No house in San Francisco’s fabled Russian Hill better reflects the magical promise of California living better than the Butterfly House. Tucked between the historic townhomes and Deco towers that cling to the crooked streets that ascend to the top of the hill, the house’s mannered modernist facade belies the verdant courtyards and spiraling living spaces that lead to a rooftop area with panoramic connections to the City and the San Francisco Bay. In a city known more for its exuberant, inward-looking painted ladies, this Butterfly House represents the road not taken, offering its occupants inside-outside living.
The courtyard garden offers the residents of the Butterfly House a respite from city life, extending the scale and materiality of the house to the outside. Eschewing popular references to mid-century California homes, the garden design owes much to the Japanese tradition of Tsuboniwa (courtyard garden), the use of a small courtyard space to create an idealized view of nature. Rooted in tea garden design, Tsuboniwa emphasizes garden composition, planting selections, and the scale and detail of built garden elements provide its occupants with privacy, tranquility, and inspiration through nature. A robust composition of cream-colored limestone paving, poured into concrete walls, and super-sized ceramic planters is balanced with the delicate chartreuse and silver palette of hellebores, maidenhair ferns, euphorbias, and succulents.
Invoking the elements, the sunken garden relies on both shadow and wind to define a connection to the outdoors. The abstract geometry of sculptural concrete walls, deep benches around the fireplace and the vertical stripes of cedar fencing invoke the patterns of nature through shadow. These forms are softened by stands of ferns and Japanese Anemones that grow from the base of the fireplace and dance with the afternoon wind. The centerpiece of the courtyard is the great hearth of an outdoor fireplace, fabricated from white concrete. A ripple of water slips across a granite wall located behind the flame of the fire. Adjacent to the courtyard and beneath the spiraling catwalk leading to the upper floors and roof deck, strands of forged metal cranes are bathed in light and water from a suspended mist fountain above.