Shortlisted in Private Gardens in 2019:

Calistoga Residence by

Private Gardens / Private Gardens / USA / Built in 2017 /

The Calistoga Residence is perched within the native oak woodland above Napa Valley, with views to vineyards and hills beyond. Taking inspiration from the site’s naturally occurring field stone, rough-hewn walls structure the spaces immediately surrounding the buildings. The entry courtyards consist of restrained material and plant palettes: four ancient olive trees are established in a gravel ground plane, while stepping stones float through a mass of white blooming crepe myrtle and shade-tolerant Seslaria grass. This controlled approach is contrasted with abundant gardens elsewhere. The more exuberant spaces contain a mix of grasses and flowering perennials, including Pink Muhly Grass and White Gaura, overflowing onto adjacent paths. While certain gathering spaces are carefully contained, the pool terrace and lawn float dramatically above the surrounding vineyard and valley, their edges spilling to the valley beyond. Corten stairways, framed by ornamental grasses, lead throughout the expansive grounds. The refined courtyards and luscious gardens gradually transition to the landscape beyond, blurring the line between what is designed and what is natural.


The intrinsic qualities of the site were a great inspiration to the design team, so expanding upon the site’s inherent beauty was a goal identified early in the design process. The extensive project encompasses 2.5 acres, with an additional portion of vineyard surrounding the house. The landscape architect took extreme care to preserve the mature oak trees on the site. While tree preservation made the design more challenging, the trees provided incredible inspiration and opportunity for the outdoor spaces, in addition to shade on hot summer days. The landscape architect worked closely with the architect to site the house within the canopy of the oaks, taking advantage of their beauty while also maximizing the spectacular views. The careful siting of retaining walls, in lieu of significant earthwork, was carried out in an effort to both minimize root disturbance and to give the sense that the house and gardens had been precisely inserted into the existing landscape. The designers negotiated a delicate balancing act by minimizing root disturbance, while maximizing the proximity of the trees to both the buildings and the outdoor spaces. This process required a close working relationship with an arborist, as well as support from both the client and architect.

The project draws inspiration from the landscape as a source of prospect and refuge. Moments of pause, reflection, and respite are at times punctuated by those of drama and awe. Walls form the spaces immediately adjacent to the house, creating intimate courtyards. This sense of containment and enclosure is contrasted with a feeling of expansiveness at the back of the house, where the lawn and pool deck perch dramatically above the valley floor. The top of the retaining wall surrounding the lawn was minimized to the extent that the space has no visual boundary between it and the surrounding landscape, creating a “disappearing edge”. While the sharp dissimilarity between constructed and natural is presented in the view toward Napa Valley, in other locations, the line between design and nature is intentionally blurred. Great care was taken in the transitions between disparate spaces, such that pathways and edges felt grounded in the site and its context. This blurring effect was achieved by planting native drought-tolerant species in drifts and gradually reducing plant density as it approached the native landscape.

The field stone discovered throughout the property presented another opportunity for design inspiration, as well as the existing stone walls on the site. The warm, earthy tones of the site stone lent a unique character and historical context to the property and established the materials palette for rest of the landscape. Field stone was used for several low walls as a cost effective alternative to purchasing and transporting material off-site. In addition to stone, a simple material combination of board formed concrete, permeable gravel, stepping stones, and Corten is repeated throughout the landscape. While the planting design varies within each space, the hardscape materials remain constant and provide continuity throughout the vast property.

Despite a relatively spare materials palette, there is a great variety of experiences within the outdoor spaces. This diversity is not only achieved by shifting relationships to the greater landscape, but also by the unique plant species contained within each space. As the grade slopes down to the adjacent vineyard, meadows planted with ornament grasses and wildflowers provide a foreground to the vineyard and hills beyond. Throughout the design this layering of plant material provides a powerful juxtaposition between the designed landscape, the agrarian, and the natural.

Marta Alabau, Backen & Gillam Architects – Architect
Jose Cruz, Russ Mitchell & Associates, Inc. – Irrigation Design
Project location: California
Design year: 2014-2017
Year Built: 2017


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