In adding to a historic monument, architects seek to avoid the twin traps of mimicry and upstaging the original. Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of Los Angeles firm Johnston Marklee & Associates have mastered that challenge in designing the Sale House, a cubist project faced in grey stucco to play off the 2-4-6-8 studio that Morphosis designed 25 years ago in the beachfront community of Venice, California.
That one room over a garage brought the architects, Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi, international fame, and it still has the power to provoke. Working with a bare-bones budget, the pair enriched a simple cube with felt shingles, Mondrianesque accents of primary colour, and projecting yellow window frames that progress from 2 foot square on the inner face to an 8 foot square portico above the entry.
Josh Sale, the same enlightened client who gave Morphosis its first significant commission, turned to another fledgling partnership to replace the original clapboard bungalow, which had been destroyed by fire. He and his wife, Peggy Curran, had moved to Colorado and wanted to rent out their former property, but gave their new architects a free hand to create a work of art, as enthusiastically as when they lived there.
It was an opportunity that Johnston and Lee were well prepared to exploit. They met at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, married, and moved to LA, where they established their office in 1998. As teachers at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), and as practitioners who won a Progressive Architecture Design Award for the Hill House in West LA, they quickly made their mark. They have designed several other innovative houses, and drew acclaim for 'Nano', an audacious exhibition installation at the LA County Museum of Art. They have also worked for the Lannan Foundation and the community of Marfa, Texas, to develop innovative architectural environments.
To make the architects' task even harder, the house had to take its place on a narrow walkway that fronts a row of clapboard cottages with picket-fenced gardens and service alleys to the rear. It is a picture-pretty version of another era, and a surreal contrast to gritty Lincoln Boulevard, a block away, but the architects knew this idyll would not last much longer. Land prices have soared on property within walking distance of the beach, the bungalows are nearing the end of their life, and many will soon be replaced by the residential equivalent of SUVs (sport utility vehicles).
Johnston Marklee wanted to create a house in scale with its neighbours and a studio that would also serve as a model for the next generation of builders.
The Sale House develops a concept that Morphosis first explored, of treating the studio as a repetitive element in a quadrilateral of identical blocks. Johnston Marklee displaced the cube as a master bedroom at the front of the house, opening on to a roof deck that leads to the studio, and as the negative volume of a central courtyard. Glass-walled living spaces are wrapped around three sides of this void, which complements the mass above.
The studio is a doll's-house variation on the pitched-roof bungalows to either side, and the new facade is an abstraction of that asymmetrical collage of window and wall. In contrast to Morphosis' use of colour and relief, the house facade is monochromatic and exaggeratedly flat: a sheer grey plane interrupted by glass sliders that frame the living room and open the interior to the garden and to the courtyard beyond. A square window lights the bedroom above.
Within the house, the themes of openness and neutrality are carried through the living areas with their white walls, polished concrete floors, and expansive glazing, but the ground-floor office, the master bedroom and the stairs that link them are inflected by angled walls and brilliant hues. Bright pink, turquoise and yellow-orange volumes are juxtaposed in a mutation of the primary colours that are sparingly used on the exterior of the studio, achieving a dazzling sense of surprise as you move from the public to the private realm. Lee cites the precedent of Adolf Loos' villas, which often conceal boldly grained woods and marbles and shifting forms behind their discreet facades.
The client asked for durable, low-maintenance materials, and the architects chose to create a deceptively simple house that is as vibrant within as the studio is on the outside.
The two make a perfect pair, in the harmony of their proportions and the radical contrast of their language. The success of this 160m 2 house augers well for the soon-to-be-completed Hill House, on a sloping site not far from the icon that the Eameses built for themselves, high above the ocean, a half-century ago.
Michael Webb is a Los Angeles-based architecture critic, whose most recent book is Brave New Houses: Adventures in Southern California Living, published by Thames & Hudson