Walk along Grace Street in San Francisco's evolving South of Market district during the day and you are bound to miss No. 49, a nondescript box of a building that is the live-work space of one of 2017's American Architecture Award winners. Pass by it at night, though, and you are bound to stare at the glowing structure in wonder.
The glass building, shielded from the street by a sheath of perforated aluminum, is the creation of Raveevarn Choksombatchai, founder of the architectural firm Veev Design and a professor at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. The Thai-born architect, who is inspired by everything from the films of Tarkovsky and Ozu to her hometown of Bangkok, bought the building with the intention of tearing it down before deciding to transform it into the light-box-like residence and creative lair it is today. “I was looking at the old footprint and I tried to see what was good about it because I had lived in it for five years. I knew it would be great if we dug out a little bit of a courtyard like a piece of cake, taking out the middle part. That courtyard made every single square foot in the house and also in the office downstairs very airy,” Raveevarn says of the structure’s most significant addition, which floods the space with light while maximizing natural ventilation.
The dark wood of the staircase leading up to the spacious second floor continues as the main flooring, a somehow grounding element when contrasted with the mostly white walls. A bright magenta pony wall at the end of the kitchen separates the living area from the more private bedroom area while also giving the entirety of the space a vibrant focal point; at night, its fabric-wrapped top acts as a source of soft LED lighting. And the blue room, whose walls and ceiling are painted the same cobalt blue, is further evidence of the architect’s unbridled imagination. “I don’t use color as only pure graphic. It is actually a special device to define volume,” says the architect. “The wall and the ceiling are usually two different colors, but I don’t like that tradition. I like it to be almost like there’s no definition between them, so you read color as a volume rather than reading it as a plane.
Another unique attribute of the house is its two-story custom metal shelving unit, which acts as a second layer of privacy for its curtain-eschewing creator. Its final form was an act of serendipity. “I think that I tried to use a much thinner section than I should have. And so we needed to have a lot more bracing – a lot more vertical structure to create the kind of stiffness that would hold a lot of books and heavy objects,” she says. “When it was originally designed, it was a two-story unit without the bridge on top. But when we were doing the construction, the contractor needed to make a temporary bridge so they could construct a wall on the other side. And as soon as they put that bridge on, I said, ‘We need to keep it.’”
As for the building’s exterior aluminum skin, Raveevarn says she was inspired by the use of deep lattice work in houses in India and the Middle East but did not know how well her own perforated wall would work until she built it. It exceeded her expectations, with a site-specific ambiguity Raveevarn relishes. “This kind of perforated aluminum allows the transparency to play a very interesting role with the urban condition and things that happen on the street,” she says. “During the day, you can’t see in at all. It is extremely opaque to look into the interior. But when we’re working inside, we can see everything.”