Walden Revisited

Building Systems, Landscape, Materiality, Renovations, Structure, Technology
Mark Jensen, FAIA, Principal
Now home to Cyrus, Chef Douglas Keane’s acclaimed restaurant, Walden Studios has stood the test of time. Principal Mark Jensen, FAIA, reflects on this uniquely flexible adaptive-reuse project.

It is a pleasurable thing to occasionally look back at past work. Not out of nostalgia, but to remind oneself of the paths taken and experiences shared. So, from the perspective of today’s frenetic, short-attention-span, image-obsessed present, it is gratifying to rediscover personal work that has stood the test of time. With that introduction, here are a few things I remember about this project completed 15 years ago.


Walden became our title for the project for an obvious reason, it is the name of the street where the project is located. But our real reason for latching on to the name was the history and mood evoked by Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. At the time, the association was one of a remote natural place, which seemed to fit the countryside setting of our project site. Knowing more today about proximity of Thoreau’s cabin to civilization, the name is perhaps even more fitting since the socio-economic ripples of the Bay Area are lapping over this once remote agricultural setting.

Walden_Thoreau Cover Edited


One big change since this project was built is the extent to which our physical positioning in the world is mediated by technology. The project was designed and built before smartphones, so our understanding of place was as perceived by the senses, not geo-located. And our mental image of the building and site, while imagined from above, could only be perceived from eye level. Now we have drones, and to see their aerial footage so many years later is uncanny. It looks strikingly like our aerial renders and the image in my mind’s eye. So, these new drone images are both strange and familiar.

Walden Studios Rendering
Walden Studio Drone Still
Image courtesy of Soulcraft Allstars

In a Sea of Vineyards

An early question with the design was how the building would interface with the vineyards that would eventually fill the site. Since the building would sit elevated on a plinth above the surrounding land, I began to imagine outdoor spaces reaching out like piers into a sea of vineyards. Although the vines were not yet there, the intention was that standing on these landscaped piers would feel like being immersed within the vineyards, rather than just looking out at them. In practice the pier concept became more than metaphor: on occasion, the Russian River has flooded up to the plinth’s base.

MJ sketches_Walden Composit


Today I do my best to maintain a “beginner’s mind”. At the time of this project, I actually possessed one. So it was that, with no fear, we proposed uninterrupted two-story glass walls on three sides of the building. I remember conversations with our structural engineer who enthusiastically took up the challenge and used our central concrete elevator core to resist lateral forces on the building. A structure like a tree. The core, the trunk; the roof like cantilevered branches. And the glass walls, to mix metaphors, were suspended from the roof like curtains swaying in a breeze. They are engineered move freely side-to-side in an earthquake, like a tree in the wind.

Walden Glass 2
Walden Glass Detail Composit 3


It was not top of mind at the time to pursue green building benchmarks or carbon footprint reduction. But we already had a serious passion for advanced building systems and experimentation in better ways of building. The geothermal system (ground-source heating and cooling) was novel at the time and, with the consent of a brave and trusting client, was successfully incorporated as an energy-saving feature of project. The 50 vertical bores for geothermal heat exchange sit below the gravel parking area, invisible in the finished project. Yet when I think about the project, I see them extending underground as much as I see the building rising above.

Walden Geothermal Diagram Cleaned
Walden geothermal composite final

Layers and Reflections

Light reflects off water outside and dances on the ceiling of the interior. A dotted frit pattern on the structural glass catches light, giving a transparent material visual mass. The original concrete building had a fortress-like solidity. Although this character remains, a key aspiration from the beginning was to bring light and landscape into the interior. The new delicate glass box set into the old solid walls is immediately visible upon approach. What takes more time to discover, however, is the extent to which the light plays on various surfaces of the building, creating a complex tapestry of overlapping and interconnected spatial experiences. Reflection and transparency compete, removing clear definition between inside and out.

Renovation and Adaptive Re-Use

Looking back, this building was the first in a series of major transformations of existing buildings done by our practice. Common terms like adaptive reuse or renovation don’t capture the intentions or magnitude of these projects. These existing building projects have been as transformational as many of our new building projects. Certainly, there is a strong sustainability argument for working with existing building stock. Equally important is how layers of history, occupancy, and architectural intervention make these places rich in character and memory.

1. waldenphotoshopped_LRG