Rick and I took a creative recharge to L.A. this past weekend and had time for many a conversation about architecture. On a walk through Santa Monica we passed Frank Gehry’s house, a deconstruction of a gabled roof bungalow with glass and wood rhomboids, corrugated metal walls, and chain link fence ‘trellises’ projecting from the facade. The kitchen is a light-filled greenhouse located outside the original house structure, sharing a most unusual view of the eucalyptus canopy – it looked like a great place to cook and be with family.
Gehry’s structure begs the questions: why do houses have to be conventionally programmed? If we ignore our gadgetry and equipment for a minute, can we find more interesting ways to interlock rooms, walls, roofs, windows? Or is it better to simplify space? How do our life patterns inform spaces, and how adaptable are we to new or evolving space? Ultimately, is architecture capable of spiritual cleansing by offering prospect / refuge through proportion and composition?
We found a few answers as we experienced three significant houses during our trip. Our first scheduled tour was to the home of Charles and Ray Eames, or Case Study #8. Approaching the house, it’s not conventionally obvious where to enter… we first come upon the studio building and peer inside at its double height space. Next you come upon a shared courtyard, framed by eucalyptus trees. Several doors face the courtyard space, but the red panel, gold leaf panel and bell ringer, seen along the wood walk, call attention to the formal entrance.
Inside, the main house is divided by a central core of walls so that each room touches a portion of the steel, stucco and glass exterior. The grand double height living room faces the meadow and view of the ocean. The lofty space allowed the Eames to compose and observe hanging sculpture, plant life, lamps and furniture in various ways. The 8-foot tall double sided bookcase forms a skinny ‘library’ against the back wood wall, a very compressed nook in such a tall space.
The kitchen tucks around the opposite corner but opens, in a secretive way, to the cozy reading nook at the heart of the house. A spiral stair leads up to the Eames’ sleeping quarters, preserved in secrecy from visitors’ eyes, but presumed to be the a place to recharge from their constant experimentation and invention.
The next afternoon, we headed to Silver Lake to see the 1964 built VDL house by Richard Neutra. In stark contrast to the Eames’ simple box, the VDL is torqued into planes, interlocking rooms, overhangs and operable glass to create customizable space.
The rooms within are protected by two-storey vertical louvers extending from a shallow pond, both of which provide psychological barriers to the bedrooms within. The left side of the facade has a more straightforward glass wall, giving a view into (and out from) Neutra’s architecture office at ground level and living room above. The entry is signified by the wood wall extending just past the terrace above.
A small desk nook with a full-height glass corner faces the courtyard and forms a vestibule for the bedroom. I imagine this to be the brain of the house, overlooking the garden – the ‘person in charge’ planning everything from upcoming maintenance to gatherings of family, friends, artists, and architects.
From the ‘brain’ you choose to go outside or slip up the steel steps to the main living quarters – kitchen, living and dining are all upstairs. The living area is unusually long, emphasized by its relatively tiny built-in sofa at the end of the room, with plenty of space to dance or hang a mobile sculpture. A reading nook around the corner has a peek-a-boo into the kitchen. The eating area functions as a buffer for these private rooms.
The two bedrooms upstairs are not master / child, but Mr. and Mrs. Neutra, bedding separately. A large balcony overlooking the courtyard releases the compact spaces, and the third floor ‘penthouse’ and roof terrace have a 360 view. Both of these outdoor spaces would help clear the mind.
Central and above the front entry is the ‘view’ terrace, with its airy stair leading up to the rooftop party pad and reflecting pond. This small terrace has a water feature of its own, serving to keep one from falling off the edge but also bringing a natural element to the heart of the house. The VDL is a compact house, but decompressed by outdoor spaces, glass and mirrored walls, all reflecting the shimmery Silver Lake and tree topped hills.
Finally we arrived at Pierre Koenig’s Case Study #22, the Stahl house, located above the Hollywood Hills overlooking all of Los Angeles. It’s a spectacular and dramatic house, but what I found so interesting was the incredibly basic layout. The rooms are arranged into twenty foot bays, and, with a few exceptions, all rooms are lined with glass. What was so clear in visiting this house is just how different a 20×20 room can feel depending on where it lies relative to the extreme cliff at the edge of the site.
Entering through the carport, we are immediately embraced by the L-shape of the house, but have a spectacular, if precarious, experience of the city hundreds of feet below. The bedroom wing becomes to us a grounding plane, but made more interesting by a path of tiny concrete ‘bridges’ that span over the legs of the pool. I imagine this to create a feeling of security for those inside the glass if visitors dare to approach unannounced.
The Stahl’s children lived in the bedroom accessed covertly through the master bedroom – another method of creating protection in a glass house. The sanctuary that is the master bedroom is ideally located in the crux of the L-shape, so that the view from the bed follows the line of the glass wall of the living room out toward the city.
The extra deep 7-foot eaves of the house keep the big sky from invading, shielding the eyes like a visor looking toward the horizon. The kitchen is under a dropped ceiling, which allowed for ambient task lighting to fall over the two large work surfaces. To me this seemed an ideal spot to cook while maintaining a vibrant connection to the rest of the house.
Only one room has all three exposures of glass and the most direct connection with the city. The choice of materials in this room add depth: the Stahls added carpet as a practical measure, which helps to soften the room. The give beneath our feet reassures the body, allowing us to root into a ground plane at the edge of the precipice.
With each of these projects, there is something bigger going on than just the ideal arrangement of living, kitchen, dining, master suite, and so on. The forces that informed the design – landscape, views, sun patterns, geometry, to name a few – are much bigger than the day to day lifestyle. When architecture is unlocked from standard habits, a new meaning is given to life at home.