Pushing the envelope
Stanley Saitowitz ups the contemporary ante with a stunning renovation of a San Francisco town house
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 2/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Famously liberal in politics and culture, San Francisco takes a notoriously conservative stance against contemporary design. "It's as if any change would destroy the city's perfection," theorizes Stanley Saitowitz, principal of Stanley Saitowitz Office/Natoma Architects. Nevertheless, Saitowitz has managed to weave uncompromisingly modern statements into his city's traditional fabric. The 200-unit Yerba Buena residential loft development's facade is marked by alternating balconies and glass cube windows. His own office building, in the South of Market district, features a butterfly roof with a vast skylight illuminating a double-height workplace. And he's done it again with a stealth town house on Russian Hill.
Technically a renovation, the 4,400-square-foot five-floor structure retains its existing silhouette. "The envelope had been maxed out," Saitowitz explains. Yet the exterior is a far cry from its peach-painted predecessor. Saitowitz toughened up the facade with charcoal-painted cement planks and replaced the bay windows with streamlined apertures of Profilit channeled glass. Now cutting edge, the house could be a body double for ground-up construction.
The interior, on the other hand, is virtually all new. And signature Saitowitz, spare and clean. There's a dearth of trim but certainly no shortage of exquisite materials and graceful spatial layering. With his discreet approach, the architect has provided the near impossible: friendly competition with views that sweep from the Golden Gate to downtown. These interiors hold their own.
"My client didn't need a statement house. He is, however, tuned in to minimal imagery," Saitowitz says of this quiet, self-assured man. Based in Hong Kong, he's an amateur musician, a breeder of championship Pekingese, a collector of antique Chinese ceramics, and a media and technology buff— requesting 11 (count them) televisions. To address those broad interests, Saitowitz says, he plotted a house that "works as an instrument rather than a sculpture."
Organization follows the common San Francisco strategy of putting the best rooms, with the best views, at the top. 'Thus a living room with terrace occupies the fifth floor. Following in descending order are the dining room and chef's kitchen on four, the master suite and soundproof music and media room on three, the entry and service quarters—including luxury canine accommodations—on two, and the garage on one.
"The language is about frameless etched glass that picks up the bay's changing greens," Saitowitz says of his dominant material. He used it everywhere in fixed and sliding panels—to stake boundaries, impart regal procession to the stairway balustrade, and imbue the house with quiet mystery.
To round out the materials palette, Saitowitz chose dog-friendly polished slate for flooring, metals for counters and grating, and vertical-grain fir for millwork and cabinetry. And what he did with these limited materials is exceptional. In the living room, an intricate aluminum grille gleams like modern jewelry while wrapping a standard firebox and concealing speakers. The kitchen, where the client or his chef "performs" during parties, centers on an island with integral sinks and a built-in wok. The master bedroom is a study in vertical-grain fir. A simple platform bed, undeniably Asian in influence, faces a media wall. In the master bath, a steel armature allows television watching while luxuriating in the porcelain whirlpool tub.
Slightly tinted walls, watery green or varying grays, ensure that there's no disconnect between architecture and furnishings. A serene case in point, the dining room introduces Fabien Baron's glamorous ebonized chairs to the luminous precision of Antonio Citterio's glass-topped tables—and the prancing curves of a Tang dynasty horse.