How Architecture and Site Relate | The Work of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects

A new book by author Daniel P. Gregory and photographer Erhard Pfeiffer called From the Land (Rizzoli)

When designing a home, it’s important to calibrate the architecture to the landscape around it. Skillfully capturing views and allowing sunlight to enter can transform even the most modest dwelling into something quite special. When the alchemy is right, the home is integrated so well into its surroundings, it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

Howard Backen is one architect (or alchemist) capable of this. The homes designed by this California architect are tied to the land, not unlike the Venetian homes designed by Palladio in the 16th century. In a sense, these houses are both stage sets that inform the audience experience and prosceniums from which the inhabitants can view the world.

The work of Backen and his partners, Jim Gillam and Loren Kroeger, is celebrated in a new book by author Daniel P. Gregory and photographer Erhard Pfeiffer called From the Land (Rizzoli). This handsome volume lets us savor some of the stunning residences created by their firm, Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects, as well as the sumptuous landscapes that inspired them.

Honor Landscape 1: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

Honor Landscape 1: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

Just as the all-white interior of an art gallery doesn’t get in the way of the art on display, this all-white bedroom allows the artwork that is the landscape beyond to take center stage. With distinctly horizontal proportions, the window affords a panoramic view of the hills and sky beyond, while the bookshelves, curtains, and rod all frame the art that nature provides.

Honor Landscape 2: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

Honor Landscape 2: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

This white, wood-paneled interior is the main living space in Backen’s own home. A combination living, dining and kitchen area, it looks out onto and is connected to the landscape with large windows and porches. 

This room doesn’t appear to be overly large. But because it incorporates several seating areas, it can easily handle a large group, yet still feels comfortable and cozy for two. More images of this room can be seen in From the Land.

Honor Landscape 3: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

Honor Landscape 3: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

There aren’t that many places where one can create a home like this. Totally open, with only the most minimalist structure, this room takes full advantage of the landscape and climate where it’s set.

The room, sandwiched as it is between the floor and ceiling planes, expands outward and to the mountains in the distance. The only thing holding it back is a portrait that’s larger than life (of a woman who was larger than life). Staring back at us, she prevents the room from being untethered and chaotic.

Honor Landscape 4: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

Honor Landscape 4: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

These homes have a distinctly domestic quality when you look from the outside in. The traditional gable roof and wood siding here allow us to feel relaxed, while the axial composition aligning pool, porch and hearth gives the whole an air of formality and dignity. 

Yes, these houses are lived in and enjoyed, providing spaces where their occupants can live the lives they want to live.

Honor Landscape 5: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

Honor Landscape 5: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

This is, perhaps, the most astonishing home in the book: a simple set of boxes moored at the edge of an expansive pond. Low and with a grass-covered roof, the house almost disappears, merging into and becoming one with the landscape. 

Just one room wide, the home allows constant connections between the inside and outside, as well as views of the mountains and pond.

These homes are also a testament to the importance of beautiful detailing. Whether it’s kitchen cabinetry, lighting, a wall finish or something else, nothing speaks to a well-thought-out design better than wonderful details that are in concert with the whole.

Honor Landscape 6: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

Honor Landscape 6: Rizzoli New York, original photo on Houzz

The finishing of the materials in these homes belies their nature. We’re often quick to judge when we hear terms like “wood paneling” and “stained wood.” These interiors certainly speak to how wood can have a lightness and luminosity that’s ethereal.

If you’d like to see more of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects’ wonderful homes (and wineries too), check out From the Land, a book that every architectural library should have.

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This is a guest article from Houzz contributor Bud Dietrich. He is an architect located in Tampa Bay, Florida. He provides full architectural services exclusively to the single family residential market and his passion is to transform houses into homes. He strives to have the "new" home accommodate my clients' lives without fighting them at every junction and to add curb appeal to encourage a beautiful streetscape. 

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Bud Dietrich

Bud Dietrich is an architect located in Tampa Bay, Florida. He provides full architectural services exclusively to the single family residential market and his passion is to transform houses into homes. He strives to have the "new" home accommodate my clients' lives without fighting them at every junction and to add curb appeal to encourage a beautiful streetscape.