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San Francisco Chronicle and | Sunday, February 24, 2013 | Section N


Joe Fletcher

San Francisco architect Jim Jennings’ Desert One getaway in Palm Springs has no driveway, no house number, no front door, no structured landscaping.

In line with a philosophy By Leilani Marie Labong

PALM SPRINGS — Stop No. 1 on Home Tour One of the annual design blowout known as Palm Springs Modernism Week just so happened to be Desert One, a dwelling so unassuming that it actually makes quite a bold statement in the city’s famous architectural landscape. While most of the midcentury structures in the desert are characterized by vast expanses of glass that embrace the natu-

Jennings designs — no room for the extraneous

ral surroundings, this 21st century construction by San Francisco architect Jim Jennings takes a more exclusionary approach: Its distinguishing feature is a solid concrete-block wall that surrounds all sides of the home; an unmistakable expression of privacy and solitude. “Most midcentury architecture is about extending into the environment, but this house, which is inspired by the style’s strong horizontal Jennings continues on N6

THE DIRT By Joe Eaton and Ron Sullivan

Laotian flavors spice up school garden This is the third in an occasional series on urban farmers working to preserve their cultural foodways by growing heritage crops in the Bay Area. For previous installments, go to The Verde Elementary School Partnership Garden is a reclaimed treasure in urban North Richmond, a flourishing melange of row crops and ornamentals, fruit trees and butterfly plants. On our first visit 14 years ago, we saw Southeast Asians

and Central Americans swapping chili peppers and beans. A Mien woman used the school kitchen to make sweet corn pancakes to share. Since then, changes in demographics and funding have reshaped the garden; it’s still producing and teaching under the care of Bienvenida Mesa, who works for the Richmond nonprofit, Urban Tilth. Alongside her projects there’s a plot or two to spare, and Saeng and Kert Dohngdara, a Lao couple in their

Saeng Dohngdara harvests crops in December from her plot in the Verde Elementary School Partnership Garden in Richmond.

70s keep up the tradition of raising Southeast Asian crops in the exotic soil of West Contra Costa County. Laos is a complicated little country, and not all Laotians are ethnic Lao. The Lao are or were a

Dirt continues on N4

Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

N6 | Sunday, February 24, 2013 | San Francisco Chronicle and


Joe Fletcher photos

Desert One’s concrete block wall encloses nearly 3,000 square feet — but the living space within is a mere 750 square feet, with east and west courtyards.

In line with a philosophy of design Jennings from page N1


lines, is more about creating a world within,” says Jennings, who uses the home, located in Palm Springs’ North End, as an escape from the San Francisco chill. “I call it my little fortress with an open heart.” Therein lies the paradox that defines Desert One. Inside the perimeter, east and west outdoor courtyards occupy most of the area; they’re sun-soaked concrete spaces that are mostly unencumbered, with the exception of a fiberglass table here, a custom built-in grill there, and a lap pool, which is practically a requirement of survival in these parts. In the face of such minimalism, the San Jacinto Mountains to the west seem even more majestic, considering that the fortress wall also blocks out any distractions at lower elevations. “The emptiness intensifies your connection with these massive mountains,” says Jennings, who can sometimes detect a few tiny specks — Palm Springs’ famous aerial trams — moving slowly through one of the alpine canyons. In this way, Desert One lives up to its midcentury inspirations, using its design to emphasize nature, albeit unconventionally. Even from the street, Desert One’s low silhouette blends beautifully into the raw desert. There are almost no identifying markers on the

Jim Jennings Architecture, jimjenningsarchitec

The Jennings touch

property — no driveway, no house numbers, no front door, no structured landscaping. On one hand, the sagebrush and sand camouflage the structure, and on the other hand, they create a diversion with their sheer untamed beauty. Without the aid of a GPS device — or a trusty tour guide — it is quite possible to bypass the house, even with your eyes peeled. “The desert and the house share a similar allure,” says Jacques Caussin, chairman of Modernism Week. “Their style comes from their starkness.” The home itself measures in at a mere 750 square feet, about half of what the neighborhood’s ordinances require, presumably to prevent the likes of shanty-sized dwellings from popping up and decreasing property values. “I had to apply for a variance,” explains Jennings, who appeased the powers that be with a measurement of nearly 3,000 square feet within the four big walls, a scope that includes the courtyard spaces. (Arguably, the home’s petite dimensions could be construed as another unorthodox tactic to maximize outdoor splendor.) The living room and one and only bedroom

Bruce Damonte

SCULPTURAL Bold, uncomplicated lines come naturally to Jennings. He used a cantilevered glass cube to house the offices at UCSF’s Cardiovascular Research Building in Mission Bay, pictured above. He anchored a Telegraph Hill house with a monumental concrete cylinder that extends through the center of the structure and beyond the roofline. The Pischoff Building, an industrial warehouse in Oakland, boasts a “serrated” roof with clerestory windows for “teeth.”

Sharon Risedorph

HARMONIOUS Desert One’s theme is minimalist throughout. “The emptiness intensifies your connection” with the massive San Jacinto mountain range, Jennings says.

are on opposite sides of the house. Both spaces are enclosed by pocketing glass doors; when open, the footprint of the home

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is seamlessly extended into the courtyards; when shut, heating and cooling transpires, depending on the season (round holes in the roof’s steel support beams are at once forced-air vents and awesome geometric design features; they are practically the only soft curves in a house lined with crisp edges). Once upon a blueprint, Jennings had the brave notion of cooling the house using water, presenting his eccentric idea at a meeting with the builder. “It was like I was Jay Leno. He thought it was the biggest joke he’d ever heard,” recalls Jennings. “When it’s 115 degrees outside, you need an air conditioner. Simple as that.” Because such an extreme summertime climate could require 24/7 cooling, the architect installed an array of photovoltaic panels, which helps offset the energy drain by nearly 30 percent. The galley kitchen doubles as a connector between the living room and bedroom. At just 10 feet long, counter space is at a premium, so installing full-size appliances was not an option; instead, Jennings opted for Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer drawers. The countertop and backsplash are fashioned from stainless steel, a cool counterpoint to the

Uniting the natural environment with the architecture is a big part of Jennings’ modus operandi. Amazing courtyards prevail in his work, from Desert One’s matching quads to a SoMa house with a private outdoor oasis, pictured above. More abstractly, the horizontal silhouette of an oceanfront Lanikai house on Oahu emphasizes the towering palm trees and echoes the watery horizon.

Tim Griffith

INDUSTRIAL Concrete, steel and glass are Jennings’ materials of choice. In Geyserville (Sonoma County), parallel concrete walls extend far beyond the footprint of the Visiting Artists House, pictured above, and into the landscape. The Barclay Simpson studio in Oakland is essentially a steel frame filled with glass blocks and set atop a concrete foundation. Galvanized steel clads the walls of a Los Altos Hills house, a dwelling with an exposed steel structural system.

oak slats in the ceiling above. This small patch of wood is the only truly earthy material in the house, which speaks to Jennings’ unapologetic use of industrial finishes — glass, concrete and aluminum. While hardly a cozy mix, the palette manages to be graceful in its simplicity. The same can be argued for the structure of the home: There’s a concrete floor, a

steel cantilevered roof and a big concrete wall. The three basic architectural components have been thoughtfully arranged to create a wholly unique, inside-out expression of modernism. “All I was trying to do was create my own little world,” says Jennings. Leilani Marie Labong is a San Francisco freelance writer. E-mail: home@

In Line With a Philosophy  

Jim Jennings designs leave no room for the extraneous.

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