what a space looks and feels like originally, it can always be completely transformed.
Does it make you long for a softened-up space of your own?