San Francisco's Class Act
By Joseph Lucier
Amidst the current South of Market towering development boom, sits a charming historic building along the edge of Folsom and Fremont Streets. From this unique vantage point, Brooks Walker of Walker Warner Architects designs gracious residences with the knowing hand of a native San Franciscan steeped in the work of Bay Area design icons, William Wurster and Joseph Esherick. Inspired by the honest and direct approach to design and construction that these two men brought to our unique topography, I found in Brooks a man who who passionately strives for an understanding of context as a universal principle to best offer his clients an inspirational framework to enhance and define their daily lives.
Joseph Lucier: You were fortunate to grow up in a family that engaged well-known architects to design their family and vacation homes. How did growing up with these homes shape your viewpoint as an architect?
Brooks Walker: Frank Lloyd Wright designed a home in Carmel for my great grandmother after WWII. As a young child I was awed by the placement of the structure, perched on tide pool rocks above the ocean. The spaces were unlike any home I had experienced….perhaps this is what inspired my early interest in building and architecture. In that same timeframe, I was also fortunate to spend several Thanksgivings at the Gregory Farm House designed by William Wurster during the late 1930’s. This iconic ranch house left a lasting impression with its California ranch vernacular forms and rustic simplicity.
JL: You have an affinity for modernist architecture, particularly William Wurster. What is it about his work that attracts you?
BW: I love his honest and direct approach to design and construction. The timeless quality of his work is elegant and enduring, yet humble.
JL: You reimagined a William Wurster house on Pacific Avenue. What was the experience like reimagining one of your idols original design?
BW: The Pacific Heights Residence [click here] was built in the early 1950’s and had Historic Landmark status, which made the permitting of any intervention difficult. Wurster made a bold move by designing the main south street façade with no windows, which gave the house privacy while focusing attention on the light filled entry courtyard. We respected the key elements of the house and exterior detailing, but opened up the compartmentalized rooms and added a new master suite above the living room. I think Wurster would have approved
"We opened up the compartmentalized rooms and added a new master suite above the living room. I think Wurster would have approved."
JL: Your San Francisco home comes with an architectural pedigree from George Kelham's original design for himself and a mid century redesign by Joseph Esherick for Kelham's son. Did the pedigree of the home encourage you in your decision to purchase the property?
BW: The pedigree was interesting, but not material in our decision. Our interest in the home was all about the south facing garden, the flow of natural light, the large rooms with high ceilings, and the classic mid-century, over-scaled, double hung windows that Esherick incorporated in his radical redesign of Kelham’s original Tudor structure.
JL: You recently finished your family’s home in San Francisco. What was it like being your own client?
BW: It was incredibly rewarding, but stressful. My perfectionist tendencies were hard to restrain when dealing with a 102-year-old house. It was an exercise in client empathy training.
JL: How do you approach the blank canvas of a new project with a client?
BW: It all starts with a thorough understanding of the site and the client’s programmatic goals for the project. We then discuss appropriate materials and review precedent images that we, and our clients, bring to the table. Our job is to synthesize these elements into a unique vision for the property that resonates on many levels.
JL: Discuss the feeling that good symmetry and proportion offer.
BW: Symmetry and well-proportioned spaces create a feeling of harmony that is almost always sensed, even if not consciously understood.
JL: Your firm does quite a bit of work in Hawaii. How can the firm’s philosophy be seen through the lens of island life?
BW: Understanding context in all dimensions is a universal principle of our practice. The tropical climate of Hawaii and the unique vernacular that responded to those conditions shape our approach. Buildings primarily provide shelter from the sun and the occasional rain shower. Rooms can be detached from one another and connected by paths in the landscape, which frame outdoor rooms in the garden. The lines of inside and outside are often blurred.
JL: How does designing with pencil to paper connect you to your ideas?
BW: Our brains are more directly connected to the sketching process, which is great for initiating the conceptual phase of a project or when working out some particular detail. Our teams at Walker Warner Architects are fantastic at using computers to develop those sketch concepts into architecture.
JL: Do you have a specific creative process?
BW: Yes, but it has evolved over many years of practice and it is hard to describe. The creative process is sometimes like a Zen Koan….you ruminate and iterate until the solution is revealed.
"Understanding context in all dimensions is a universal principle of our practice."
JL: What do you love about being a native and living in San Francisco?
BW: I feel incredibly grateful to have been born and raised in San Francisco. It is an amazingly beautiful place located on the edge of the Pacific. There is a rich creative history in this city and our work draws from that legacy while interpreting that inspiration into an architecture of our time.
JL: What do you go to rejuvenate your spirit and creativity?
BW: To our retreat outside of Healdsburg or the mountains of Northern California.
JL: Perfect weekend getaway from the city?
BW: Hard to beat exploring some beautiful river with my fly rod in hand.
JL: What are you reading?
BW: Mostly History and Biography. I typically have several books that I am reading and listening to on Audible while driving. One of my recent favorites was the “Invention of Nature” by Andrea Wulf.
Photo Credits: Matthew Millman, Mark Defeo, Laure Joliet