Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 15, Number 3
Spring 1993


Architectural team takes San Francisco on its own terms

by Su Clauson-Wicker

No doubt about it--magic has played a part in the architectural careers of Cathi Bowden House '77 and Steven House '74. You need only look at their work: magic comes forth in the transformation of a sprawling suburban ranch into a sleek, modern mansion; in the iridescent swirls on a custom-designed steel desk that has elevated a warehouse office into a high-tech retail suite; in the transcendent sense of peace you feel as you step into the muted light of a bayside home designed to color-coordinate with the local grasses.

Magic also seems to lurk in the career progress of these two adventurers who forsook all network connections after graduating from Virginia Tech to relocate to San Francisco, a place where their alma mater and work experiences wouldn't automatically open doors. And when, after four years of carefully selected experiences, they were ready to start their own office, what did they do but take off for a year-long Mediterranean vacation.

This is not the path Virginia Tech Placement Services would recommend. But, somehow--for Steven and Cathi House--it worked.

"We've often gone against the norm," says Steven. "We follow our instincts in the belief that our experiences will guide us on our own unique path."

The sketches, photographs, and reflections of the architecture that the Houses documented during that year in Greece, Spain, Italy, and Yugoslavia became one of the most popular exhibitions the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) ever hosted. Before they even opened their office, the Houses were known as the architects with a special insight into the magical qualities of Mediterranean indigenous architecture. As one critic said, they "understand the use of light, and its small adjustments that make the difference between community and claustrophobia." Instead of hindering the beginning of their practice, their research break actually enhanced it.

Although the Houses' reputation initially brought them a steady flow of small-scale renovation work, their first really big, from-scratch-mansion commission resulted from the serendipitous recommendation of a friend of a friend. The resulting 9,500-square-foot contemporary mansion, designed to accommodate its traditional neighborhood, has won the coveted Golden Nugget Grand Award, the Best in American Living Award from the National Association of Home Builders, and has been featured in numerous professional magazines, including Architecture.

"About one third of the work in our office can be traced directly to this project," Steven says.

Subsequent work includes a $2-million Roman courtyard home the Houses are designing for a California winemaker, a vacation home in Maui, a Los Angeles villa, a yacht club, Caribbean townhouses, retail shops, and a number of major restorations. All are characterized by sculptural spaces bathed in natural light, glowing in luminous colors.

"We firmly believe that architecture can have a profound effect on the daily lives of people, whether they realize it or not," says Steven. The Houses try to instill a sense of peace in the design of their buildings. "We give the clients what they want, what they need, and on top of that, we add a layer of magic," says Cathi.

For a current project, the renovation of a turn-of-the-century cottage, they created a special two-story window to focus on a Japanese maple growing outside the living room. Bold rooms glow in turquoise and lavender, while the sensual bathroom sports a glass block shower and turquoise tiles. You can't complain of being trapped in this kitchen--the ceiling soars to 18 feet, allowing light from the loft windows and a long, slender skylight to flood down.

To select final colors for a project, the Houses may pick up grass, twigs, moss, and stones from the site and match the color of their building materials, as they did for an inventor's home overlooking the Pacific. Their first move is always to ask questions--and to listen with all senses. The clients' initial request is not always their hearts' desire. Last year a family came to the firm after the Oakland fire, saying that all they wanted was their old house back.

"We asked them several questions, mostly about light and circulation, and as they answered, that old house was gone," Steven says. The design of the new house is based on how the sun moves across the site and one flows from room to room within the house. Now all the rooms are sunny and have incredible views.

Although generous budgets allow a variety of creative options, these architects have found smaller projects just as stimulating. One came from a walk-in client who had been admiring their models from his apartment across the street. "We have a little piece of land in the mountains. Can you help us do something for $100,000?" he asked. ($100,000 in the Bay area is like $40,000 in Virginia--difficult to do.) Accepting the challenge, House + House designed a simple 1,500 square-foot cube with lofty ceilings. Dramatic windows and concrete slab floors with colored pigment and decorative scoring proved as beautiful as the stone used in more generously budgeted projects. The building dimensions use standard lumber lengths to minimize cuts and off-the-shelf windows oriented for the most dramatic views of nearby redwoods. The house, which was featured in Builder and House Beautiful as one of the country's best affordable houses, drew correspondence from around the world.

Three-fourths of the Houses' projects are homes; half are new structures and half are renovations. Re-invention might be a better term for the Houses' transformation of a 50-year-old traditional ranch house into a modern villa.

Knowing that the neighborhood architectural review board would permit few changes in style visible from the street, they decided to build a new wing facing the garden. The 1,500-foot courtyard they created in the center of the home adds a magical quality to the house, capturing the mysterious ebb and flow of light as the sun passes through strategically placed windows. A sculpted copper fireplace echoes the cylinder and wedge shapes of the house. The structure won three design awards and was featured in House Beautiful in July.

House + House have reached a point where keeping their office small has been a conscious decision. They like being involved in all phases of a project. One thing won't change: their drawings always will be done by hand. "A building is the largest handmade object in the world," says Cathi. "I give the project my energy through the act of drawing. That computer is an alienating device. Drawings are more personal, more artistic, more spontaneous, and pull more from deep inside you."

Besides, she adds, drawings help her and Steven through the withdrawal they feel at the end of a project. "We put our souls in our projects. The drawings are precious pieces we can keep."

Another important ritual in their lives is an annual month-long winter break. For the first five of their office's 10 years, they didn't take vacations; they just worked all the time. "We realized," says Steven, "that we need to rejuvenate, so we decided to leave the country for four to six weeks every year when the contractors, clients, and building officials are celebrating the holidays.

"We have a real advantage in working together and being married," Steven says, but admits they frequently take the job home. "We may be preparing dinner or even lying in bed and I'll say, 'About that handrail detail--how about something we can see through?'"

Cathi and Steven met their first day at Virginia Tech in 1970, and married the day after Steven's graduation in 1974. They headed off for jobs in Philadelphia and, after 18 months of saving, left for nine months in Europe--a self-designed study-abroad program. They returned to Virginia Tech in 1977, where Cathi, who was working her way through school, finished up her course work before they headed west.

"We have learned to appreciate the architectural education we received at Virginia Tech even more since we've been gone," Cathi says. "We were taught to learn by doing. I think underneath there was the idea that we can do anything in the world. It's up to us to dream it."

The Houses have become a resource center for Virginia Tech architecture students going west. They have helped numerous students get jobs and hired several themselves: David Thompson '85--an associate of the firm for seven years--and his brother Doug Thompson '80, Doug's wife Marilyn Thompson '82, and Michael Baushke '88. "We hired them because they were the best we could find," says Cathi. "Virginia Tech grads are always well-qualified and work hard. They have given Tech a good reputation in San Francisco."

After 10 years in business, the Houses are thinking of new challenges--ways to shake things up. "We want to produce a book on Mediterranean indigenous architecture," says Cathi, "and have several exhibits we want to design. We have experiences to share."

One thing is for certain--magic will follow them.

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 15, Number 3 Spring 1993