A Shared Sporting Field Shows Solidarity

A shared bocce court in front of two Eichler homes in Sunnyvale has become a community amenity. Here, the two families engage in a match. Game day photos by Dave Weinstein

In New York City, where Joe Eichler grew up, kids played stickball on the street in front of their apartments. When temperatures climbed they opened the fire hydrants and played in the spray. As things cooled down in the evening, adults sat on front stoops to chat and watch the world go by.

Thirty-five years later, when Joe began building houses on the others side of the continent, the focal point for activity was the private backyard and, a few years later, the private atrium. That’s where kids played and where parents sat.

Play in the front yard or hang out there? Why?

How about a game of bocce?

“It’s a great place to be at night,” says Marc Vanlerberghe about the 91-foot bocce ball court that fills not one but two front yards of Eichler homes in Sunnyvale’s Fairbrae neighborhood.

Before the two families put in the bocce court, the front yards were a tad bland, though attractive enough for neighborhood kids, as above. Courtesy Inge Keuppens.

“It’s a way to spend some time out front and a way to use the space in front, a way of making the space more useful,” says Marc’s neighbor, Giovanni Sena.

“You go out in the evening, and we have the pastis, and we play bocce,” says Marc’s wife, Inge Keuppens.

The bocce court is jointly owned and maintained and enjoyed by two families. They say the shared court suggests the strength of their friendship and their shared love for a modern aesthetic.

The families come from Europe, though none grew up as fanatical players of bocce or its Gallic cousin game, pétanque.

Giovanni Sena and Monica Orlando, who have two boys, are from Italy. Giovanni remembers playing bocce as a child on the beach. It was a popular game in Italy then, less so today except among older people, he says. Marc and Inge, who have two daughters, are from Belgium. Marc played a bit of pétanque, but says it was more a French game than Belgian.

The beautifully designed court is quite a sight. It's striking, both aesthetically and sociologically. As Inge and Marc’s daughter June says, “A lot of people ask what it is.”

The goal is to get your ball as close as possible to the smaller ball, the pallina. Much strategy is involved.

Aesthetically it is striking in the way it harmonizes with the artistic front yard gardens in both houses, which are alike in their general effect but different in plant types and arrangement. Also of note is how the bocce court relates to the strong horizontal lines of the two houses, which are both flat-roofed but different models.

And sociologically – well, sure, you’ll often find a basketball hoop erected alongside an Eichler home’s driveway, or a swing attached to the limb of a front yard tree. But a permanent sporting field of European descent?

Well, maybe it’s not completely permanent.

About the shared structure, Inge says, “People said we were crazy about doing it, because if you had to sell [one of the houses], people wouldn’t like the common thing. But it would be easy to transform it into something else, like a cactus garden.”

Two men
Giovanni Sena and Marc Vanlerberghe.

Building the shared structure was a strong statement of friendship. The families have known each other since 2003, when Giovanni and Monica had arrived. Inge and Marc preceded them in the neighborhood by a year.

In the neighborhood, Marc says, “Everybody is quite close with each other and good friends. The bocce is another expression of that.”

“ I’ve always felt the community feeling here is much stronger than in Italy,” Marc says, meaning the Eichler tract. “The community feeling here is something I’ve never had in Bergamo.”

Many kids are of a like age, Monica says. And the neighborhood is internationally diverse, with folks from Finland, Korea, France, Germany, Israel, and India.

Their cul-de-sac is particularly tight, throwing block parties for Easter, Halloween, and Christmas, and there are other parties besides. Not surprisingly, many of those parties now incorporate a bit of bocce.

It could be that the sheer linearity of the space suggested that a bocce court would fit.

Two women
Inge Keuppens and Monica Orlando.

“We wanted to do something together,” Monica says of the inspiration behind the court. No one can quite remember who first said “bocce,” but it was an idea they kicked around for some time.

“We wanted to do something together, to make it a seamless design,” Inge says. “We were sharing the ugliest shrubs.”

That was the real inspiration, the need to replace their adjacent yards of dying grass and shrubs with something. Both families had recently done work on their fences, using the same landscape designer, Mscape Design, whom they later called upon for the front-yard landscaping.

They had even talked about incorporating a movable pizza oven into the fence that could swing from one backyard to the other. “The men liked that idea,” Marc says. “The women didn’t.”

In bocce, where teams (or individual competitors) roll colored balls down the court trying to come as close as possible to a target ball, the 'pallina,' competition can be fierce. But not in Fairbrae. “We’re casual bocce players,” Marc says.

They often play at night, when lights installed along the court cast a lovely glow, and large globe lights conceal speakers for musical accompaniment. Neighbors sometimes join in, and Marc has had folks from his workplace play as part of a team-building event.

Bocce court
The bocce court fits well aesthetically with the low lines of the two houses.

The kids often play during the summer, says June, and friends sometimes ask, “Can I come over and play bocce ball?”

“I thought it was a pretty cool idea,” says June, who is 16, recalling when the court was proposed. “I wasn’t sure how often we would play bocce ball. I wasn’t sure what it was.”

Their parents appreciate that the sport gets their children outside, and June’s sister, 13-year-old Britt concedes the point.

She says, “You’re not always on your phone when you’re playing [bocce].”

The bocce court is particularly appealing at night. Photo by Marc Vanlerberghe

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