Page D3.2 . 03 March 2010                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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Esherick's Cary House


On the other hand, one can see the Cary design as one of a progression of spatial exercises that traced back as far as Esherick's own house in Ross from more than 20 years before. While he sought a personal and personalized house such as Uncle Wharton might have done, it would have taken too long and cost too much. Instead, what he "tried to do was the same sort of thing, but just made out of ordinary two-by-fours, out of yard lumber, in essentially squarish shapes so any carpenter could put it together."

In the end, the Cary House came to comprise two houses, a main building of some 1,600 square feet (150 square meters) and a guest house that is hardly smaller. Both are simple prismatic volumes with a roof slope that rehearses the fall of the land without replicating it.

As the direction of the contours change, so too the orientation of the two house blocks. The main house faces almost due south while the upper building faces east. These orientations not only situate the buildings comfortably on the land and support varying vistas but also generate an architectural dialogue between the two protagonists that creates a sense of unity in diversity — reinforced by the wooden sheathing common to both. The main house occupies the lower end of a steeply raked corner site that affords dramatic views back over Mill Valley and diagonally to San Francisco Bay.

In a manner typical of Esherick's houses that can be traced back as far as the Tahoe houses, the design plays two single-height floors against a double-height living room. One enters the house directly, between living and dining room and beneath the lower ceiling height formed by the bedroom floor above — a spatial transition that amplifies the effect of the high-ceilinged living room. Entering the living room, one turns left to encounter a wall sheathed in rough-sawn unfinished redwood planks — simple, elegant, nearly William Wurster's ideal of a place built by a carpenter with taste. But nothing in an Esherick house was ever left to chance — until the moment of occupancy, of course.

The project files reveal an enormous attention to detail, where every doorjamb and windowsill has been studied at full scale. The house received some of the office's most precise detailing, from the flush but softly articulated plan walls to the immaculate doorjamb and head details. These are set almost flush with the wall surfaces, minimal and almost invisible. Only in the door head does one notice a barely articulated thin line that protrudes a mere quarter-of-an-inch from the paneling — a last vestige of the traditional frame.

While it seems a contradiction, simple and unadorned detail requires far greater skill than traditional construction, where the applications of moldings can cover a multitude of construction sins. Credit must be given to the carpenters who built this house: their craft is nearly perfect throughout.

While on the exterior the two house volumes are juxtaposed, the interior spaces are interlocked and animated by apertures, whether open or glazed. The entry/ dining area flows unimpeded into the high living room; the bedroom above opens to it with a large shutter for privacy when needed. A lateral opening joins the living room to the stair hall, its own window offering glimpses of the live-oak-studded site and the hillsides and skies beyond. This was an important element of the Cary design, and it is worth quoting Esherick at length on the properties of this very narrow but very tall window:

"One of the things I especially love about the house is that there is a big, tall window on the wall opposite the fireplace... It's a big, tall, thin window and the view is an extraordinary view, because you're high enough up in Mill Valley so that you're looking down into the valley, and beyond [Mount] Tamalpais rises, just keeps going right up straight.

"Whether it's just because it's so narrowly framed, or whatever it is, and it's just trees and space and land forms, there is little to give the view depth. There is [depth] when there are fogs and mists lying in the low places, but when it's a clear day, you don't see that, and it's almost as though the whole view has been painted on the window.

"But the thing I love about it is that it's very much like a classical Chinese scroll painting of the side of a mountain with the mists drifting by, or without them. You can stand there and look at it, and from one position you have one painting, and then you can move a little bit, and then you recompose what that painting is, so that just in walking through the place you have this infinite collection of paintings that come from this one marvelous scene."

Like the grasping and capturing of views, the lighting is carefully balanced throughout the house. "The light changes, everything changes." Because the principal view is the troublesome west, windows toward that direction were kept to a minimum.

Most dramatic, perhaps, is the tall slit window at the southwest corner of the living room that washes the plank wall throughout most of the day and creates a tension between the unity of the living room volume and its formation by the meeting of planes.

In places, the skylights answered other calls, for example, to foster exhaust ventilation. The skylight over the stairs was purposely oversized, the overlap covering a horizontal flap that could be opened or closed using ropes fixes to cleats on the walls.

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Marc Treib is a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and a practicing designer. He is the editor of Thomas Church, Landscape Architect (2004) and Representing Landscape Architecture (2007), and author of The Donnell and Eckbo Gardens: Modern Californian Masterworks (2005) and Settings and Stray Paths: Writings on Landscapes and Gardens (2005).

This article is excerpted from Appropriate: The Houses of Joseph Esherick by Marc Treib, copyright © 2008, with permission of the publisher, William Stout Publishers.



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Trellises of varying sizes shade the main deck and south-facing windows at the Cary House.
Photo: Roy Flamm/ Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis (EHDD) Extra Large Image

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From the deck, one enters into a compressed, single-height space at a central circulation point, with ready access to the main ground-floor spaces and to the stairs.
Photo: Marc Treib Extra Large Image

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The landing of the Cary House stair projects beyond the north wall, affording views from the landing to the east and west.
Photo: Marc Treib Extra Large Image

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Cary House plan drawings.
Image: EHDD Extra Large Image

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Upper-floor windows provide views from the master bedroom into the living space and to the landscape outside, while ground-floor glazing emphasizes the connection between indoor and outdoor living spaces.
Photo: Roy Flamm/ EHDD Extra Large Image

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A window positioned in the northwest corner of the Cary House living room bathes the north wall with light.
Photo: Roy Flamm/ EHDD Extra Large Image

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Inside the guest house at the Cary House.
Photo: Marc Treib Extra Large Image

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Appropriate: The Houses of Joseph Esherick by Marc Treib, with Esherick's 1965 Hedgerow Houses demonstration project at Sea Ranch on the cover.
Image: William Stout Publishers Extra Large Image


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