15 June 2023
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When I thought about who I would most like to speak with on the subject of timelessness, Bob Swatt came to mind right away. I have long admired his work for its straightforward, timeless forms — homes I know his clients can sink into, feeling safe and at peace. His firm, Swatt Miers Architects, is just down the street from our studio in Emeryville, and I have so enjoyed getting to know him. As we talk about the importance of timeless design and its impact on our lives, I hope you enjoy getting to know him too.

Raised in Los Angeles, Bob Swatt grew up amidst the work of the modernist designers who helped to shape the architecture of Southern California, an experience that influenced his design sensibilities early and indelibly. (His grandmother was an early client of R. M. Shindler. Richard Neutra designed his junior high school campus.)

After graduating from the school of architecture at U.C. Berkeley, Bob’s goal was to have his own practice: a small firm dedicated to the design of impeccable modern homes. Unfortunately when he entered the field, the California ranch-style home reigned and clients desiring truly contemporary residential architecture were scarce. He determined the only way to build the type of contemporary home he envisioned was to build one himself, on spec, so he did just that. The project received awards and acclaim, effectively launching his practice.

His initial residential practice was followed by a decade of commercial work, as the consulting architect to Levi Strauss, an experience that culminated in the design of the iconic Ice House. After ten years of this work, he needed to get back to designing homes.

It’s hard work, but there is so much design work in a home — more than in any commercial project type.

After 10 years away from residential design, Bob decided to design and build another spec home in the Oakland Hills. The Oakland Hills fire of 1991, which consumed 3,400 homes, had opened up a myriad of opportunities for residential architects. Riding a wave of enthusiasm, he used every archetypal element of modern architecture he could think of. When the project was complete, he loved it — for exactly four days. He then came to the conclusion that it was, as he says, “definitely not me.” It was trendy, ostentatious and self-conscious — everything he didn’t want his work to be — and it triggered a need to define his own approach to what modern residential design on the West Coast should be.

He purchased land and built a house for himself and his family. In the process, he developed the language of modern residential design that remains a hallmark of his firm’s design work to this day. That ethos can be captured in a single word: timeless. In fact, this is the first word that appears on his website, functioning as a beacon for those who share his approach.

How do you define timeless design?

I define timeless architecture on three key principles: knitting the building to the land, using an open-plan concept, and creating a connection between the indoors and outdoors.

Can you unpack those principles a little more?

The first principle dictates an authentic connection to the site. The architectural language can vary, but it must respond to the topography, the landscape, views, weather patterns and so on. The result is a house that fits the land like a glove and looks inevitable — you just can’t imagine it anywhere else.

The second principle comes from designing a home from the inside out, thinking about space first, then form. I do this both vertically as well as horizontally, which results in some exciting design solutions.

Our lifestyles are much more easy-going than they once were, and spaces that flow into one another make more sense.

The third principle — connecting the indoor and outdoor environments — is particularly important on the West Coast, but it holds true anywhere.

Building your house was a pivotal moment in defining your approach. Did your approach to that project hold true?

I still live in that house, and I still love it. It is truly timeless. A guest asked me recently if our house was a new-build, and I built it almost 30 years ago. It worked for us then, and it works for us now. It is simple, so nothing dates it. I feel at peace in that house.

Which leads us to how we want our clients to feel in the homes we design.

Timeless design should feel natural, calm and peaceful. We ask our clients what their dreams are, how they want to live in their house.

If the design fits the land and fits its owners, it is inherently timeless.

Inevitably our lives move forward and change. How do you account for lifestyle changes, or larger changes like the shift to remote work, all of which impact how people live in their houses?

Open-plan houses are naturally flexible because the interior spaces are less rigid and more adaptable. In our design process, we think ahead and consider future needs. These discussions are always part of our initial process, and become a part of the design program.

So, incorporating new ideas, new technologies?

…is a moot point. Every project is different, because every site and every client is different, but good design based upon timeless principles can shift to accommodate new circumstances. The process assures that. I think in plan first, then in section, then the aesthetics of the building just fall into place.

Where do sustainability and timeless design intersect?

Sometimes I see architecture that feels like it jumps through hoops, in terms of design, materials, budget, using more resources and money than I think is necessary.

You shouldn’t have to struggle to create really good architecture. Simplicity is timeless.

But the big picture is that timeless design is going to last and not be replaced. Isn’t that the ultimate in sustainability?

Of all of the projects you’ve done, which is your favorite?

It’s our smallest project — just three small-scale structures set on the crest of a hill. We had renovated a large home in Saratoga, and our client asked me to take a walk with him up the hill on his property, where he wanted to build three tea houses: one for meditation or quiet conversation, one for sleeping and one for work.

He told me he felt as if he was with the Dalai Llama when he came to this spot. He just wanted to capture that feeling, and he left the architecture entirely up to me. We designed three small cubes of glass lifted off the ground so that nature could flow around them and underneath them.

Any final thoughts on timelessness?

Aesthetics are important, and beauty is a big part of what we do, but our designs are timeless because we don’t overthink or over complicate them. They are just right.

One of my favorite quotes, interestingly, is from Frank Gehry: ‘Architecture should speak of its time and place, but should yearn for timelessness.’

Now, a few fun questions we always like to ask…

What’s the one thing you love most about what you do?

I always say that each building we design is a prototype — never been done before — so that’s what I love about what I do. I get to design something that has never been designed before.

Who — or what — inspires you?

I’m inspired by the work of California’s early modern masters — Schindler, Neutra and, in more recent years, the work of Ray Kappe who had been a mentor to me since my first year at UC Berkeley.

What’s the single best business or creative advice you’ve ever received?

Be patient.

Last book you read?

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an architect, I’d be in a rock band.

How do you love spending time outside of work?

Outside of work I play guitar, and I recently wrote a couple of new songs.

What is one thing that most people don’t know about you?

The one thing most people don’t know about me? Well, I don’t think anyone knows that I was the lead singer in a rock band in high school – and in my senior year we won the “Battle of the Bands’ in LA.