Traditional Building Portfolio



Unique Harmony

A San Francisco firm looks for the Classical roots in traditional design.
By Dan Cooper

To say that San Franciscan architect Andrew Skurman is enchanted by Classicism would be an understatement. Glancing through his portfolio and many projects in progress, one observes a passionate use of the motifs and designs of the ancient orders.

At first, it seems a bit ironic – an architect who cites Andrea Palladio as his greatest influence establishing himself in a city that is the epicenter of ornate, gingerbread Victorians – but Skurman's stock in trade are the landmark houses designed in the manner of French chateaux, Mediterranean villas and Georgian country houses and built for the captains of the technology boom just south of the Bay Area as well as in southern California, New York and France.

Skurman is happiest drawing on influences from the past. "I find it much more creative than Modern architecture," he says. "In my opinion, Modernism is sort of a one-liner. Our goal is to create houses of quality and substance that embrace the spirit of homes built generations ago. Within our ‘mini-brand' of the historic styles in which we specialize, we have so much room for creativity. We can select from the Italian, English, Spanish and French influences, amongst others – there are so many ways to create houses."

Skurman was raised in New York City, and as a teenager, he spent countless hours in the city's museums. "At 14, during my school holidays, I drafted for my grandfather's elevator company in the Bronx," he says. "That summer, I accompanied him on a sales call to Philip Johnson's office in the Seagram Building and was transfixed." Realizing then his future as an architect, Skurman attended The Cooper Union in New York City, receiving a Bachelor of Architecture in 1976. He then apprenticed with I.M. Pei, becoming involved in the design of the addition to Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Pyramide du Louvre in Paris. Then, at the age of 28, Skurman left Pei's office and moved to San Francisco to take a job with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as a senior associate and subsequently served as a studio director at Gensler and Associates in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In 1992, Skurman founded Andrew Skurman Architects, which currently employs approximately 20 persons. "I started with renovations, because that's what an architect does in the city," he says. "I would love to do more renovations, but there's a trend in the profession – designers have taken over the interior architecture and are marketing it specifically. They have an architect on staff, and it's really hurting the architects in cities where there's a lot of renovation. So we are doing less of these and more new homes in the suburbs, but we do have a couple of new houses in San Francisco itself."

With that, Skurman strides to the sunny conference area of his recently expanded office and hoists a model of a Neoclassical townhouse, complete with two-story pergola supported by Doric columns built into its edifice. Reminiscent of homes that might be found in Charleston, SC, there's an unmistakable antebellum flair to the residence. A broken-arch pediment frames the front door and the alternating peaked and arched lintels on the second floor windows boldly promote a style rarely seen in residences in this city. "This may be the first house with columns built in San Francisco in 50 years," he says. "It will be finished this year, and I can't wait to see the reaction to it."

Much of Skurman's work is situated near the Silicon Valley, with many homes constructed in and around Atherton, CA. His appreciation of French Classicism is evident in many of his residences, such as a country house, with a sweeping circular drive, that boasts a grand portico with robust quoins and a keystone arch supported by secondary columns. On the first and second floors of the front elevation, eight pairs of French doors open onto the grounds or petite wrought-iron balconies. The formality and symmetry of the exterior gently transition into an entry hall and stairwell composed of curved steps and a wrought-iron balustrade. The public rooms on the ground floor are each accessed through arched doorways fitted with glazed Palladian doors.

In another residence, Skurman employed a variant of French style, the Mansard, punctuating the main roof with a row of gently arched dormers. Again, the maximum use of French doors leading out to the grounds imparts a feeling of spaciousness and grandeur. Inside, attention to the more subtle details, such as an ornately carved fireplace surround and its firebox lined with tiles laid in a herringbone pattern, contributes to the cohesive whole of the design.

"I love France and its architecture," says Skurman. "I've been going there for many years, and the jobs that we typically do there are consulting jobs for French people who want us to help them in the design of their apartments and homes. I visit Paris four times a year – three individual weeks and two weeks at Christmas."

Equally adept at Georgian Revival, Skurman's re-creation of this indigenous East Coast style in another design features subtle embellishments that elevate the structure above the more mundane interpretations that are rife in every bedroom community. Along with a bold but proportionate massing, the house features authentic ornamentation on the brick chimneys and a lattice-arched secondary portico that reveal a sensitivity and understanding of the style. The series of dormer windows constructed with Palladian sashes and the dentil brackets located on the soffits further contribute to an exemplary use of Georgian motifs.

Skurman's portfolio also includes a dramatic hillside residence in Kentfield, CA, in the Mediterranean style; it captures the sun-soaked beauty of Spanish and Italian villas with its shuttered windows, stucco walls and tile roof, while a wrought-iron balcony and terraced stairs built into stone walls lend a convincing impression of a European locale. He created a covered colonnade intended for el fresco dining that is lined with columns that support broad arches. At the far end, a massive hearth provides a focal point for this "outdoor room." The recurrent use of metal in Skurman's work is quite evident, from the lanterns and railings to the unusual barred and riveted garage doors, which are half-concealed below the terrace's ivy.

In another departure from Classicism, Skurman designed a Normandy-styled carriage house in the wine country of Napa, complete with subtly tinted half-timbering and a wood-shingled mansard roof and tower that have weathered to gray. The hooded dormers overlook the pollarded trees and trellises of the garden, and an expansive pergola is situated at the rear of the building, providing ample space for lounging and dining. The exterior wall of this section is rough stone with heavy lintels, which contributes to the perception of age.

The firm accepted a commission recently in a style most architects rarely get a chance to work with – Gothic Revival from the first quarter of the 20th century. "We were asked to renovate an office building in the Neo-Gothic style," says Skurman. "We don't normally do office buildings, but I was asked by the owner, who said that he wanted something special. We're going to execute a rib-vaulted ceiling in the lobby; one of the big challenges is designing the elevator cab, which should look like a Gothic cage. We're still working on the technical aspects of it: the ornamental quatrefoil lattice will be laser-cut, quarter-inch-thick un-lacquered brass, but we're not sure what to use for a backing. I'm worried about dirt getting between the backing and the brass and other crevices, so as of now, we're considering adhering the grille to plastic laminate."

Perhaps one of the most graceful examples of Skurman's use of Classical design can be found in a small, round vestibule that connects a dining room to other chambers. It would have been far simpler to finish out this area as a typical rectangle, yet the architect instead chose to build the door jambs into curved casings with heavy moldings, creating a striking cylindrical room that is capped with a round skylight.

Skurman pays particular attention to the detailing of bathrooms, and a trademark of his is a wide oval step, almost a half landing, situated at the foot of the tub, which enables the user to step in and out of a built-in tub with ease. When this is referred to, half in jest, as the "Skurman Step," he smiles and produces a photograph of an ancient stairway and says, "It should be called the ‘Michelangelo Step.' I know it sounds pretentious but it's really true, the oval steps at his Laurentian library were the inspiration for it."

Interior Angle
Any architect who puts so much thought into the design of a residence must also contend with the ultimate appearance of its interiors, and Skurman is no exception. In fact, walking down the long sidewall of his studio, one observes many sample boards and examples of the finish materials he and the firm utilize in creating an authentic historical presence in his buildings. One finds an endless array of delicate turned balusters, molding profiles and pieces of hardware. Also to be found are sections of antique-oak parquet flooring, along with samples of reproductions. Skurman picks up a piece of ornamental grillwork that will be gracing the end of a duct somewhere, and its crispness and precision are impressive. It is an example of laser-cut metalwork, and the firm employs both this and a water-cutting technique for creating custom work that adapts to the needs of each client and the nuances of their specific project.

"We try our best to choose things that look old," says Skurman. "We look for products that have a patina on them. When we do work without a designer, we'll pick the finishes, lighting and faucets. We can do a furniture plan, but we generally work with, and like to work, with designers.

"We typically do not do the interior design – we're usually collaborating with an interior design firm. Nine times out of ten, we have designers we work with on the project. I like to say that we do the coloring book, and they color it in. That might mean type of wood or the colors, they could even pick the door knob and we do the hardware schedule. We're happy to collaborate with designers, which I think is a little unusual. We think of ourselves as being designer friendly."

Classical Continuum
As an architect who strives to achieve authenticity in historic design, Skurman collects myriad reference books. "We have this incredible reference library of well over 1,000 books, and they're divided by country," he says. "We draw from our extensive architectural library and historical reference materials of European and American design. We work closely with our clients to identify historical precedents that meet their tastes and their lives. The goal is always to create houses of quality and substance that embrace the spirit of homes built generations ago."

When queried as to why a technology entrepreneur in California, the home of innovation and modernity, would desire a Classically inspired residence, Skurman says that it's "an interesting phenomenon. Many of our clients are 40 to 50 years old, and their success can happen very quickly, which leaves them wanting a feeling of security and continuity; they want the impression of established, old money."

Offering words of advice when working with clients, Skurman remarks, "95 percent of our work is residential construction, and the problem we face is ‘Who is in charge?' Is it the man, or the woman? Who wanted this project to be built? Is it someone who would have been happier in a smaller house, but their partner wants a bigger one?"

"Are they good or quick decision makers or are they going to rehash over and over and make life difficult?" he says. "We usually work on a percentage, and there are people who let you do your thing versus those who value-engineer everything, which cuts into the profit margin and takes much longer. That being said, we're not focused on money, we're there to do a great job, no matter how difficult it might become. My resolution for this year is to make all clients have a contingency, which means that if something is not exactly right or could be improved, we want the client to have 5-10 percent of the cost of construction available to fix it without going crazy."

The very nature of the term "Classical" implies a static, un-evolving aspect in design, but when the question is posed on how one can keep Classicism fresh, Skurman replies, "While the proportions and symmetry of Classical architecture are respected, there is something idiosyncratic about them – the personality of the architect shines through. You have many versions of each of the orders that you can pick from; building a house is an experiment in which you learn from the previous one, you become more facile with the orders. Currently I'm in a ‘thin out the column' mode, and not working literally from any specific order. I like the Ionic 9 diameter size column, but I'm using that thinness on a Doric column."

Skurman states that his love of Classical design in domestic applications is perhaps a panacea. "I am a firm believer in Modern architecture for public buildings and monuments which are punctuation points in the fabric of the city," he says. "When I created my own firm, I set out to do what I enjoy – working on private houses and apartments. In this hectic and violent world, I believe in a different solution for each person within the unique harmony of Classicism."  

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