June 2012

Open+Shut

A hardworking house in Echo Park has the dexterity to adapt to different seasons and situations   by MAYER RUS / photographs by GRANT MUDFORD

  • Sliding doors and windows of glass and perforated steel create permeable boundaries between indoors and out.
  • The open living room has views of the landscape on both sides.
  •  On the second floor, a central “wet zone” includes a kitchen that overlooks a shower. The kitchen will eventually move downstairs to make way for an expanded master bath.
  • The staircase gets bathed in golden light.
  • A secondary dining area feels like a balcony when windows are open.
  • A rooftop garden uses steel armatures with perforated metal panels to provide relief from the sun.
  • The tall, slender edifice rises above the neighborhood's surrounding low-lying cottages.
  • Illuminated panels of yellow and green glass glow like lanterns at night.

In this era of blobitecture and starchitects, tortured design calisthenics are frequently confused with imagination and innovation. The trilevel Echo Park home of architect Norman Millar and artist Tam Van Tran assiduously avoids the playground of computer-enabled avant-gardism and instead finds substance and meaning in smart, flexible design solutions that raise the bar on the indoor-outdoor connection so essential to life in Southern California. It’s refreshingly straightforward.

Millar, the enterprising dean of Woodbury University’s School of Architecture, acquired the property in 1989 and spent nearly two decades living in an existing house on the site as he developed schemes for a bold new structure. Construction finally commenced in 2006, with Millar serving as general contractor and part-time builder, and lasted until 2010.

The economic cataclysm of 2008 slowed down construction considerably, but the four-year time frame did have its upside. “You could never do this if you were working for a client,” says Millar. “We moved very slowly and figured out details as we went along. There’s something satisfying about this kind of deliberate, hands-on way of working, where you have the leisure to keep messing with things.”

The house was designed as a kind of blank shell—the architect likens the approach to a minimall—with repeated, mutable spaces consistent from floor to floor. Each of the first two levels of the tall, slender structure is divided into three equal volumes.

The first floor has a library and a dining room bracketing a staircase to a lower-level office. On the second floor, a living room and master bedroom flank the master bath and the original kitchen, which will eventually move downstairs and make way for an expanded his-and-his bathroom. A felicitous roof garden, with commanding views of Echo Park, Silver Lake and downtown, boasts elaborate planting beds and seating areas under metal screen canopies.

The materials palette is limited to steel, concrete (polished for the floor, rough for the ceiling), concrete block and marine-grade plywood. Strategically placed panels of yellow polycarbonate and small yellow and green glass windows bring hits of color to the exterior and bathe the interiors in warm light that picks up the hues of the surrounding flora. The extensive use of concrete reflects the gospel of Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania, where Millar studied.

“The house is organized around a series of golden rectangles in plan and section,” he says, referring to the quasi-mystical ratio that has captivated architects and mathematicians since the time of Phidias and Pythagoras. “It’s a subliminal kind of brainwashing. People feel comfortable and protected without knowing why.”

Golden rectangles are all well and good, but there’s nothing opaque about the house’s window system—it’s the hit of the show. Floor-to-ceiling openings alternate with concrete-block walls every six feet on two sides of the 15-foot-wide structure. Each aperture has a sliding glass panel and a sliding perforated and corrugated metal screen that, together, regulate the temperature.

The screens, which block 60 percent of the light, are typically tucked away in winter to admit as much natural warmth as possible. In summer, the panels are reversed, and the lockable metal screens are often left open for maximum ventilation. “The windows were one-third the cost of the whole project, but they make the house,” Tran says. “When they’re open, every room becomes a balcony. The connection to nature is real—you can reach out and touch the trees.”

Because of the structure’s height and modular facade, neighbors and passersby often mistake the house for an apartment building. But Millar is unfazed, particularly as he does see potential applications of this model for apartment living.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he insists. “I like designing and teaching, but being the general contractor and being engaged in the building process every day for four years gives you an incredibly intimate connection to the work. This place is home.”