It’s no accident that Dwell on Design, America's largest modern design event, was first launched in Los Angeles.
“L.A. is the modern capital of architecture in the nation,” explains Michela O’Connor Abrams, president and CEO of Dwell Media, publisher of Dwell magazine.
With a lifestyle built around the daily commute and lived at a pummeling pace, L.A. is also a city that's easy to bash. Its relentless sprawl also makes it a hard place to get to know, much less love, and its charmless strip malls and self-indulgent monoliths can create a jarring visual experience.
John Lautner, one of the architects most closely associated with the city, hated the place when he first arrived in 1938. “It was so damned ugly I was physically sick for about a year,” Lautner said. “I’d been used to [...] everything beautiful, and here everything’s ugly. I couldn’t imagine doing anything as ugly as Los Angeles.”
But Lautner and a wave of other visionary architects eventually found inspiration in L.A.’s undisciplined aesthetic. The city was key to the development and growth of Modernism, and homes by some of America’s greatest architects—Lautner, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Charles and Henry Greene, Charles and Ray Eames—are sprinkled throughout the city.
The tradition of inspired architectural vision continues to this day. For its 2014 event, the folks at Dwell curated a tour of architecturally distinctive homes built in the last decade.
While all are modest in size, none are short on vision. And though all the homes we saw were unique, we did detect some unifying themes: flat roofs that contrast with jagged hills; cantilevered designs that maximize small lots; oversized windows framing views that glide along for miles; efforts to bring the outside in, and vice-versa.
Welcome to 21st-century living in L.A.
Architect: McShane Murnane
On a steep hillside parcel in L.A.’s trendy Silver Lake neighborhood, the entry to the deceptively simple home of Cleo and McShane Murnane is elevated above street level—60-some exterior steps above the garage.
The couple had a tiny footprint to work with, but by raising the two-story structure high above the neighbors, they were able to create a cantilevered living room that opens onto idyllic views of home-dappled hillsides.
The house is framed around a windcatcher, a traditional element of Persian architecture that's designed to circulate cooler air naturally. McShane told me that although the home is 20 miles inland, an ocean breeze occasionally makes it to the deck.
Working within a constrained budget, the cost to elevate the home was offset with sensible compromises, in a minimalist but family-friendly style. For instance, the kitchen cabinetry is Ikea, but this shortcut made room for kitchen splurges like brass fixtures, hexagonal Moroccan cement tiles, and a freestanding tub. The master bedroom is on the main floor, while two small bedrooms are located downstairs. Improbably, a miniature climbing “wall” provides access from one child’s bedroom into the living area.
Architects: Escher GuneWardena
On another hillside in Silver Lake is the Jones House, which smartly maximizes a 6,000-square-foot sloped lot by concentrating 2,500 square feet of living space on one floor, supported by six vine-wrapped pillars.
Height limitations requiring setbacks carved the way for a sharply angled façade facing the street, allowing virtually the entire structure to be cantilevered above the carport. A glass-enclosed stairway rises into the heart of the home. It’s a bit like ascending into a futuristic spaceship.
Upstairs, the open plan flows seamlessly from a canyon-facing deck at the front, through the living and dining rooms to the kitchen, and out to a small garden in back. Lining the east side are the home's four bedrooms, including an elegant master bedroom open to the master bath. Utility and storage spaces primarily line the exterior, allowing balconies and loggias to reveal the view. A maple floor, stained a black coffee hue, disappears at night, highlighting the distant lights of the city.
Built in 2010, the Jones House sold in October 2013 for $1.46 million.
Architect: Michael Ferguson
Modern design can be pleasing to the eye, even as it borders on the unlivable. But despite its highly stylized look, VillaCasa felt like the most comfortable home on the tour.
Situated on a downslope in the sleepy Mount Washington neighborhood, the home features a façade framed by a lovingly sculpted old pepper tree, with a thick horizontal branch allowing just enough clearance for a car to enter the garage. Though not a large parcel at 4,200 square feet, the outsized tree and other elements create privacy, and the home feels surprisingly unrestrained.
Like many modern L.A. homes, VillaCasa is graced with abundant glass—a feature the owners told me was a key selling point. Pivoting glass doors to the living room are frequently left open on both sides, allowing air to circulate. Breezes coming up the canyon are cooled as they cross the lap pool, which conveniently doubles as a retaining wall. The three bedrooms and master bath are upstairs (slightly larger than the lower level), providing more privacy without losing sight of canyon peek-a-boos.
Architect: Vianney Boutry
Almost the very definition of the Hollywood Hills lifestyle, the Lecam Residence is positioned on an impossibly steep lot that affords a million-dollar panorama sweeping from Griffith Park in the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west. The lights of Sunset Boulevard glimmer gently, well below.
While the kitchen was undergoing a remodel during our visit, and a new infinity pool and deck was being added below, we couldn’t help but appreciate the breathtaking view from the precipitously perched master bedroom. The vista instantly recalls Pierre Koenig’s nearby Case Study House No. 22—the home immortalized in an iconic 1960 Julius Shulman photo.
This is the stuff that L.A. dreams are made of.