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Say "modern" and "design" in the same sentence and your mind is likely to conjure up images of steel and glass boxes filled with minimalist, Danish-modern furnishings and an iconic leather and molded-plywood Eames lounge chair.

But modern design did not remain in the 1950s. It has continued to evolve over the decades, standing on the shoulders of giants like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.

And with its sun-blessed climate, casual lifestyle and progressive consciousness, the West has proven particularly fertile ground for architecture that stands on the shoulders of past giants while casting a clear eye into the future.

"Our modernism can look back 100 years. We have Deco, Modern, Streamline Moderne, all of those are laced together in modernism here," said San Francisco-based design writer Zahid Sardar, who sifts out some of the best western architecture of the last decade in a new, sumptuously illustrated coffee table book, "West Coast Modern: Architecture, Interiors & Design" (Gibbs Smith publishers).

"Essentially the way in which things have moved forward is in our material expression," he added, offering as an example Cor-Ten, a real signature West Coast high-design steel alloy that weathers to a desirable rust.

Collaborating with photographer Matthew Millman, Sardar leads a visual tour that takes readers from the coast to the city, from the desert to the mountains and finally to California Wine Country, with stops at Geyserville's Oliver Ranch, an art cave in Calistoga, a retreat in St. Helena and a striking family compound set within the rugged landscape above the Alexander Valley.

Sardar was born and raised in Bombay, but after a visit to San Francisco in 1979 he found he couldn't leave.

"I didn't pick San Francisco. It picked me," said the writer, who came for a three-day visit he then extended to nine days. After hopping a plane home, he turned around and boarded a plane back to San Francisco, where he has spent more than 30 years writing for major design publications, speaking about architecture and design and, for the past four years, teaching design history at the California College of the Arts.

Part of what separates the western vernacular from East Coast modern is the influence of MesoAmerican forms, Spanish colonial and mission design and Southwest Indian cultures, according to Sardar. Wood is much more prevalent as a material, said Sardar, and the good weather makes possible a kind of indoor/outdoor design and interior courtyards that would make no sense in other parts of the country where homes have to provide cover from harsh winters. The East Coast is probably more influenced by European modern whereas the west coast, he says, "is a homegrown modernism at work."

Closer to home, Sardar finds that Wine Country invites an even more distinctive regional western style that incorporates more natural materials and capitalizes on the rural landscapes.

To exemplify that he focuses on several properties in Sonoma and Napa counties, including a family compound nestled onto 384 acres above the Alexander Valley outside Geyserville.

Designed by Sonoma architects Amy Nielsen and Richard Schuh, the hilltop compound is a cluster of pavilions of varying sizes built in a circle around a courtyard shaded by a giant madrone. A rectangular 3,000-square-foot main house connects to several smaller structures cantilevered out at an angle from stone foundations. A concrete-walled loggia connects the structures, designed so the owners can host big family gatherings that include grandchildren.

Materials were selected so as not to clash with the pristine natural setting — Douglas fir in the ceilings, board-formed concrete, glass, oxidized steel and stone. Exterior rain screens made of horizontal fir slats and shed roofs with large overhangs add shade for those hot summer days.

"In the Wine Country there is a tendency to want more wood. It's a rural setting," said Sardar. "A very harsh steel and glass white box is not going to sit well in this neighborhood and it's not going to sit well in its landscape. West Coast modernism is very well attuned to that."

Schuh explained that the curvature of the land dictated much of the design.

"Rather than shape the land to fit the house, we designed the house to fit the site," the architect explained. "It gives a feeling that the land was a priority rather than molding the land, which is a developer way of handling a project."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.