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Outside-In / Inside-Out

We believe our job as designers is to work from both vantage points at the same time, simultaneously constructing projects from the inside out (as many interior designers do) and from the outside in (as many architects have). We are keenly attuned to the relationship between the inside of a structure and the outside far beyond our consideration of thresholds, and the relationship between indoor and outdoor, though we think about those ideas too.

In 1977, the designers Charles and Ray Eames released the film Powers of Ten. The nine-minute film, commissioned by IBM, opens with a close-up scene of a couple picnicking near a lake. A voiceover explains that “every ten seconds, we will look from ten times farther away, and our field of view will be ten times wider.” For the first half, the camera pans out, and out, and out, taking the eye ever farther outward, seeing the whole park, then the lake, then the planet, then the solar system, then the galaxy, and farther and farther out until even our galaxy looks like the tiniest speck of dust. The second half zooms in, crossing the skin, heading through cells, collagen, blood vessels, capillaries, lymphocytes, the cell nucleus, the atomic scale, and to the carbon nucleus, “so massive and so small.”

What does this have to do with architecture? Everything. For one, Charles and Ray Eames were extraordinary designers, responsible for Case Study houses in Los Angeles that brought attention to solids and voids, windows and walls; for furniture like the iconic Eames lounge chair; and the famous Eames Management Chair. And for two, and more importantly for our own purposes, the film gives a road map for how to begin to approach a design project - first from the inside out, and then from the outside in.

Every work of architecture is experienced, while not through the thousands of scales that the Powers of ten articulates, from multiple vantage points. There is the deepest heart of a building, often a wellness-oriented bathroom in a private house or a secluded office in a workspace, and then there is the exterior shell, the envelope seen from the street, from above, or from, even, the air. What we are interested in is a more fundamental understanding of the ways in which architecture at once encloses and opens up, operates with intimacy and distance, and is readable from the person living inside and the stranger walking by.

Rural Context

For our rural projects like Amnesia House currently under construction in Napa, or our project in St. Helena currently in design phases, we are similarly driven by internal and interior considerations, in which programmatic spaces directly drive the building’s forms. With these projects, the negotiation happens from the inside out, starting with a diagram of circulation, articulating program, transforming clients’ wishes for a certain type of feeling into a built form that can expand almost infinitely into the allowable space. It’s a different freedom, and a different challenge than working in an urban environment, and allows us to take a more experimental approach to architecture.

Urban Context

For our urban projects, by contrast, interventions are often limited by not only land use measures but also community boards, the planning commission, and the needs of pedestrians and the ever-increasing traffic landscape. That’s part of thinking from the outside in: producing an envelope for a building that abuts the limitations but never supersedes them, that begins to articulate the edges of what we want to do. This process also invites us to consider how a building responds. What are the setbacks? How opaque or transparent is the building, and how opaque or transparent should it be? How active or inactive is the facade? While it’s easy to assume that openness, transparency, and activity are always desired, that isn’t always true. Some typologies, like senior centers or medical care centers need opacity and privacy, and as we think through that we also think about the inside, about how someone might like to experience a light well, or a courtyard.

A few other recently completed projects have begun to articulate even more of our approach to the relationship between inside and outside, the feeling of being inside an enclosed building and then also appreciating a building for its presence on the ground, the street, the site, even if someone never goes inside. At 188 Octavia, a residential project for which we won a city-wide competition, the pattern is set on a fifteen-foot module, a shape that corresponds to the module of apartment layouts, while the bay window typology, visible from the outside and experienced from the inside, is based on a larger San Francisco vocabulary. This twenty-eight unit building sits at the nexus between exterior and interior experience, offering fresh air, sunlight, and access to gardens to those living inside (bringing the outside in), while clearly articulating the different spaces and elements—windows, opaque panes, separate residences—to passersby walking by outside (bringing the inside out). The ground floor expression is one of active ground use and engagement, showing that where the building meets the ground is an opportunity to also consider how the inside meets the outside.

Meanwhile, in Hayes Valley, our 311 Grove project aims to be in conversation with the surrounding streets through our careful control of building height. For this through-block project, meaning that there are building frontages on both ends of a single block, we negotiated two heights—taller on the larger street, and lower on the back alley. We designed this partially to be in line with allowed height limits, but also because of the aesthetic value and the way in which we wanted the building to integrate into the surrounding neighborhood. We often build lower than we are allowed to—for Switchback, we designed three stories instead of the allowed four—because even if it might seem to make sense to maximize allowable square footage, it often doesn’t. That’s thinking through the outside in: reflecting on how a building will impact the neighbors, blocking their view of a tree, light, the city, or the sky; thinking about the general built topography of a neighborhood and wanting our structures to add to a gentle skyline rather than standing out. We think about how someone walking down the street will perceive a row of houses or a block-long multifamily project, and we aim to find the sweet spot between a fantastic experience for the person inside, and a subtle moment for the person who’s out.


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