Two years ago the preservation community was up in arms over the sudden demolition of the late Ray Bradbury’s house in Cheviot Hills.
The perpetrator of this outrage? The architect Thom Mayne and his wife Blythe Alison-Mayne.
An unrepentant Thom added insult to injury by calling the beloved writer’s home of 50 years “incredibly un-extraordinary. . . not just un-extraordinary but unusually banal.”
But the couple promised they would reference Bradbury in the new design and told DnA then that they would build a “very, very modest house.”
So… did they deliver? Listen to this report on the almost-completed house, reaction from locals, how it represents a challenge to McMansionization and connects to the goal of making 2.5 million LA homes energy-neutral by 2050. Read the story, below.
Thom Mayne is one of LA’s most prominent architects. He is known for his forceful personality and buildings; his firm Morphosis designed the Caltrans building in downtown LA and the Emerson College campus in Hollywood. He has won the prestigious Pritzker Prize. He studied at USC, teaches at UCLA and co-founded the experimental school SCI-Arc, which will honor him at a fundraiser this Friday.
When it came to building a new house for the family, he aimed low, digging down into a hilly 4000 square feet site. From there he built 1,700 square feet of interior space, plus a cantilevered guest house and a lap pool, all interwoven with terraces designed for outdoor living and already bursting with plants. The concept will be in full bloom five years from now, he says, describing the building as essentially “a planter,” from which grows a multi-terraced house and garden.
Judging by conversations with passersby on the day we visited, the compelling design has garnered approval from the neighbors, one of whom described its quirky and playful interior to us as being like “European puppet theater.”
The design draws on the inside-outside living experiments of the Case Study House architects like Pierre Koenig, who taught Thom at USC. The interplay of vertical and horizontal planes with lush finishes, like a gorgeous, glittery, olive green, perforated metal cladding, brings to mind early experiments in abstraction like the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe.
It borrows from loft-living, with kitchen/dining/living on the lower level, sleeping area/library/shower on the upper level. And it echoes their current house on 6th Street in Santa Monica with features like an entryway bridge and a tall hedge — still to grow — around the site for privacy.
It references other architects in details like fat tubular handrails in the Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart by the late British architect Jim Stirling.
And one detects a nod to Herzog & de Meuron’s M.H. de Young Museum in a staircase that appears to lead to nowhere because a low-hanging ceiling conceals its destination.
Thom calls it a mini-Italian hilltown. The way it sits within resplendent planting makes it feel like Modernism in the jungle.
The house is understated and flashy all at the same time, qualities attributable to a mix of Blythe’s intervention and Thom’s advancing “maturity” (in Blythe’s view).
“I still want to be Keith Richards or Jimi Hendrix. And it has to do with some full outness of your artwork,” says Thom. “You just go pedal to the metal and it’s just part of who I am as an architect.” In this house, “I definitely put on the brakes and purposely didn’t go full out. . . it was part of the program with my wife,” says Thom, explaining a design that comes across as a highly personal tribute to love of family and its private rituals.
That plays out in details like the house’s open air, shared shower; in views throughout the house (so no one can hide out in a room with their gadgets); and a seat carved out by Thom by the bath, so he can sit and chat with Blythe when she takes her daily soak.
“It’s not really about design or style,” he says. “It doesn’t start there. It starts with the way you live and an architecture that supports or even advances in the way you communicate and the rituals you have in your day to day life. I haven’t done a residence for 25 years and it’s been really fun because this is a complete different world than the institutional work.”
There’s an additional goal embodied in the house: to model a different approach to residential design from the McMansion-ization of space that is prevalent in LA, and specifically in Cheviot Hills.
Says Blythe, “Some of the people in this neighborhood say things like, ‘well, my accountant would never have let me do this.’ And we’re like, ‘What do you mean your accountant? What does he have to do with your home?’ ‘Well, he would never let us invest without maximizing the square footage on the lot because of the resale value.’ And we just scratch our heads and think, ‘wow, did we ever talk about resale value?'”
House is case study for low-energy living
The Pritzker Prize-winning Thom Mayne is deeply rooted in LA’s academic life. He studied at USC, he teaches at UCLA and he co-founded the experimental school SCI-Arc (which will honor him at a fundraiser this Friday.)
SCI-Arc, he says, “is an unusual place. The density and the quality of the creative activity that is going there is just unheard of. . . UCLA is more of a research institute and it’s where we do urban studies.”
Right now one of those urban studies is a $150 million research project at UCLA. Mayne and his students have been exploring the resource-savings that could be achieved if the 2.1 million residences in Los Angeles were to be water and energy neutral.
The house in Cheviot Hills is both, he says, in part due to digging down into the earth, having no lawn, retaining the water on the site, and using cross-ventilation for cooling.
Given that more than half of Angelenos now rent, and construction of multifamily housing now exceeds single family housing, can these lessons be applied to multifamily?
Of course, says Mayne, adding that good multifamily has to work at a building and an urban level — he cites uninspired, “self-similar” apartment buildings in Playa Vista as an example of very poor urban design. Now he is busy with a group called Building Forward LA trying to push the City to adopt more progressive building practices. The model for him, he says, is Elon Musk.
“It takes a sea change and really rethinking in his case what a car and in this case, what a building is or what a residence or what a multifamily housing is. And I think the city has to be more aggressive about being open to innovation and, of all cities, this is a city that has tremendous intellectual creative capital in its design community and in the engineering community. And it should be turned loose.”
Thom Mayne will be honored, along with Merry Norris, longtime art consultant, collector and former Cultural Affairs commissioner, at a fundraiser for SCI-Arc this coming Friday. Click here for details. Read more about Merry Norris and her art collection, here.