We started with the Stahl house as our prototype, and our program was essentially the same as Koenig's. And this being an imaginary project, we weren't afraid to imitate the master directly. But we had to confront aspects of the Stahl design that simply didn't fit our site or program and, the more realized as we worked on it, didn't really fit the realities of 2016.

Our project evolved into a glass observation room floating over the hazy valley below, rather than looking down on it. To anchor this room to the steep hillside, we counter-balanced the light glass side with a solid concrete side, buried in the ground.  We put the service spaces of the house in this solid volume, and exposed the concrete walls to heighten the contrast with the light, glassy side.

The front of the house is all about reveling in a state of suspension in the haze. In contrast, we made the back of the house about looking up. We cut a long sliver of skylight through the roof to bring light into the buried part of the building, as well as carry the inhabitant's gaze to the changing sky above.

We had always planned to cover the ceiling in wood veneer to add some warmth and softness to the otherwise hard space. At the skylight, we decided to treat the think wood veneer like a surface slowly peeling away. Rather than signifying permanent shleter, this folded plane reminds an inhabitant of the softness and vulnerability of the natural material.

The illusion of Los Angeles as a sunny, green paradise has long faded. The sense of power that comes from overlooking the city is now tempered by the ever increasing threat of wildfire, which could force you from your fortress of solitude at any moment.

Indeed, the haze from those fires or, more commonly, just an abundance of commuters, renders the view from the hills above the LA basin non existent.  In the Stahl house, you could turn your gaze inward to the fireplace, but today, air quality laws and common sense would restrict you from actually burning logs there.

But what if you just embraced the haze? Gave up the romance of a commanding view over others, along with the fight to keep your structure impenetrable to the sometimes cruel, and changing, nature of the West?

We decided to render our design with an un-Romantic depiction of the landscape.

The Fire Lookout House

Can an imaginary house change the way we think about life on a warming planet?

This conceptual project started out as a real one--with a great client in Los Angeles who hired us to design them a new house to replace one that burned down in one of the West Coast's notorious wildfires.

But it ended with a series of renders exploring the nature of that site without its client, because the project died before it was built.  Released from the boundaries set by a real client, we decided to treat the house as a commentary on building in the West, where wildfire is becoming more and more frequent.

Floor Plan

We wanted to start with an archetypal symbol for the American house, and we found it from the iconic Stahl house by Pierre Koenig, just west of our site in in the LA hills.  

It has filled architectural publications and imaginations since its construction, and it must have been even more powerful to see that basin far below in a 1960s magazine, when it was new, when Los Angeles held its place in the popular imagination as an Eden with endless sunshine.

This was before white flight and suburban sprawl, before the economically abandoned and redlined ghettos gave way to crime and riots, before smog and overpopulation, before the Manson family terrorized these same hills. It was just an exquisitely detailed modern glass box perched above a sunny American paradise.

It was built to look over orange groves and tidy rows of bungalows. Now it looks over pink haze and traffic and the daily workings of an imperfect mega city.

Like the Stahl house, our project had a simple program of 1000 square feet for our clients, and a separate guest area for visits from their adult children.  Also like Koenig's, our design would have to sit on a sliver of land, perched precariously above a steep slope, with the Western landscape spread out below.

But within the boundary of our site were some long concrete and cinder block walls, and a concrete slab with oil drip stains where a car used to park in the house that was on this land previously. A house that had burned down in one of the wildfires that have rushed through the Western hills for centuries, and come more and more frequently now with climate change.

It was just like the site Pierre Koenig was assigned in 1960, but without the innocence. The land came with a view to inspire any architect, but it also came with a ghost of the architecture that came before, and a reminder of the impermanence of any building we would put there.

We concluded our imaginary project by destroying it.

We closely studied Pierre Koenig's iconic Stahl House as a precedent for our own critical project in the Los Angeles hills. And in our study, we diverged from the Stahl's example as we considered the contemporary condition of those hills. In particular we considered the reality of building in a place that naturally burns on a regular basis, and will do so much more often as our climate changes.

So we burned our 3D model down. And the ruins pictured here end our story. All Renderings by myself and Terence Wong, Design Associate with Paul Michael Davis Design.

A render of the house showing a wildfire in the distance

Physical model of the main house (right) and guest quarters above a carport (left), both buried in the steep hillside

The Stahl House, Los Angeles

The great room in our house design, floating in the haze

The house dematerializes into the ambiguous, smoky landscape

The relic of our design after an imagined wildfire

The house disappearing in a smoky haze