The Sala House sits on the edge of Albany Hill. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco

It is a rare Albany house that comes with its own Wikipedia entry. But the Sala House, at 700 Hillside Avenue, is iconic because it was designed by renowned architect Christopher Alexander. Alexander is an Austrian-born, Harvard-educated UC Berkeley professor emeritus and author of A Pattern Language, a seminal book on architecture and design that has remained in print for over 40 years 

The Sala House was his first private residence commission in the U.S., and he built it using his unique philosophy of style. The four-bedroom, two-bath, 2,028-square-foot house is offered at $1.195 million. 

“At the open house, a lot of people … said, ‘Can you explain this house to me’?”
— Annette Goodfriend

“It’s a very eccentric house, but it’s a work of art,” said Adobe Properties listing agent Annette Goodfriend. “At the open house, a lot of people looked at me and said, ‘Can you explain this house to me’?” The layout and flow is somewhat unusual, with lots of unexpected turns and unusually small spaces, some the size of phone booths. There are four distinct levels, a room just large enough for a chair, and an eating alcove modeled on Alexander’s design for the Linz Café in Austria (also the subject of one of Alexander’s books).

Goodfriend said the current owners, whom she represented three years ago when they were the buyers, fell in love with the house immediately.

“It’s an artistic house, and it’s a lot of square feet for the money,” she said. The house is built as two towers with a connecting wood-paneled hallway. The original tower was built in 1984 and consisted of a dining/living room; two bedrooms and one bath on three levels. The second tower, also designed by Alexander, was added three years later and added two more bedrooms and a second bath on the bottom level. 

The house was specifically designed to fit the steep slope it sits on, as well as the original owners’ desires and Alexander’s unorthodox views of architecture. The Sala home was a collaboration between Alexander and Gary Black, who at the time also taught at Cal. Bob Smith, David Tuttle, Seth Wacthel and the original owners — Andre and Anna Sala — also participated in the design. Alexander offered to design and build the first tower for a fixed price of $103,000. Although there were delays and the house came in over budget, he took those costs out of his own overhead.

Dreamlike spaces

“The buildings that I build very often have a dreamlike reality,” Alexander told San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker in 2006. “I don’t mean by that they have a fantasy quality at all, in fact quite the reverse. They contain in some degree the ingredients that give dreams their power … stuff that’s very close to us.”

In fact, this house does have a magical feel to it: you don’t know what to expect when you turn a corner. It is akin to navigating a dreamscape that is whimsical, unexpected and playful. It’s a great house for children to grow up in because it’s easy to get lost in that fantasy quality. There are so many levels and nooks and crannies. There is even a “child’s cave” built into the children’s room, which features built-in beds with painted wooden canopies.

The children’s bedroom features built-in beds with  storage underneath. The children’s cave, not shown, is under the built-in desk. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco
The children’s bedroom features built-in beds with  storage underneath. The children’s cave, not shown, is under the built-in desk. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco

“Children love to be in tiny, cave-like places,” Alexander writes in A Pattern Language. “Wherever children play, around the house, in the neighborhood, in schools, they make small ‘caves.’ Tuck these caves away in natural leftover spaces, under stairs, under kitchen counters. Keep the ceiling height low — 2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet — and the entrance tiny.”

Alexander has very strong (not to mention radical and controversial) ideas about design, and he implemented many of those ideas in this house. 

The Salas hired Alexander in 1983 after interviewing several other architects. He made the “worst” presentation of all the others, yet they immediately knew they wanted to work with him, according to an article in Image magazine.

“From the start, a certain faith was required,” the magazine noted. When Alexander asked them what they wanted in their house, they replied “a living room, a dining room” — the usual things. But to their dismay, Alexander replied that he didn’t know what they meant. He wanted to know what “living room” and dining room” meant to them. 

The French-inspired kitchen/dining room that also serves as the family gathering place. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco

Andre Sala came up with a very specific memory of a kitchen he had visited in France, which had a fireplace with a long table in front of it; a garden outside; and a door leading out into the garden. From that description, Alexander was able to create a warm kitchen/dining/living area, which is now the heart and hearth of the house. This is not a “great room:” it is of modest size, but comfortable for a family to cook, eat and relax in.

The room has windows on two sides, an Alexander trademark, and views of the Golden Gate Bridge through a picture window. There is no separate “living room” in the house — perhaps the Salas realized they never used such a room —  but there is a room in the second tower that is now used as a family room.

An al fresco dining area right outside the kitchen. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco

Alexander built the house in addition to designing it, and many decisions large and small were made as the house was being built. To determine the orientation of the dining room, for example, Alexander placed a table on the lot in different locations until they found a direction that felt right. He created cut-outs of different shapes to determine what kinds of windows he wanted, and where they should be placed. There were blueprints, but many decisions were made on the spot during the construction process. Anna Sala would begin to wonder if the house would ever be completed.

A long, whimsically painted bridge leads to the front door. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco
A long, whimsically painted bridge leads to the front door. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco

Open doors and zigzags

The house has a very unconventional entry way. In most houses, you can get a glimpse of the interior of the house from the front door: there is a sense of the space. In the Sala house, you go down some steps and across a walkway to reach the front door. Once inside, though, you face a wood-paneled wall upon entering. There is a built-in bench underneath a window to your right; is a warm wood-paneled stairway going down; and there is a hallway to your left. It is unclear which way to turn to reach the public areas of the house.

This might be confusing to a visitor, but Alexander explains his philosophy in A Pattern Language. “Politeness demands that when someone comes to the door, the door is opened wide,” he writes. Yet the family does “not want to feel disturbed or intruded upon when someone comes to the door.” Thus, he concludes, “make the inside entrance room zigzag, or obstructed, so that a person standing on the doorstep of the open door can see no rooms inside, except the entrance room itself, nor through the doors of any rooms.” Thus the confusion upon entering this particular house.

As it turns out, the hallway to the left leads to a bathroom and the children’s room. There is also a glass door leading to a stairway and the upstairs master bedroom. 

So the way to the kitchen is past the bench and down the stairs. At the landing one makes a left turn and goes down a few more steps in to the French-inspired kitchen. It is a warm space with updated cabinets and appliances, as well as a reproduction of the Linz Café eating booth. The booth is cozy and European in scale: just large enough to fit two adults and two children.

The eating nook inspired by the Linz Café in Austria. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco

There is a French door leading to an outside seating area, which cascades over several terraces, and has views of the Bay and the Golden Gate Fields racetrack. The house sits over the freeway, so one hears the sounds of cars speeding by.

View of San Francisco, the race track and the freeway from the patio. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco

Back inside, up a few steps and down the hall is a room currently used as a family room. One level down, in the second tower, there is another bedroom and full bath.

The current owners use the bedroom on the lowest level as their master bedroom. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco
The current owners use the bedroom on the lowest level as their master bedroom. Photo: Open Homes Photography/San Francisco

There are other spaces as well. There is a room just large enough for a chair — an alcove, really — which Alexander believed people need for contemplation. There is a room that looks like an oversized phone booth to the right of the front door, which is now outfitted as a micro-office and storage space.

The master bedroom upstairs features a built-in “marriage bed” with a wooden painted canopy above it. There is also a window right above the bed, and a large seating area across from it featuring three more windows and built-in benches.

The Chronicle’s Baker wrote that Alexander’s buildings “materialize feeling in a manner I associate with handmade works of art rather than contemporary buildings.” Which is to say, this is a dream-like house with somewhat unusual space configurations.

In his book The Nature of Order, Alexander called 20th-century architecture “a mass psychosis of unprecedented dimensions, in which the people of earth … have created a form of architecture which is against life, insane, image-ridden, hollow.” The Sala house is intended to be a creative alternative to all that. It has had three owners in its first 35 years, and is now ready for the fourth.

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Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...