Landmark House: Ray Kappe's wood and glass retreat
Of more than 100 houses that Ray Kappe designed over his long and distinguished career, the one he designed for himself and his family in Los Angeles' Rustic Canyon is the most important. "Maybe the greatest house in Southern California," Stephen Kanner, the former president of American Institute of Architects' Los Angeles chapter, said in a 2008 interview.
Indeed, that year, when the Home section polled architects, historians, academics and critics on Southern California's best houses of all time, the 1967 Kappe residence ranked No. 8, just behind Chemosphere by John Lautner and the Gamble House by Charles and Henry Greene. Had Kappe, 83, not been one of the panelists and precluded from voting for his own work, the architect's personal residence would have landed even higher in the final rankings, a list of classics by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames.
Of more than 100 houses that Ray Kappe designed over his long and distinguished career, the one he designed for himself and his family in Los Angeles' Rustic Canyon is the most important.
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Unlike most hillside homes, the Kappe house isn't tucked into the hillside. Rather, it runs along and above it, seeming to hover over the slope on Brooktree Road in the Palisades. The structural plan allows its 4,000 square feet of wood and glass to rest on laminated beams bolted to six massive, deep-set concrete towers. Gurgling water from natural springs courses through the space underneath, running down the rocky hillside to the street. Mature eucalyptus, sycamore, oak and bamboo shroud the home in an evergreen canopy.
The property, 100 feet wide, is a transitional zone between a level lot on one side and a lower neighbor on the other. Kappe House floats across the resulting 45-degree angle on seven levels, with cantilevered wooden decks, trellises and platforms reaching out into the environment. From inside, views run in every direction, yet at the same time the landscaping provides a natural seclusion.
"It's remarkable for the way it's constantly relating back to the hillside," Los Angeles architect Ron Radziner said. "It's the quintessential tree house."
Added Linda Dishman, head of the Los Angeles Conservancy: "Inside that house, you feel like you're one with nature."
The house's innovative footing and posture are a result of the architect's adapting to the challenges of the site, which he initially thought might be un-buildable because of the groundwater. A geologist told Kappe that the springs could be diverted, and the architect's original plans were to build on a series of pads set in the hillside. But when the springs could not be diverted, he turned away from a conventional grade-beam foundation and, instead, raised the house up, "letting the site flow through it," Kappe said. "I'm a pragmatic guy."
He had to sink the front concrete columns down 30 feet through clay to get to bedrock. An advocate of the "design build" approach, Kappe served as his own contractor and personally supervised not only the foundation but all elements of construction.
"He wasn't a person who drew," says Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, a former faculty colleague of Kappe's at Cal Poly Pomona. "He was a person who built his ideas, and you can see it in the house."
In the early 1960s, Kappe had been experimenting with modular prefab construction for condominium developments, using load-bearing vertical core units as a way around bulldozing hillsides, and he brought some of that thinking to Brooktree Road. The house has a skin of plate glass combined with wood panels and concrete. The ratio of glass to floor area is about 50-50, predating later California residential code that limits glass to 20%. Where two glass walls meet, Kappe mitered the joints head-on rather than use wooden mullions; glass meets glass for a nearly invisible intersection, furthering the feeling of the house adrift in nature. Yet in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which hit the Palisades hard, the only damage that the house sustained was two broken windows.
Kappe, described by Architectural Record as "an unsung modern master," has designed many houses of steel and concrete and has claimed not to prefer one material over another. But his own house, with all its beautiful wood, has earned him the label of "warm modernist." The 21/2-foot-thick laminated beams, hard to miss, are indeed made of Douglas fir. The rest of the lumber is redwood. Interior roof joists run across the beams and through the exterior wall, extending 12 feet beyond as a shadow-making trellis. None of the wood was stained or treated other than with clear Thompson's WaterSeal.
Inside, the four bedrooms have doors, but the rest of the home is pure openness, individual spaces defined and quietly segregated by subtle changes in elevation. Described by one critic as "a controlled explosion of space," the Kappe residence has the quality of an atrium ingeniously adapted for work and play. The ceiling over the main family area is 14 feet high. Cushioned benches line the walls of areas meant for relaxation or conversation. Even the carpet is green, another choice made to pull the outdoors inside. The 1-foot-square ceramic tile used for the kitchen floor and walkways also is a subdued earthtone.
The airiness provided by walls of glass is enhanced by the indirect natural light flooding the interior from clerestories and the skylights that cap the six concrete towers. The towers have 8-by-12-foot frames that not only support the bridgework beams but also house a fireplace, three bathrooms and a stairway.
Standing in the kitchen, you can look one way and see through the window right into the ivy-covered hillside; look the other way and you are gazing over the well of the sunken lower living room and across to the ledge leading to what was had been the children's wing of bedrooms and baths, now quarters for visiting grandchildren or other guests. The dining room is down a few steps from the kitchen so that it feels like a separate space and yet, with no walls, remains somewhat informal.
"Some people can't live like this. They want spaces that hug you," Kappe said. "But I always liked to push out. When I was small, I was always at the window."
The free-flowing, multilevel design allows for eye contact from the highest point in the house in the kitchen to the lowest point, a space Kappe used as his studio. It sits on the first level up from the cantilevered carport and the street.
Despite its openness, the house does preserve privacy. From the street, a flight of concrete pavers leads to a wooden footbridge and eventually the front door, set at a right angle to the street, inconspicuous.
The last inventive accommodation to the site is found at the top of a low wooden staircase that climbs the hillside in back. Here, in a part of the yard that's level with the roof, sits a rectangular swimming pool, its edges collared with ivy so as to blend into the landscape. Nearby is a minimalist wooden pool house and spa and a rooftop deck. Views into the surrounding trees of the canyon suggest the vantage point from inside a forest, not a house on an L.A. lot.
Kappe, who taught at USC and Cal Poly Pomona before founding the Southern California Institute of Architecture in 1972, mentioned Louis Kahn and Rudolph Schindler as influences. "We had somewhat similar sensibilities," he said about Schindler, "in developing levels and floating pieces and that kind of feeling.
"This house to me was proof that you could get good spaces without having to use hexes and rounds and go in strange directions."