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 A view of South Park from a bedroom in a Gallery House.

Luke Ogrydziak and Zoë Prillinger with Saskia (left) and Axel, in their Russian Hill live-work space.

 Ogrydziak examines the facade at Gallery House. 

 Gallery House concept: to create a light-filled, spacious residence and gallery in a 24-by-100 foot city lot. OPA used fewer interior walls, allowing the sun's rays to pour in from a skylit stairwell and tall windows.

In Theory

Intellectual architects Zoë Prillinger and Luke Ogrydziak See every potentiaL project as a hypothesis—for them, a house is never just a house. 

For two bright architects who throw around expressions like “geometric disturbance,” “formal energy of space,” and “post-parametric, constraint-based design strategy,” Zoë Prillinger and Luke Ogrydziak sure do build beautiful houses. Take the 24-foot- wide, three-story residence-gallery they recently finished on South Park, with its acres of sky-reflecting shimmering glass and a barely there, 30-foot-high spiky steel screen that’s as lithe and sculptural as tree branches. Or the family residence they’ve just completed in the East Bay hills (called the Hundred Foot House), a nearly transpar- ent, 100-foot-long rectangle that sprawls in a bucolic landscape of pine trees and native oaks. It’s a house that all but disappears into the wildlands around it.
     And it looks nothing like the South Park structure—or any of the duo’s other projects. That’s the calling card of their San Francisco firm, Ogrydziak/Prillinger Architects (OPA): a totally one-off approach to design. Unlike most prominent architects, who are hired for their trademark look (Frank Gehry’s soaring metal sculptures; Stanley Saitowitz’s high-concept minimalist structures), Prillinger and Ogrydziak produce something fresh and different with each commission. “We don’t have a signature style, and we don’t want one,” says Prillinger. “That would be boring and lifeless for the architecture and not rewarding for the client. The point is to find a unique solution for each project.”
     Since they started their practice 11 years ago, the academically trained partners (both 41, both with master’s degrees from Princeton) have approached their projects with tools that seem to come more from the world of physics or math than from pure design. While clients may be thinking, “I want a large living room,” these master architects think in an arcane language of “volumes” and “voids.” Don’t get them started, for example, on a simple storage shed they designed in the Sierra. It’s an “off rectangle,” and they could cheerfully discuss the concept and its visual effect for hours.
     Another case in point: The house OPA built overlooking South Park is a simple, boxlike structure with a tree branch–inspired metal grid across the facade. But here’s how they describe it: “The solids and voids slide past each other, indifferent to the abstract 4 x 5 x 4 Cartesian framework that informs the structural system. Within the house, the matrix reinforces the divisions of space implicit in the allocation of solids and voids. But at the facade that meets South Park, the orthogonal framework dissolves and reassembles to emulate the organic morphology of the tree-filled park.” Translation, at least of the last sentence: The patterns in the metal framework outside the house mimic the natural patterns of tree growth nearby. To create that effect—one that is much more complex than a typical architect’s concept—the pair wrote their own custom computer program that incorporated the organic elements of randomness and chance into the design.
     Heady stuff, but it’s basically just one manifestation of Prillinger and Ogrydziak’s aims. They aren’t out merely to build high-design houses—they’re interested in pushing the limits of traditional archi- tecture. “They see each project as a chance to explore new ways of inhabiting the world,” says Sean Keller, who attended Princeton with them and is now an assistant professor of architectural history and theory at the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. “They take a house, for instance, and ask how it can disturb our sense of what a house can be. They want to deliver the intellectual and visceral thrill of the best painting or sculpture.” The firm attracts clients who resonate with this approach—adventurous, inquiring types like a Russian Hill poet, an S.F. lounge entrepreneur, a mathematician, a virologist, a clutch of Internet kids and tech successes, a professor or two, a kayak- loving vascular surgeon, and a brain surgeon. And OPA’s approach seems to be working. In the past 14 years, Ogrydziak and the firm have won 12 American Institute of Architects awards, and their work has been published and exhibited nationally and internationally.
     Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Prillinger and Ogrydziak’s cerebral sophistication is the wonderful simplicity of the buildings it produces. These structures feel modern and relevant, with no telltale early-21st-century tech gimmicks or trendy eco-concepts that will date quickly. The architects also have great respect for historical designs. “Every age has great ideas, and we should understand them and refer to them,” Prillinger says. Although most of their work includes large expanses of glass, to capture light (as with the Hundred Foot House), they are also passionate about centuries-old materials like travertine, Carrara marble, and gray pietra serena (the classic stone of Renaissance Florence), as well as anodized aluminum, Cor-ten steel (which can take on a rusted appearance), hot-rolled steel, and raw concrete.
     The couple also keep a keen eye on the international architecture scene. “While most of our built work is in California, our firm aspires to be a global practice,” says Prillinger. “There was a time when California was on the cutting edge of worldwide architecture.” But in the past decade, the most important projects—including Flowing Gardens for the Xi’an International Horticultural Expo in China, by Plasma Studio, GroundLab, and Laur Studio, and also UNStudio’s Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, neither of which is burdened by architectural nostalgia—have been built abroad. Ogrydziak and Prillinger see themselves as part of a West Coast resurgence in the field. “We are optimistic about the possibility for California architecture to again become relevant and at the edge of the world scene,” Prillinger says. “California is already in the vanguard, developing and envisioning the future of the world in terms of science and technology, and when this approach is applied to buildings, local architecture will become globally relevant again.”
     And where are Prillinger and Ogrydziak leading architecture next? On the boards now is the conversion of a 1920s concrete building on Russian Hill, formerly a mechanic’s garage, into loft- style condominiums. The dramatic raw-concrete entry soars to 50 feet, with exposed stairs of hot-rolled steel offering a hard-edged contrast to the preserved unfinished concrete of the rest of the building. “The lofts are quite industrial, pared down, but very, very glamorous,” explains Ogrydziak. It’s a romantic notion of San Francisco, with the cable car clanging nearby on its way down to Fisherman’s Wharf.
     Through the lens of OPA, the future for new architecture in California looks promising indeed—inventive, but also understated, intelligent, and even classical. Now, there’s a concept to build on.

Diane Dorrans Saeks is San Francisco’S contributing interior design editor.