Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Nature of Hillside Building in California

When I first left California to visit the midwest as a kid I missed the striking terrain and the interesting building forms this dynamic landscape generates.  Since a single level building is certainly one of the most efficient and/or practical building types, buildings made here are often, by practical necessity, outgrowths of our undulating terrain.

Several months ago we started designing the main lodge at the Four Springs Retreat Center.  The retreat is located on approximately 200 acres outside of Middletown in Lake County and most visitors stay in tiny cabins that have aggregated organically over the years on the sloping hillsides of this property.  The main lodge had burned down and they are rebuilding it.  When faced with the option of excavation or elevation, one finds that most of the cabins are elevated on wood stilts out over the hillside.  It is an esthetic born of practicality and simplicity that one finds all over this region.  One will find it in the Fitch Mountain cabins of Healdsburg, to the redwood cabins in the Monte Rio and Guerneville area along the lower Russian River Basin.

For economy, these structures often are built without a "skirt" because enclosing the area below the heated space is more costly than simply letting this understory area express the building's support system.  Conversely, in places like the Oakland hills, you tend to see this same zone enclosed.  Less costly solutions see this lower volume used for unheated storage while fully developed solutions use it for additional living space (particularly on small lots).

But at the Four Springs Retreat, where the land is wonderfully expansive, these inexpensive elevated buildings have a wonderful spindly charm that felt worthy of celebrating.    Single person sleeping quarters are vaguely nest-like.  Views from the windows of these cabins don't feature the root "flair" that exists at the base of tree trunks but instead present the tree canopies and pure cylindrical tree trunks.  The presence of a calm and still forest is everywhere.

In creating an architecture of place, what is worthy of celebrating and what is deserving of the waste bin?  In a more airy discussion the relative merits of pluralism, "boom and bust" economics, beautiful nature, diverse religiosity and many other characteristics making up an abiding California character are worthy of scrutiny.  But the idea of elevated buildings and their relationship to the function of sleeping quarters was a subject seemingly broached by the site itself and gave flight to a building that ultimately had to reconcile two very different uses: assembly and sleeping.

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