PAUL MICHAEL DAVIS DESIGN

Our design evolved into a glass observation room floating over the valley below. 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 exposed the concrete walls to the interior to heighten the contrast with the light, glassy side.

The front of the house is all about looking at Los Angeles below. Or, more often, 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 curtain. We pinned the surface at three points, and left the folding veneer exposed.

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 our site was different, of course. The Stahl house appears to float over the hill below it, but in fact the lot is pretty flat by California standards. Koenig employed some clever tricks to exaggerate his cantilever. In our case, to get a 3 sided glass box, we would actually need to hover over the hill below, and in fact the rest of our program had to be buried in and elevated above the ground.

In school, I remember reading Christian Norbert Schulz's theory of the spirit of place and the land, and being unmoved by it. But here I was struck by the fact that we had to adapt our design to fit the land, even when we tried to imitate another house.

What form should a house in the Los Angeles hills take now?

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 would restrict you from actually burning logs there.

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

Terence Wong and I decided to render our design with Los Angeles as we've really experienced it.

There are some telling details of the Stahl house you miss in the famous pictures.

It has wall to wall white polyester carpet, like my grandmas house in the 1980s. The bathroom also has nearly the same kitschy wallpaper hers did.

And there are some more serious things to consider when we look at Koenig's design in the current frenzy for all things mid century modern. It usually appears as a perfect glass box: an observer, and perhaps ruler, of the city below.

But in fact there is a massive stone fireplace in the middle of the living room. Even a small garhering would force guests away from the stunning view below and into the middle of Koenig's architectural composition.

Wood burning fireplaces are illegal in Los Angeles now. They are horribly polluting and causing asthma in kids, and anyway, isn't blowing a bunch of red hot embers and sparks into the tinder dry California hills just tempting fate?

Today, we would have to resort to one of those wimpy fake gas fireplaces. Hardly a primordial hearth worthy of blocking a great view. So what would an appropriate interior design of a glass box be now?

The California House


This is a photo series documenting a project we have been working on for the past two years in my office.

Like every design project, it has been an unpredictable journey. But this one was a real Odyssey. It began with a great client in Los Angeles who found me, a young unknown architect in Seattle, and hired me to design a home for him and his wife because he loved a 3D rendering of an unbuilt project on my website. And it ends with a series of renderings of an unbuilt project for him, because he tragically passed away midway through our design process.

But thanks to @terencewong2009, a talented intern in my office, we were able to continue our design exploration on a conceptual basis.

The first step was to seek inspiration, and no California house design could proceed without looking at Esther McCoy's seminal book on the Case Study houses, with the iconic Stahl house by Pierre Koenig on the cover. My prized copy, bought at an estate sale for $5, is pictured here.

The Stahl residence by Pierre Koenig, pictured here, is probably the most iconic example of a Los Angeles hillside house.

It's an international style glass box like many others of its time, but it's perched above the Los Angeles basin in such a way that the city becomes a green and blue carpet below by day, and a twinkling, upside-down constellation at night.

It has filled architectural publications and imaginations since its construction in 1960, 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.

I lived in Los Angeles for 3 years, drawn by the year long sunshine still present in the 2000s, but I knew by then that it wasn't an earthly paradise. And what struck me when I visited the Stahl house in person was how it still served as such a wonderful observer of the city below.

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. And it still works brilliantly. So I decided to use this design an the basis for my own project in the Los Angeles hills to the east.

In 2012, I got a call from a very nice man who had bought a hillside parcel east of Los Angeles.

He had found my website and really liked a project I had designed. The project was an unbuilt, basically imaginary plan and rendering, in which I had developed a plan for a house for my dad that he didn't particularly like, and which died quickly.

It was 2008, so I had a lot of time on my hands, (like most architects in the recession) and I decided to take the unrealized plan and do something fun with it. I never expected it to do anything but look pretty on my website, but the nice man calling wanted me to design something just like it on his land in Southern California. I asked him if he knew I was in Seattle. He did, and a couple weeks later I met him and his wife and walked around their building site in the foothills above Claremont.

Like the Stahl house in 1960, our design would have to sit on a sliver of land, perched precariously above a steep slope, with a blanket of trees and tidy suburban roads spreading out for miles below. But unlike the Stahl's property, ours was not untouched. There was an exquisite Richard Neutra house across the street, and a mix of more recent McMansions filling out the neighborhood.

And 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 California hills for centuries, and come more and more frequently now with climate change.

It was 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 I would put there.

Lots of architecture never gets built. Like most architects, my server is filled with gigabytes of plans, renderings and ideas for buildings that never happened.

Usually the client was just dipping their toes in the gray architectural waters, and they cancel the project before it goes too far. Sometimes the cost of actually building the thing kills the project. In this case, the end of the design came in the form of a very sad phone call from the wife of the nice man who had hired me telling me he had suddenly passed away.

Traits like kindness, honesty and enthusiasm for life always seem to come to the forefront when someone dies, but that really is how I remember my client. That, and his enthusiasm for our project, and experimental modern architecture in general. The picture here is where we left our project, at the end of schematic design, before his tragic death.

The house had a simple program of 1000 square feet for my client and his wife to retire in, and a separate guest area for visits from their adult children. Their budget wasn't huge, so structural gymnastics weren't possible. And they wanted spaces that celebrated the panoramic views. Our solution was a simple pair of linear volumes straddling the flat sliver of hillside where the original burned down house stood. I was proud of the design, but always felt like I had made more compromises for the budget than I should have.

And before I could push the design the extra bit it needed, the project abruptly died with its patron.

What should an architect do when a project dies? Or, in this case, when a client tragically dies?

Our design was off to a good start, but it hadn't gone through that back and forth development process that I think makes a design excellent. Looking at the half finished renderings just made me sad. The design had compromises for the clients budget that I wished it didn't, yet it would never become a real building in which those compromises might make sense.

Enter @terencewong2009, a talented student of mine from a stint teaching at bellevuecollege, who joined my office one summer as an intern. I decided to ask Terence to spend his summer redesigning the California project with me.

Since the house design became imaginary, we could take some liberties with budget and style that we couldn't in the real project. And since the house would only ever exist as images on a screen, we started to think about the process differently. The design became less about problem solving, and more about story telling.

We looked at the Stahl house. A lot. In a real project, I would have been shy about directly imitating another building, but in this case it seemed okay. We weren't trying to copy the architecture as much as learn from it. We took the real design project, which held to the contours of the hillside to save cost, and turned it perpendicular to the slope, projecting outward over the view below like Koenig's masterpiece.

But in doing so, we had to confront aspects of the Stahl design that simply didn't fit our site and, the more realized as we worked on it, didn't really fit the realities of 2016.

Floor Plan



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