Howard Backen: Building on affection for the Wine Country
Howard Backen believes in harmony.
“Everything is about balance,” says the legendary architect. “My job is to work with what is given by the land. To not take away, or distract too much from it, is the great challenge.” To that end, Backen has spent decades designing harmonious responses to various landscapes across the Napa Valley. Rizzoli recently published a book appropriately titled “From the Land: Architecture of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects,” featuring 38 of Backen’s noteworthy projects, many of them sprinkled throughout the valley he now calls home.
Whether working on private residences or the ultra-exclusive Napa Valley Reserve, an invitation-only wine club in St. Helena founded by his good friend (and consistent client) Bill Harlan, Backen’s purpose is always to create a plan in reaction to a specific site. Rustic, honest and often inspired by the simplicity of the farmhouse vernacular, his structures often incorporate natural materials such as timber, brick and stone — which blend seamlessly from inside to outside. From resorts such as Meadowood and Solage to wineries like Cliff Lede, Ram’s Gate and Harlan Estate, the architect’s designs have come to define the very aesthetic of Napa Valley, where practically everybody knows his name.
Backen’s name has received abundant attention for his latest endeavor: restaurateur. After buying a building in St. Helena to house his offices, he needed to find a proper use for the front part of the structure. So he stretched his wings and created Archetype (formerly French Blue).
“I’m still having so much fun, and staying incredibly busy — probably too busy,” he says. “But I often tell people I was born to be an architect, and if I couldn’t have worked in architecture, I would be homeless. I truly don’t know that I could have spent my life doing anything other than this.”
We caught up with the architect to get the inside scoop on what lured him to the Wine Country — and what’s made him stay.
Q: At what age did you realize you wanted to be an architect?
A: I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life until I was 5 years old. I was clueless before that.
Q: You didn’t waste much time!
A: I was born in Montana, but grew up in Oregon in a very rural area. We had a family of five kids, and everyone would travel to Montana to see my extended family. My uncle there was an architect. All the kids would run around all over the place, and I’d sneak into his office and explore things in there. I was fascinated by his sketches and exposed quite early on to architecture.
Q:You graduated from architecture school and moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter, right?
A: Yes, I had a firm in the city, and we were doing fine work. But I was working on projects that were run by management groups, not individuals or personalities. It got to be too much, and I wasn’t enjoying it.
Q:What led you to Napa Valley to start your new firm?
A: Bill Harlan had sought me out and asked me to do his house. I started working on it, and one day I said, 'I can’t believe I have to drive back to the fog now,’ and he said, 'Why can’t you be here?’ I thought about it and asked myself the same question. So based on his recommendation and undeniable influence and connections in the valley, I was able to move up here and start working. And the funny thing is, there’s never been a time since then — in 1996 — when I haven’t been working on a project with Bill — from his wineries and Meadowood to the Napa Valley Reserve and his own house.
Q: You don’t sound like you’ve looked back since moving up to the Wine Country.
A: Well, it’s an amazing lifestyle, and people are so friendly and happy to be here. I stay friends with the people I work with long after the project is completed. And I always say Napa is one of the purest places — because of agricultural zoning, you just don’t get the big-box stores up here. Once you pass Napa proper, and drive farther north, you realize that there is no disintegration on the outskirts, that each vista and building is visually beautiful, and you don’t see a lot that doesn’t please your eyes. You are in the countryside, but with world-class food, wine and culture around almost every corner.
Q: Do you think there’s a definition of Napa style?
A: Well, I prefer not to dwell too much on the idea of style because it’s trendy. Style changes, like fashion. I prefer to base my work upon where it is, and in Napa Valley there are so many different landscapes, from hillsides to the valley floor. The style of architecture should, in a perfect world, respect and reflect the landscape and the homeowners. I always say you design a house or a structure based on what is given, and what’s given is a lot of things: the budget, the location, the neighbors, the site’s orientation to the sun rising and setting. It’s as much about what you don’t do as what you do. Yet, having said all that, if I were given the freedom to design in any style I wanted, I tend to prefer simple, rustic structures with a strong connection to everything beyond the building.
Q:Your own house is a relatively simple farmhouse-style structure in Oakville, right?
A: Yes, my own house is based upon a simple farmhouse — and farmhouses can vary. I’m working on an Australian-style farmhouse for Ellen DeGeneres with a wraparound porch, which is very beautiful. But in my case, it’s a series of small buildings, which make up these different environments on the same property. The main house has one main room — not counting the more private bedrooms — with multiple exposures based on the views, which are spectacular. It happens to be all white, inside and out, to balance the light. Light and air are major parts of what I think makes a space most livable.
Q:You designed and opened your own restaurant in St. Helena called Archetype (formerly French Blue). What led you into this new direction?
A: I’d bought this building with the intention of using the back half to house my St. Helena office, and I needed to come up with a good use for the front half to make it interesting. Dining and architecture are so physically connected up here, so it made sense. I’m very pleased that it’s the kind of restaurant you can walk into during the day or late at night and be equally comfortable.
Q:Well, I suppose it makes working lunches pretty easy for you and your team.
A: I always say it’s a good day when we can’t get a table, though. I’ll never complain about not being able to get in.
Paige Porter Fischer is a San Francisco freelance writer.
E-mail: [email protected].
Napa Valley favorites
Favorite coffee bar: Sogni Di Dolci, 1142 Main St., St Helena; (707) 968-5257.
Best place for weekend lunch with friends or family: The Grill at Meadowood, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena; (707) 968-3144.
Top source for local products: Sunshine Market, 1115 Main St., St. Helena; (707) 963-7070.
Hotels to put up out-of-town guests: Auberge du Soliel, 180 Rutherford Hill Road, Rutherford; (707) 963-1211. Meadowood, 900 Meadowood Lane, St. Helena, (707) 531-4788
Favorite hike: Angwin (Inspiration Point)
Favorite place for wine tasting: Charles Krug, 2800 Main St., St. Helena; (707) 967-2200.
Go-to bakery: Model Bakery, 1357 Main St., St Helena; (707) 963-8192.
The most architecturally inspiring building in Napa Valley: The Barn at Round Pond Estate in Rutherford