The eyes of the globe are on Silicon Valley, looking to see what the future holds, but some of its residents are looking to the world’s ancient past, at least where their homes are concerned, thanks to Steven Ehrlich and Takashi Yanai. The two are partners at Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects, a Los Angeles firm with a growing list of Bay Area clients shunning Tudor replicas, Mediterranean mansions and New England saltboxes in favor of geometric homes built of glass, concrete, wood and steel. It’s not the materials, but the ways these homes sit on the land and cocoon their owners that hearken back thousands of years.
The two, who’ve opened a San Francisco office in response to demand, employ an approach they describe alternately as new California modernism and multicultural modernism to blend the new with the old. “It’s not so much a historical style,” says Yanai, “but, at its root, a forward-thinking, optimistic architecture.” Ehrlich says their style “acknowledges the history of earlier California modernists, from (Rudolph) Schindler to (Richard) Neutra to Ray Kappe, and also brings in other influences.” The influences to which he refers are global influences: California’s Spanish and Mexican roots, along with the Moroccan courtyards and earthen homes he saw and experienced in his travels to Africa after college in the 1970s, and the spare, but highly crafted, open-plan homes and their relationship to the landscape that Yanai observed and experienced while living in Japan in his 20s in the 1990s.
Like painters with a palette and brush, they approach each project as a work of art. Their aim: to reflect a client’s tastes, incorporate touches by Bay Area master woodworkers and metalworkers, and orient the home to a site’s topography and potential to maximize the light and views. “It’s not just the physical; ‘we can open a glass door and step outside,’ but taking in the landscape as interior space, so if there’s a view of Mount Tam, that’s part of the composition,” Yanai says, referring to the Japanese concept of borrowed landscape. “Maybe there’s a patch of landscape that’s only amazing at 5pm every day. How can the architect frame that and bring that to your attention in your everyday life?” The pair also point to the title of their latest book, Outside-In ($38, Monacelli Press), as the foundation of their philosophy. “It isn’t just about bringing the exterior in,” Ehrlich notes, “but outside influences in.”
It’s in Old Palo Alto, a neighborhood not far from the startups of downtown and the garage where the Hewlett- Packard Co. was born in 1939, that two of Ehrlich and Yanai’s Bay Area works can be found. One is a young couple’s home on Waverley Street. Its two stories are set among mature oaks to evoke a feeling of living among the trees. Heightening the experience are floor-to-ceiling glass windows, one of them a custom piece standing 33 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 4 inches thick. Three smaller windows had originally been penciled in to cut costs, but the clients preferred one piece of glass. It’s an apt metaphor for Silicon Valley, where dreamers make their own reality. At the time of installation, the window, made in Germany, was the largest sheet of double-glazed glass installed in a residential home in the United States (it was hoisted in place by a crane, and neighbors were invited to a viewing party to watch). The home’s exterior is dark gray; gingko trees were planted in front to create a “deliberate conversation” between the landscape and the architecture, Yanai notes. “Not only do the colors of the trees when they’re yellow resonate with the ochre in the handmade brick of the facade,” he says, “but the front of the house looks totally different when the leaves are green or when they’ve fallen off, and that marks the passage of time and the seasons.”
The other Palo Alto home a few blocks away is owned by tech entrepreneur Asher Waldfogel and his wife, Helyn MacLean. Some four years in the making, their two-story residence (with a basement) on a corner lot was the result of their desire to live in a home that had elements of futurism and California history. “A saltbox is not a California building,” Waldfogel says. “A Mediterranean mansion is not a California building. There’s this other California-international style tradition that really was centered around people’s work in Los Angeles, like Neutra and Schindler. For us, that seemed like a California tradition we wanted to participate in.”
The rap against such modern homes, in some quarters, is that they’re too minimal, sterile or stark to be comfortable, but Waldfogel says the home affords a great sense of tranquility. To be sure, the rooms are expansive; the ceilings soar; and enormous floor-to-ceiling glass doors slide into pockets to let the outside in. Still, Waldfogel says, the designers “modulate scale so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. We experience [it] as a home, not as a museum or a public kind of a space.”
A guest who enters the front door, for instance, walks into a foyer with an overhang. This, he says, is “intentionally compressed, so that you’re passing through something that’s human scale and not a giant atrium. You walk into a space you connect to; it’s a progression.” The home’s two separate living rooms are connected by a hallway that, on its other sides, leads to a kitchen and dining room. Both living rooms open out onto a backyard with grass, a reflecting pool and a covered patio. The bedrooms are upstairs; a billiard room is below ground, where a portion of the couple’s fine art collection can be found. From the street, the home’s mass is partially offset by its design as a mixture of rectangular shapes, rather than a monolithic block. Sitting on a corner lot, the home is also set back from the street and separated from the sidewalk by rows of flowers and shrubs. A courtyard with espaliered trees takes up most of the front yard, further softening the view. “You don’t encounter (the house) as a box,” Waldfogel says, “but as a series of larger and smaller volumes.”
Other Bay Area homes include a residence in Aptos; another in Ross, where an entrepreneur had them design a house on a wooded hilltop with 270-degree views of Mount Tam and the Bay; and a fifth that’s in the planning stages in Portola Valley. The firm’s Southern California work includes a home tucked into Beverly Hills’ Coldwater Canyon, a residence with sweeping ocean views in Pacific Palisades and another with desert views in Palm Springs, to name a few. The firm designs educational, civic and commercial buildings too. Among its formal accolades are a Merit Award from the American Institute of Architects Silicon Valley chapter in 2018, the AIA National Architecture Firm Award in 2015 and the AIA California Council Firm Award in 2003.
It wasn’t awards that Ehrlich, 72, a New Jersey native, was after when he went to architecture school, but a love of designing and building. His mother, a homemaker, and his father, an inventor and engineer, encouraged creativity (Ehrlich’s younger sister went on to a successful costume design career in the film industry). In childhood, he built forts, and at their summer home, a treehouse that jutted out over a lake (he installed a rope to swing and plunge into the water below). He was a fan of books on Frank Lloyd Wright, popular mechanics and other “nerdy science magazines,” he says, and at age 12, far ahead of the curve, he built a solar home for his science fair project in the seventh grade. It was 1958.
After earning an architecture degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Ehrlich spent six years living and working in Africa, two of them with the Peace Corps in Morocco, where he learned French and Arabic, and was exposed for the first time to buildings the likes of which he had never before seen. “It blew my mind,” he says of his time in Marrakech. He crossed the Sahara into almost every country in West Africa, wowed by “architecture without architects,” he says, “and the most harmonious and sustainable elegant architecture that one could imagine—architecture that grows up out of the ground, that doesn’t get manipulated by outpouring of energy and materials found on the spot, living in harmony and balance with their environment, such as the cooling of a Moroccan courtyard.” He also taught architecture in Northern Nigeria, at Ahmadu Bello University, for three years. There, he designed an experimental theater for the school, a quasi theater-in-the- round, built out of mud. “It’s still there, believe it or not,” he says. “There’s only one reason it’s there—they like it and maintain it, and when they don’t need it anymore, it will melt back to the Earth from whence it came.”
Yanai, 50, was born in Japan and grew up in Santa Monica with a younger brother. His father was a meteorologist; his mother was a financial adviser. Yanai also tinkered as a boy, taking things apart and putting them back together to understand how they worked. “If I had an old alarm clock that stopped working, I’d take it apart and take the plastic face and the clock mechanism, and find a way to make it into a buzzer,” he recalls. In his neighborhood, architect Frank Gehry bought a home and remodeled it, a project Yanai observed on his way to and from school. “They were deconstructing a Dutch Colonial pink farmhouse and throwing chain link and corrugated metal on it, and creating a new sculptural landscape,” he recalls. “That had a profound effect on me, what you can do as an architect.”
He was also strongly influenced by two other landscapes. When Yanai was 10, his father fell ill and retreated to his bedroom. “It occurred to me this space was dark, and it was not helping him recover,” Yanai recalls. “The built environment has a bigger impact than we think, or give credit to, in terms of the spiritual well-being of an inhabitant.” Growing up near the Pacific Ocean, he notes, reinforced the importance of framing of nature in architectural designs. “Of course, the house has to be beautiful,” Yanai says. “It’s [also] about how it positions a person in relationship to the view or the climate or how the sun feels on their face.”
He enrolled in architecture school at UC Berkeley but switched to art history, literature and philosophy, he says, after a professor, Lars Lerup, told students they were not equipped to be architects because they didn’t understand enough about the world. After graduation, he moved to Japan to reconnect with his roots, worked at an architecture magazine and traveled the country to absorb its architectural styles. He later obtained a master’s degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and made his way back to Los Angeles, where he met Ehrlich, who had come west decades earlier and built up a thriving residential design firm. They’ve worked together for 20 years now, driven by a passion to create.
“We continue to explore ideas like, ‘How does the barrier between indoor and outdoor evaporate?’” Ehrlich says. “Often we have large sheets of glass slide or pivot away and disappear. If they slide into a pocket in the wall, you don’t even know the glass is there. The pure fusion of indoor and outdoor space has always been exciting to us.” Each project takes inspiration from the site and the people for whom the house is built—one reason every home is a “portrait” of the client, Yanai says. Ehrlich reinforces that the brand is not about cookie-cutter sameness. “We go on a personal journey with each house, but it’s modern,” Ehrlich says. “If someone wanted a château, we’d ask, ‘What does a château mean to you?’ We want to design today’s version of a château. We’re not here to repeat history.”