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Writers' blocks

A little bit Silicon Valley, a little bit Walden Pond: New artists' residences are designed to inspire acts of creative genius.

The cabins are aimed at the views but are skewed a few degrees from each other, which helps reduce noise.

 The redwood forests are the retreat's lone distraction.

 Residents live/work space.

Retangular cutouts in the roof align with skylights so residents can see the sky from their live/work spaces.

Imagine you’re a novelist, a poet, a playwright, a composer. You’ve been handpicked by a jury of culture aficionados to leave behind the white noise of your daily life and take up residence for four to five weeks in a sun-drenched cedar-clad cabin on 580 wild acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The panoramic views from your writing desk—think California a thousand years ago—are punctuated by a silver smudge of the Pacific at the horizon. Face it: You’re in writers’ heaven. Now all you have to do is pen something gobsmackingly brilliant. No pressure!

That’s the enviable (or terrifying) scenario faced by four very fortunate scribes soon to be selected by the Djerassi Resident Artists Program to inaugurate the new Middlebrook Studios this year. The individual refuges—each appointed with a writing desk, a living room, a sleeping alcove, a bathroom, and a closet—were designed by Cass Calder Smith’s CCS Architecture firm as modernist takes on the California farm-building vernacular. The 345-square-foot cabins are linked by a free-standing steel roof topped with solar panels and furnished minimally with items from Ikea, Hans Wegner, and Knoll. They’re simple and practical, yes, though not exactly the artistic deprivation prescribed by Emerson and Thoreau. Of course, when the muses fall silent, there’s always hiking, with dozens of miles of trails traversing the surrounding forests.

 “My aspiration was to create ‘micro-places,’” says Smith, whose 22-year-old San Francisco firm is known for rigorous modernist designs for residences and restaurants (LuLu, Perbacco, Terzo). The cluster of residences needed to “support and inspire individual writers and offer total privacy, yet also [project] a sense of unity and purpose.” 

The studios are the first structures built exclusively for the artists’ retreat, which was founded in 1979 by Dr. Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the contraceptive pill. They’re named after Djerassi’s late wife, Diane Middle-brook, a noted biographer and Stanford professor. The Djerassi program is now the largest and most prestigious artist- and writer-in-residence retreat in the West, modeled after venerable eastern utopias like MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire (which has inspired talents like Aaron Copland, Willa Cather, and Michael Chabon) and Yaddo in upstate New York (Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein).

The new cottages will allow the program to increase the number of artists living onsite by 50 percent, says filmmaker Dale Djerassi, Carl’s son and a founding trustee of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. The $650,000 building cost was donated by educational foundations and private individuals.

As it happens, Smith grew up in the ’70s just north of what is now the Djerassi retreat, near Woodside. His family moved from the East Coast to a determinedly self-sufficient hippie commune, the Star Hill Academy for Anything, situated on 1,600 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Another neighbor: Neil Young, at his Broken Arrow Ranch.) It was at the commune, set on the site of an abandoned timber mill, that Calder Smith picked up a hammer and nails and helped his family shape discarded offcuts of wood and salvaged windows into their perfectly crafted cabin, a refuge from the world. It was also in that early landscape that Smith, roaming the wilds, first met Dale Djerassi. A chance reacquaintance with Djerassi seven years ago led to his selection as the cabins’ architect.

“The triumph is that these studios got built,” says Smith, who worked closely with architect Tim Quayle, at CCS Architecture. “The real test now will be how the writers who stay there and write will judge them. I hope they’re inspired.”