A Modernist garden looking over San Francisco Bay is a study in simple block planting and bold architectural design by Andrea Cochran
Perched on the side of a cliff overlooking San Francisco Bay, designer Andrea Cochran has created a garden space of striking dynamism
Afine view across the city and its bay is not such an unusual asset when it comes to high-end houses in hilly San Francisco, but what this property offers is in a league of its own. For anyone who is prone to vertigo (like me), the steps up the side of the house, complete with protruding Corten steel and glass overlooks, appear daunting indeed. Cantilevered over the cliff edge, each overlook has a gridded base that ends with a glass panel, so the intrepid visitor has a view down the almost-vertical cliff face. Huge eucalyptus trees grow in abundance on the cliffs and then the eye travels on to the city, the docks, the downtown skyscrapers and, beyond, the bay itself, criss-crossed by ferries and bridges, with the former prison island of Alcatraz looming in the distance.
“Kids absolutely love the overlooks,” says designer Andrea Cochran, so of course it is absolutely necessary for us to skip up the steps and ‘walk the plank’ until we are
essentially hovering in mid-air above the abyss. Perhaps now would be a good time for Andrea to introduce me to the rest of the garden.
Cars have to climb a short but extremely steep driveway before coming to rest on the brick platform of the parking forecourt. The first thing you see on arrival is the garage, since the front door is several storeys above. “I wanted the experience of getting to the front door to be an interesting one,” Andrea explains – hence the dramatic overlooks that dominate the garden’s opening act.
A whimsical sculpture of a man gazing skywards – Looking Up by Jim Rennert – greets you at the foot of the steps, which only increases your sense of anticipation, while the smooth Corten steel planes of the overlooks create a sculptural tableau reminiscent of the monumental works of the American sculptor Richard Serra.
The overlooks also create framed views of the city beyond as you ascend the steps, which are f lanked to one side by the acid green of a large block planting of Lomandra
longifolia ‘Breeze’ at the foot of the steps, which is later replaced by blocks of the grass-like Ophiopogon higher up. The colour tones of these different foliage plants play off the earthier colours of the steel, the brick terrace and the cedar shingles of the house – which has been re-conceived in ‘ homelier’ style by architect Olle Lundberg.
The steps lead up to a substantial brick terrace that spans the bay-front of the house with seats in the walls seemingly moulded from soft brick. This is not a material one readily associates with Andrea’s work – she tends to favour the more muted colours of natural stone and cast concrete in her sleek Modernist works. But Andrea explains that the terrace was formerly a driveway that snaked along the front of the house, and it made sense to keep it. Atop the front wall there are simple plantings of rosemary, lavender, plumbago, trumpet vine ( Campsis radicans) and ivy – but it’s all about the view.
“I wanted to create a feeling of being part of all this,” says Andrea, gesturing across the wide expanse of the bay below us, criss-crossed by ferries and offset by bridges that are
SUBTLE GREYS AND GREENS DEFINE THE MEDITATIVE REAR GARDEN
Block planting can be useful in contemporary settings. On this site planting in the parking forecourt and up the steps is realised in blocks of green-leaved perennial plants: first, a line of bamboo, then Lomandra longifolia ‘Breeze’ at the foot of the steps then Ophiopogon further up – create pleasing contrasts with the variegated woody hues of the cedar shingles on the building. The plantings play an architectural role, in that the size and shape of the blocks respond to the volumes of the house’s façade. Block planting is also useful in areas visitors pass through quickly and where a complex planting scheme would compete with another distraction, in this case, a stupendous view.
lit up at night. “I’ve been to parties here and people like to hang out in this space. It’s like being in a bird’s nest. In fact, the birds f ly at eye level.” As if on cue, a f lock of noisy parakeets gambols by. The brick gives this terrace a warm, social feeling (underf loor heating helps), while the grey basalt used in other areas imparts a quiet, ‘modern’ f lavour.
Another level up and visitors finally arrive at the front door. Here Andrea has created a stylised ‘ lawn’ of Pennisetum sphacelatum in a rectangular bed because the client wanted to be able to see green all year round from her study window. Above is the top terrace, an elegant private seating area alongside the kitchen commanding more spectacular views.
The garden areas at the front of the house are spectacular but they are also highly exposed. So to allow for quieter moments, Andrea has created a meditative garden space behind the house in a most unpropitious setting, hemmed in by the sheer vertical wall of the neighbouring building that was once a bank. This enclosed space has a completely different feel, realised in subtle tones of grey, green and rust-brown. At one end is a seating
CORTEN STEEL OVERLOOKS FRAME THE VIEW FROM THE TERRACE
area defined by Corten steel walls with a large concrete fire pit. The garden is shaded by maple trees and surrounded by a bosky planting made up of sarcococca, hellebores, heucheras, dogwoods – planted for their winter colour – and the white Japanese snowball, Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum.
There is intriguing textural variety between the basalt pavers, grey gravel and three large cast-concrete ‘pebbles’ strewn across the space. A panel of Corten steel, framed by clumps of Hydrangea quercifolia, creates a sculptural moment at the other end of the garden space, where pink camellias from next-door’s garden tumble over the wall in season, a pleasingly random interloper which Andrea also enjoys.
USEFUL INFORMATION Find out more about Andrea’s work at acochran.com
Top Different materials create pleasing contrasts at this cliff-top site: cast concrete walls, black basalt pavers and the brick forecourt lead up to the cedarshingled house, with Andrea Cochran’s vertigo-inducing Corten steel overlooks poised at the edge of the abyss.
Above The geometric planes of the garden look good from many angles, including the near-vertical view from the top of the house.
Above A generous brick terrace spans the bay-front of the house. Here it’s all about the view and about feeling part of the surroundings. The wide terrace looks out over the sprawling Bay Area of San Francisco and has incredible views out over the Oakland Bay Bridge. Planting has been kept simple with blocks of rosemary, lavender, plumbago, trumpet vine and ivy adorning the front wall.
Above Complex textural interplay is always a keynote in Andrea Cochran’s work, and here the different tones of gravel, basalt pavers, cedar shingles, Corten steel, fire, maple foliage, Liriope muscari (at left) and cast-concrete seat ‘pebbles’ all play a role.
1. A line of temple bamboo, Semiarundinaria fastuosa var. viridis flanks the parking forecourt.
3. Carex tumulicola, a shade-loving native sedge which tumbles out of planters
2. Block-planted Sesleria ‘Greenlee’, a cultivar developed by the Californian natural-garden expert John Greenlee.
4. Steps lead down from the meditative rear garden, with block plantings of Liriope muscari, one of Andrea’s ‘most trusted’ plants in difficult situations. Tough plants such as these can be thugs in company, so it is a good idea to corral them.
Above Andrea found that the site’s scenic drama called for simplicity, especially at the foot of the steps where a single block of Lomandra longifolia ‘Breeze’ contrasts with the Corten steel. The sculpture Looking Up by Jim Rennert stands sentinel by the steps, though your eye is drawn to look out to Yerba Buena Island and the Oakland Bay Bridge.
Top The top kitchen terrace affords expansive views across San Francisco Bay. The overlooks can be seen protruding into space below.
Above The meditative garden at the rear of the house has a very different feel to the other areas. Maples shade the rear garden space, defined by a Corten steel wall feature and a dramatic fire pit.