Artful Composition by Signum Architecture

Artful Composition is a Mediterranean-style house located in St. Helena, Canada, designed in 2020 by Signum Architecture.

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Set on a ridge with panoramic views of the Napa Valley, the site for this expansive wine-country home is unparalleled. The owner of this second home, who lives primarily in Miami, asked us to redesign and expand the existing Mediterranean-style home to take full advantage of the views. An art collector who entertains often, he also asked us to work with him to design the home and grounds around his extensive art collection and in the process provide a gracious backdrop for entertaining on a grand scale.

Originally constructed in the late 1990s, the existing house was dated and somewhat disconnected from the site and views, surrounded by landscape that was dark and formally arranged. Set mid-way up the hillside on the eastern slope of the Napa Valley, this home provides a mid-level view unlike most sites in the wine country, simultaneously perched above the view and set within it. Our goal was to re-envision the Mediterranean architecture through the lens of the Napa Valley, re-orienting the journey through the large home’s many spaces to take full advantage of both the up-valley and down-valley views, while expanding opportunities for indoor/outdoor living and entertaining, and creating varied opportunities to experience the art collection.

At roughly 20,000 square feet, this is a large project, encompassing the main house, guest house, pool house and numerous garden structures. Our goal was to not only increase the house’s transparency and visual impact, but craft an architectural language that would effectively knit together the home’s numerous structures. We found inspiration in the work of famed Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, whose attention to detail, instinctive approach to materials and affinity for combining old-work artisanal techniques with modern production methods spoke to the needs of this project, which is an exercise in working with disparate materials and methods.

We began with the arrival sequence, setting a pair of carriage houses into a berm at the entrance to the driveway to form a covered entry and an enhanced sense of arrival. We lowered the arrival courtyard to place it level with the new entry at the center of the main house. The arrival was designed to highlight two of the owners’ most cherished art pieces: Six-Foot Hare on a Steel Pyramid by Barry Flanagan, which the owner inherited from his mother and now enjoys pride of place at the center of the auto court, and Tree 2010 by Ai Weiwei, which appears to float amid a shallow pool in the front courtyard framed by the soft movement of two California Pepper trees.

Marked by a double-height tower that signals the convergence of the home’s two axes, the new entry opens directly onto the public spaces at the center of the house, allowing the view to unfold as visitors enter first into the vestibule, then into the glassed-in entry with its views out to the valley. A second tower links the main house with the north wing, and holds a custom-designed stairway that floats away from the tower’s stone walls to create a sense of openness in the enclosed space. At the center of this circular tower lies Stretch by Evan Shively, sculpture and staircase forming a perfect pas-de-deux of art and architecture.

Juxtaposing the more traditional forms of the two towers with two double-height glass boxes, we pushed the boundaries of both material and structure. The glass entry houses a staircase that cantilevers out from a single steel spine toward the wall of glass, but stopping just short. Under the stair, Buddha Avalokitesvara by Li Chen greets visitors as they arrive. A second two-story glass bridge floats above the steep slope of the hillside, connecting the main house with the circular stair tower and north wing. The re-oriented north wing takes advantage of views to the northeast, and holds the more private family spaces – family room, guest quarters and an exercise room.

Each of the home’s many spaces is designed to incorporate specific works of art. In the dining room, Gravity of Time by Olafur Eliasson captures the light and reflects the large sliding doors. Galleries lining both the living room and the lower-level entertaining areas each house a series of paintings and sculptures, while Bill Stark’s Airborne is dramatically suspended in the center of the wine tasting room.

The entire rear facade of the home opens to the view, with multiple indoor/outdoor entertaining spaces on both upper and lower levels. The broad stair that descends from the dining terrace to the lower pool terrace was specifically designed to accommodate Inclined, a sculpture by David Phelps, which is interplanted with lambs ears. The team expanded the existing terrace to capture space for outdoor events, adding a semi-circular viewing terrace that steps down the hillside toward the view. The Mist, a stainless steel mesh sculpture by world-renowned artist Jaume Plensa, is installed on the viewing promenade, set upon a movable base that can be slid aside during events to accommodate a band.

The goal for the landscape design was to simultaneously lighten the planting palette and create a journey through the site. Each sculpture is placed within the carefully-orchestrated plan that allows each piece to be experienced from multiple angles: Erwin Wurm’s painted aluminum sculpture Big Kastenmann sits at a jaunty angle looking toward the pool; Long Island Buddha by Zhand Huan and Teak Rook Medusa lie under the oaks in an woodland knoll. This sense of journey, together with sculptural plantings, (such as the kangaroo paw that surrounds the Six Foot Hare statue and lines the stone walls of the rear terrace), the grounds become an interactive experience rather than a formal sculpture garden.

Photography courtesy of Signum Architecture

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- by Matt Watts