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Responsibly Tending the Orchard, by Michelle Crowe
by Michelle C. Crowe

    The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.
                                                      — Johann von Goethe, 1749-1832

Nested in the foothills of Silicon Valley resides one of California's most lovely natural treasures, Villa Montalvo and its Artist Residency Program.  Founded in 1942, the oldest artist residency program West of the Mississippi is located within the 175-acre Villa Montalvo arts center and county park, on the former estate of art patron and arborist California Senator James Duval Phelan.  When Phelan passed away in 1930 and left the villa for the use of the public, he mandated "that it be used for the development of art, literature, music, and architecture."  For nearly sixty years, the program has bestowed the gift of creative time to over 600 artists.  Nearly thirty-five playwrights, poets, musicians, photographers and other artists receive one- to three-month  residencies each year, freeing them to "walk alone" and follow their muses in the carefully preserved natural flora and fauna of Phelan's wooded wonderland.

The land at Villa Montalvo.
The natural landscape of Northern California's Villa Montalvo.
Photo courtesy of StastnyBrun Architects.

Yet as the park and program has increasingly involved and influenced both the creative and public communities, the trustees realized Phelan's words were gently pointing them in new ways to expand his vision.  By replacing a defunct orchard of plums with an orchard of artists, they could wisely use their natural resources to double their harvest of intellectual resources in the twenty-first century.  Not only would the new project allow the program to double the number of artists participating each year to nearly 70, it would be a model of design for others seeking to unite both natural and intellectual resources.  Hence, the seeds planted by the founder began to sprout in new and fallow ground.

 "Our first goal was to stay true to the vision of the founder, and our second goal was to build something representative of this century, just as the Villa was representative of the last century," explains Jennifer DiNapoli, committee chair for the Orchard of Artists.  "Obviously, we

couldn't ever match the Villa, but we wanted to create something equally impressive and useful that would serve as a model of beauty, vision and wise stewardship to inspire future generations."

Designing ten cottages and a commons to facilitate creativity among a constantly changing and diverse palette of artists was a huge undertaking.  Implementing green design principles on a historic landmark site within a limited budget further made this an ambitious and challenging project.  While many decisions won't be finalized until the cost-benefit analysis is completed in February, designing buildings to inspire creativity while wisely using the financial resources (including a generous Compton Foundation grant) are the first priority, followed closely by green building principles.

Orchard of Artists Master Plan.
Orchard of Artists master plan.
Graphic courtesy of StastnyBrun Architects.

With a portfolio noted for integrating green design and emotionally resonant buildings, such as the memorial for the Oklahoma bombing and the American Embassy in Berlin, Don Stastny of Portland, Oregon-based StastnyBrun Architects was a natural choice for lead architect.  Under his direction, the project gained focus and clarity.  Instead of the architectural competition originally envisioned by the Board of Trustees, Stastny advised an invitational-an idea uniquely in league with the residency program itself.

Besides completing at least one green project, all architects had to commit to meeting the timeline, maintaining the creative vision, working as a collaborative team and incorporating environmentally friendly principles in return for a modest honorarium.

"This is a groundbreaking effort both literally and figuratively," acknowledges Stastny.  While there are other resident programs in North America that were designed with more than one architect, none have taken on the responsibility of coordinating seven different architects and teams of artists.

"It's intended to be a textbook case of twenty-first century design featuring discussion and collaboration among the teams to find common ground and integrate diverse concepts," Stastny says.  "As much as anything, we're guided by the spirit of Villa Montalvo and Senator Phelan's directive that this be a place for art and architecture-with the added goal of using quality materials so these buildings will also last for hundreds of years."

Each of the five cabin architects designed a duet of 700- to 900-square-foot cottages to enhance the creativity of a specific type of artist.  Craig Hodgetts and Hsin-Ming Fung of Culver City-based Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates teamed with playwright Lee Breuer to create one suite of writers cottages.  San Francisco-based Jim Jennings of Jim Jennings Architecture worked with sculptor Richard Serra and poet Csezlaw Milosz for his visual artists and writers homes.  Mark Mack of MACK Architect(s) in Venice, California, chose to work with artist David Ireland for the visual artists studios.  Ade'le Naude' Santos of San Francisco-based Ade'le Naude' Santos and Associates collaborated with artist Doug Hollis for the visual artists spaces. 

The visual artist studios.
The visual artist studios were designed by Mark Mack,
who worked with artist David Ireland in their design.

Graphic courtesy of StastnyBrun Architects.

Daniel Solomon of Solomon, Inc., in San Francisco worked with composer Patrick Gleeson and visual artist/architect Nellie Solomon for the composer/musician cottages.  Marta Fry of Marta Fry Landscape Architects, known for her award-winning Boston Botanical Garden, created the landscape design.  Stastny himself teamed up with artist Tad Savinar to design the Commons as an architectural bridge between the Mediterranean style of the Senator's Villa and the twenty-first century look of the cottages.

"Right now we're trying to standardize construction as much as possible with such different buildings while treading very lightly upon the site through strategic building placement for  maximum long-term energy efficiency among old-growth trees and heritage plants-while also addressing universal access and life safety requirements, which is no mean task," explains Stastny.

"We're also incorporating high fly ash content concrete into the foundations, recommending energy-efficient windows, suggesting recycled insulation and committing to farmed wood beam construction," Stastny adds.  While steel beam was another option, the green resource planning consultant Larry Strain of Siegel & Strain Architects in Emeryville, California, suggested farmed wood because it engenders less pollution in the process and encourages lumber companies to engage in greener practices.

Suite of writers cottages.
Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates worked with playwright
Lee Breuer in the design of these writers cottages.

Graphic courtesy of StastnyBrun Architects.

 The team pleasantly discovered Strain's review found most of the green suggestions appear doable.  The cost-benefit analysis will likely reduce the list somewhat, or find certain ideas only work for particular dwellings.  For example, creating a natural sound barrier is integral for the composers' cottages, as are solar collectors and passive lighting for the visual artists' dwellings.

"We're still evaluating the interior heat systems as there is significant cost and environmental impact in introducing radiant floor heating systems, primarily with bringing gas lines up the hill," says Larry Strain.  "Paint, carpet and the mechanical air moving systems affect pollution and the environment the most.  We've already addressed using zero or low-VOC paint and eliminating carpet, so just the mechanical system decision is left," he continues.

"Most importantly, the cottages must meet the needs of the artists, so we're working to make them as green and energy efficient as possible," he adds.  "Materials are one-time costs while energy is a life of building cost.  We're striving to go beyond what's mandated by Title 24 and choose the most durable, cost-efficient materials, such as metal roofs that last fifty years instead of twenty, and also make rainwater harvesting possible."

Title 24 is the minimum requirement for energy efficiency for new construction, as mandated by the California state energy code.  Both Stastny and Strain anticipate integrating smaller interior finish items as daily reminders to residents of the commitment to environmentally friendly design, such as soy-based resins for countertops.

Composer and musician cottages design.
Composer Patrick Gleeson and visual artist Nellie Solomon worked
with Daniel Solomon to draft the composer and musician cottages.

Graphic courtesy of StastnyBrun Architects.

Even the landscaping goes beyond merely preserving the existing old-growth trees and heritage plants indigenous to the region.  Two riparian corridors exist on the site and are traversed along day and night by numerous deer, birds and other woodland denizens.  Leaving the corridors intact, landscape architect Marta Fry then created a new riparian corridor to link the two existing ones, as some species refuse to travel beyond their pattern without a connector.

"We believe we'll get more value for our investment by building right the first time, rather than adding green elements later on," says Villa Montalvo executive director, Elisbeth Challener.  Challener believes that integrating environmentally friendly design has also helped facilitate fundraising and positive community relations, both of which are on target for the upcoming spring 2000 groundbreaking.

"Every day, people come to Villa Montalvo and marvel at their surroundings because it's such a beautiful, gracious environment," says artist residency director Kathryn Funk.

The Commons.
The Commons, designed by Don Stastny with artist Ted
Savinar, bridge the Senator's Villas and the new cottages.

Graphic courtesy of StastnyBrun Architects.

"Yet the reason it's beautiful and gracious is because of the value Senator Phelan placed on the arts-he recognized that art communicates in all languages.  Here on this beautiful site of natural resources, we invest in the cultural and intellectual resources of the world through the artist residency program," concludes Funk.

As author and poet Goethe wrote, sometimes artists must walk alone.  One unique feature of Montalvo's program compared to others throughout the world is that it doesn't force artists into a communal living situation.  Instead, it grants artists much-needed privacy while still offering opportunities for exhibition, collaboration and cross-disciplinary socialization.  Equally important, Villa Montalvo is unique in that the artists can also enjoy the experiences of a vital arts center if they choose.  Readings, concerts, lectures and gallery shows are only a short walk away from the new site.

"We worked closely with biotechnology consultants, geologists, city planners, neighbors and arborists to make sure the Orchard of Artists project aligned with artists' needs, green design principles, financial concerns and community wishes," explains Funk. 

Visual artist cottages.
Architect Ade'le Naude' Santos worked with artist
Doug Hollis to design the visual artist cottages.

Graphic courtesy of StastnyBrun Architects.

All the teamwork and homework paid off.  Involving city and community members early on in the process, enlisting a wise advisory team skilled in green design, and perhaps receiving some prayerful intercession from Senator Phelan helps explain the results.  "Even though these are extremely contemporary buildings that are very different from the Villa, the City Planning Committee members all agreed the project was wonderful and approved it as is on the first presentation," acknowledges a grateful Don Stastny. 

For at least another century, artists will be able to follow their muses both alone and together within an even greener environment of natural beauty.


Michelle C. Crowe is an internationally published full-time freelance writer, editor, and columnist based in Silicon Valley, California. She has published over 250 articles on the environment, lifestyle, careers, business, and technology in publications such as High Tech Careers Magazine, San Mateo County Times, and San Jose Business Journal.

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Villa Montalvo & Orchard of Artists Residency Program

For further information, contact:

Ann Dabovich
Development Director
Villa Montalvo, Orchard of Artists
P.O. Box 158
Saratoga, CA 95071-0158
(408) 961-5800


Montalvo Artists in Residency Program Highlights

• Over 600 artists granted one- to three-month residencies since 1942.
• Oldest artist residency program West of the Mississippi River.
• Third oldest program in the U.S.
• Outreach programs extend to over 12,000 students annually.
• Residencies currently granted to nearly three dozen artists annually.
• Residencies will double to about 70 artists annually upon completion.
• Groundbreaking on track for late spring 2000.
• Summer 2001 is the estimated completion date.


Villa Montalvo's Orchard of Artists Projected Environmental Design Features

• Constructing around existing old-growth trees and heritage plants.
• Intact and bridged riparian corridors.
• Berming earth-1 cottage.
• High fly ash content concrete.
• Farmed wood beam construction.
• Recycled materials (insulation, siding, etc.). 
• Universal design and accessibility on ground levels.
• Standardized systems (foundation, framing, etc.).
• Energy-efficient air handling systems.
• Energy-efficient (possible radiant floor) heating systems.
• Energy-efficient windows.
• Solar orientation for passive lighting and energy efficiency.
• Shading.
• Solar collectors-1 unit.
• Low- or zero-VOC paint.
• Environmentally responsibly soy-product countertops.


Villa Montalvo From the Beginning

Villa Montalvo was built in 1912 by former San Francisco mayor and U.S. Senator James Duval Phelan (1861-1930).  Phelan, one of many passionate arborists dwelling in Silicon Valley, collected and husbanded numerous California flora and fauna on his favorite estate.  Villa Montalvo served as a creative hub of artistic, political and social life, with Phelan inviting leading writers and artists such as Jack London, Ethel Barrymore and Edwin Markham to interact with kindred spirits and work on individual projects.

The natural environment was designed to encourage the muses in music, art, literature and architecture, as well as offer unique venues to display their creations, including the grounds, gallery, ballroom, buildings and amphitheater.  His vision lives on to this day.  The 175-acre park with rambling nature trails is open free to the public 365 days a year.  Over 600 artists have participated in the residency program to date.  The Gallery at Villa Montalvo stages seven to eight exhibits annually with up to two former artist residents participating.  The Arts Education and Outreach program brings 12,000 students from surrounding schools to Villa Montalvo annually for a variety of arts experiences, and approximately 200,000 people attend artistic events and presentations annually.



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