Monday, July 9, 2012

Writers’ Block: California architect Cass Calder Smith has created a dramatic new writers’ retreat in the wilds south of San Francisco

Looking to write a bestseller, craft a poem, or compose a symphony?

This is the new place for inspiration, silence, and devotion to ideas and brilliance. Come with me for a private visit. 

Far from the hullabaloo of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the dramatic new Middlebrook Studios offer writers a quiet room of their own amid the solace of the California landscape.

Architect Cass Calder Smith’s concept: artful and green modern silhouettes for fostering creativity.

The studios are the first ground-up addition to the highly regarded Djerassi Resident Artists Program, founded in 1979 by Dr. Carl Djerassi, famous as one of the inventors of the contraceptive pill. 

This summer, four fortunate and talented writers, jury selected, will settle into their chic new digs in the Santa Cruz Mountains for five weeks to work on their book, play, poetry, thesis, or film. No pressure.

The sleek new Middlebrook Studios--four cedar-clad cabins shaded and sheltered by a freestanding steel roof that carries solar panels—are arrayed along a hilltop to take best advantage of day-long sun and expansive views.

Each cabin, styled as a modernist take on the California farm-building vernacular, is an airy 340 square foot refuge that includes an 18 x 25 feet work/sleep living room with a sleeping alcove, a bathroom and a closet. Writers dine together with other residents at the central Artists’ Barn to foster a collegial and mutually encouraging atmosphere so no kitchen is provided. 

“My aspiration was to create ‘micro places’ that would support and inspire individual writers and offer total privacy, yet would also be a cluster of residences with a sense of unity and purpose,” said architect Cass Calder Smith, whose twenty-two-year-old San Francisco firm CCS Architecture is known for rigorous modernist designs for residences as well as award-winning restaurants (LuLu, Perbacco, Terzo). 

The interior of each cabin is designed for working and relaxing, with a writing desk aimed at the views. Behind this is a sleeping nook with a queen-size bed that can be curtained off. The floors are multi-colored carpet tiles that were an unmatched assortment handed off from the CCS sample room. The firm also yielded up an assortment of bathroom tiles. 

The cost, $650,000, was raised from educational foundations and private individuals. The program has provided over 2,000 artist residencies, and currently serves more than one hundred artists each year.

The new studios are set on six hundred stunningly beautiful undeveloped ridgeline acres. On the western horizon the Pacific Ocean, a smudge of silver, is visible from the front windows and private terraces.

"These are the first new structures to have been purpose-built for the artists program. We had to make a significant statement and I’m happy with their modernity and compatibility," said filmmaker Dale Djerassi, son of Carl, and a founding trustee of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. 

Cedar siding on the walls and roof that is unfinished so it will age with time, like the other structures on the property.

The four cabins are covered by one continuous roof that symbolically links them. The roof emphasizes this accord and holds solar panels to establish a net zero electrical load for the buildings. The carbon foot print of zero.

The cabins are aimed at the views, but are slightly skewed a few degrees from each other so the arrangement has a looseness that deliberately contrasts to the linear rigidity of the canopy roof.

“I planned separate cabins to ensure the most acoustical and visual privacy possible, and this plays well to writers wanting monastic peace and quiet and privacy on their terrace, “said Calder Smith. 

The galvanized steel canopy structure that sits on ten concrete piers shelters the pathways that lead to each entry.

Rectangular cutouts in the roof create patterns of sun and shadows onto the cabin roofs and the landscape. They also align with skylights in the cabins so the sky can be viewed from the live/work spaces.

When inspiration flags and muses fail, writers can hike on trails through ancient redwood forests or gather in the communal barn to commiserate with composers, visual artist, choreographers or musicians who are also part of this program. 

Architect Cass Calder Smith
As it happens, Cass Calder Smith grew up in the seventies just east of the Djerassi retreat, near Woodside. His family moved from the East Coast to a determinedly self-sufficient hippie commune, the off-the-grid Star Hill Academy for Anything. It was situated on 1,800 wild acres in the Santa Cruz Mountain foothills. The other neighbor: Neil Young at his Broken Arrow Ranch.

It was at the commune, on the site of an abandoned timber mill, that Calder Smith picked up a hammer and nails and helped his family shape discarded off-cuts of wood and salvaged windows into their perfectly crafted cabin, a refuge from the world.

Smith’s knock-about carpentry and inspired adaptive use of old lumber also inspired his commitment to architecture and his drive to gain two architecture degrees at Berkeley, supporting himself with carpentry along the way. 

It was also in that early landscape that Calder Smith, roaming the wilds, first met Dale Djerassi. A chance recent re-acqaintance with Djerassi, son of Carl Djerassi, lead to his selection as the architect for the studios program.

Venerable artists’ and writers’ retreats like MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire (which has inspired talents like Aaron Copeland and Carson McCullers) and Yaddo in upstate New York (Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein) were inspirations for Carl Djerassi when Diane Middlebrook (later his wife) first proposed the program more than thirty-four years ago. 

The Djerassi program is now the largest and most prestigious artists and writers-in-residence retreat in the West.

Carl Djerassi planned the new studios as a memorial to Middlebrook, a noted biographer and Stanford professor emerita.

These new artist cottages will allow the program to increase its capacity to support and enhance the creativity of artists, by fifty per cent, said Dale Djerassi. 

“The triumph is that these studios got built,” said Calder Smith, who worked closely with Tim Quayle at CCS Architecture, the project architect. “It was on a tight budget and there were many obstacles from county approval to funding. It was completed, thanks to Carl Djerassi who initiated it, and to Dale Djerassi and the board member George Wolfson, an architect, who kept their hands on the steering wheel throughout. The real test now will be how the writers who stay there and write will judge them. I hope they’re inspired.”


Cass Calder Smith, AIA

Cass Calder Smith established the architectural firm that bears his name in 1990. Born in 1961, Smith earned his Bachelor and Master of Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. A native of New York City, he has lived in California since 1972. As the son of an Academy-Award winning filmmaker and a California landscape painter and designer, his early years were influenced by both Greenwich Village intellectuals and rural California artisans.

Smith is recognized internationally for his architectural and interior design projects. Firmly based in the modernist idiom, Smith draws

inspiration from history’s great architects and cities as well as the epic filmmakers of the last century. Bold imagery and intricate detail are characteristic of his designs balanced with experience and common sense.

Smith and his work have won numerous awards and he has been recognized in The New York Times, Architectural Record, Metropolis, Architectural Digest, Dwell, Interior Design and Abitare, among others.

CCS Architecture closely followed the Build It Green program's established GreenPoint Rating system, which is the standard for San Mateo County where the retreat is located. The system rates resource conservation, energy efficiency and healthy materials, among other considerations. While a minimum of 50 points is required for new construction in the county, the Middlebrook Studios exceed a rating of 100 points. 


All photography by Paul Dyer, San Francisco

Phone 415-640-0810

All photography used with express permission of the photographer.

Djerassi Resident Artists Program


mary said...

I am speechless. These cabins are perfection. Thank you. Mary

cindy said...

Fascinating...genius use of space

A Super Dilettante said...

My dear Diane,

Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful “writers’ block” designed by the architect Calder Smith.

I believe that a writer needs settled domesticity and a quiet study. He requires discipline and concentration like a ballet dancer. A precision is something hard to achieve in our hectic world. A writer’s labour spreads thinly after taking his soul on the journey of blank pages.
That is why I think that these solitary cabins could be perfect for working and relaxing in a peaceful surrounding. It is worthy of Italian princely studies (studiolo) one often sees in the Italian Renaissance paintings.

Looking once again the photos and reading your words, I am reminded by the experience of the artist, Ben Nicholson when he visited Piet Mondrian’s studio. Ben Nicholson wrote, “The feeling in his studio must have been very like the feeling in one of those hermits’ caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws.”

Thank you so much for this post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

With warm wishes,

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Mary, Cindy and Griffin-

Thank you so much for your wonderful comments.

Griffin--your insight into the hermits and caves is very apt here.

This story on the DJERASSI RETREAT--is among my recent favorites, as it combines philanthropy, the encouragement of the arts and artists, as well as creativity, and the best of modern intelligent architecture. Plus the CALIFORNIA LANDSCAPE...the solace of the landscape.

I've been delighted with your reactions--so much!

kindest thoughts, DIANE

Anonymous said...

"one of those hermits’ caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws.”
Nowhere in print or "on the web" is there anything better than your "blog"!

You are the most marvelous writer

We met when was flying to Spain to furnish my daughter's family apartment (BIG) for her family's year in Madrid!


You are just the best writer in the world!

Bravo!! have never ceased too amaze me!

And I will always treasure your tips for avoiding jet lag! I followed your the letter.

Only jet lag, NONE!!!

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Dianne......where did the lions go to get the thorns out of their paws?

I LOVE that image

Your fan,


Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


My dear and great friend in Santa Barbara...a woman of great style and charm.
Yes...the lion's paws myth or biblical story was from my friend, GRIFFIN, a fabulous art curator in the UK...he has always been one of my favorite correspondents and he has a fantastic blog called A SUPER DILETTANTE...and I was fortunate to find it some years ago and I've always loved it.
Penny--you are a brilliant designer...I hope you are having a divine summer in is heaven there.
Penny--dear readers--is the famous woman who has rare chickens and she gives the eggs to Oprah who lives next door...Penny passes them over the fence or hedge in a basket...and is world famous for that...I love it...very best, DIANE

Anonymous said...

What a stunning view, houses and furniture. I really appreciate this connection with the nature and the wildlife in this spaces. It makes me remember this brand:

Sylvia Roberts said...

Great architecture. It would be nice too if you have glass fencing perth.