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This See-Through SoMa House Plays Tricks on the Eye

A designer’s home becomes her laboratory.


Two layers of perforated aluminum make for an unusually transparent home when lit from within; a network of shelves can provide privacy.

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In the daytime, the view from outside is obscured, but those inside can see out clearly.

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An L-shaped walkway behind the shelves began life as a temporary bridge for the construction crew.

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Raveevarn Choksombatchai turned a bulkhead in her garage into a sculptural mailbox.

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Every room opens into a central courtyard, the heart of the house.

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The bathtub sits outside the bathroom, which has half of a traditional wall (magenta) while the other half is made of fabric (white).

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Grace Street is a small, unassuming SoMa corridor lined with rolling garage doors to accommodate deliveries, a small parking lot, some dumpsters, and a few trees. But the observant will identify one standout: what appears to be an impenetrable gray cube. Upon closer inspection, it’s something more delicate. The exterior of architectural designer Raveevarn Choksombatchai’s home is made of two layers of perforated aluminum laid over floor-to-ceiling glass, with a door and garage flush with the wall. Inside is a vibrant experiment in progress.

The former occupant was Russian painter Vladimir Nemkoff; Choksombatchai bought the house, with milky glass and brown trim, from his estate after his 1998 death. A lover of open space and bright palettes, she wanted to radically transform it. But shifting needs and finances meant her extensive renovation didn’t begin until early 2013. Although she is still applying finishing touches, the project is now essentially completed.

“This is probably the only building you can sit inside and touch the outer skin,” Choksombatchai says, opening the street-facing glass windows on the second floor of her home and reaching out to pet the anodized aluminum. One sheet’s perforation is larger than the other’s, and layered they create a lacy effect, largely obscuring the interior from passersby by day but allowing those within to see out clearly. At night, when the lights are on, the house seems to glow. Choksombatchai, who grew up in Thailand and did her architecture training in Bangkok and at Harvard University, is interested in blurring boundaries, including the one between inside and out (or even glass and metal). “I feel that by nature I am in between things,” she says. “I don’t feel that I’m Thai. I also don’t feel totally American.”

The front door opens into a lofty-ceilinged workspace; to the right are stairs climbing to the second level, buffeted by a large wall of open shelving (also made with aluminum) that extends the full height of the building. This is what Choksombatchai calls her “privacy screen,” an added layer between her living quarters and the semi-sheer exterior, filled with books and objects. The heart of the house—which functions as both her studio and her home, with a small apartment for guests in the back—is a central courtyard into which every room opens.

Choksombatchai sees her home, the first project she has undertaken for herself, as an opportunity to test out new ideas. Curious about the use of textiles in architecture, she designed a bathroom enclosed by a traditional wall, painted magenta, on the bottom half, with an upper portion made of tightly wrapped polyester secured with Velcro. The acoustics may need to be explored more, she says, but with the lights on at night, the room becomes a lantern, illuminating the upper level. Not overly obsessed with walls, doors, or curtains, she also placed her tub behind, rather than in, the bathroom for an open, relaxing vibe. She loved that a temporary bridge installed by the contractor afforded her a view of the entire space, so she kept it as a permanent feature.

Inspired by constraints, she turned a load-bearing bulkhead that intruded on her garage space into something useful, giving it a sculptural shape and hollow interior. It’s now her mailbox. She painted it (and her entire garage) a bright orange. The house’s white walls are mediated by lime green, orange, and magenta throughout to define volume and flow. “The way I use color, for me, it’s a spatial device,” she says. “It’s not only just decoration.”

As for the home’s semi-hidden location on the scruffier side of SoMa, Choksombatchai says she chose the space intentionally. She didn’t want the kind of neighbors who’d complain that her project didn’t fit the surrounding neighborhood’s “character.” Here, her house stands in proud contrast to its surroundings, and she has been embraced by her neighbors. Which is good, because she allows that there is some truth in the old adage that an architect’s home is never finished.

“The project is alive,” she says. “It doesn’t end at the date of completion.”


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco 

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