As part of an ongoing effort to digitize records representing Beverly Willis’s significant works and projects, I’ve been highlighting some of her work in posts here. In November 2019 I wrote a post about her firm’s work in developing a program called “CARLA” or Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis and its use in a land development project (Pacific Point Condominiums). This week I’ll be looking at a smaller scale, but no less stunning, project: the River Run Residence. The house itself is beautiful, but I wanted to examine how it embodies Willis’s approach to design. When looking at a final product (a building facade, polished interiors) it can be easy to forget just how many choices went into creating something cohesive. Yet looking at design records can tease out some of the labor and give perspective on the process of designing and building that’s often obscured or mystified in the way we talk about and look at architecture. While this post won’t go deeply into the design process, it will touch on a few of the generative ideas and organizing principles behind the final building.
The axis of Beverly Willis’s design philosophy hews to that line between formal and informal: the formal geometries of classicism and the informal rusticity of regionalism. Willis believes that at its core, design is about the investigation of the symbolic content of forms/shapes, and the manipulation of images (for more on this, see Invisible Images). When thinking about design, it can be a long and iterative process of drafting, layering, modeling – leaving aside sourcing materials and overseeing construction – this amounts to creating and blending images to form novel yet coherent aesthetics.
The Willis-designed Palladian villa cum rustic ranch in Napa Valley, called River Run, is emblematic of this mode of design thinking. The balance of the colonnaded portico, dramatic windows, grand approach mixed with the redwood shingle siding – classicism inflected by the vernacular – are all the more impressive given River Run’s relaxed atmosphere as a retreat. This is an interesting example of how works are often colored by different influences that are channeled through a designer. “While she abided by general principles of symmetry and proportion, the local shingle style — with its spreading roof, plentiful windows, and use of natural colors and regional materials — was also a powerful influence” (58-59). Willis seems to view it as a process of simplification – synthesis and streamlining. “Although the house is quite large, it displays a consistent economy of lines and means. It draws from the vocabulary of classicism, but there’s nothing complicated about it” (Willis qtd in Nelson 60). The nature and geometry mentioned in the title – and, indeed, Willis’s philosophy in general – refer to some of the central tenets of classicism and classical philosophy – that there are natural ideals that humans gravitate toward, that shapes and forms reveal a hidden geometry.
- Nelson, Christina. “Modern Retreats.” Home. 1986: 58-61.
- Nelson, Christina. “Powder Room Poise.” Home. August 1986: 70-74.
- Willis, Beverly. Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture. National Building Museum, 1997.