DUO OF DISTINCTION : The wide range of topography, vegetation and vistas of sites in Southern California invites creativity if architect and client are willing to meet the challenge. Two very different houses show what such an attitude can create

Kaplan is The Times' urban design critic.

Each home site is a distinct challenge to a client who wants something more than a cookie-cutter design, and to an architect who thrives on creativity. Heightening the challenge is the wide range of topography, vegetation and vistas of sites that exists in profusion in Southern California. Such sites can invite creativity if the architect and client involved are willing to meet the challenge.

An example of what such an attitude can create was the recent construction of two very different houses in the Southland. One (left) was built on a narrow urban hillside lot in Marina del Rey with a view of the ocean; the other (above) was tucked away in a rural four-acre grove of eucalyptus trees in Rancho Santa Fe. Each site presented challenges that were met with imagination.

Of all the landscapes, it is the ocean front that presents the most compelling site. The ocean, with its continuing drama and boundless energy demanding to be viewed, dwarfs everything within its sight and sound. To compete architecturally with the ocean is vanity and folly.

But in yielding to the ocean, an architect does not have to yield creativity, as illustrated by the residence in Marina del Rey designed by VCA and Randy Washington of Santa Monica. The joint firm did not yield to the exhibitionist urge that has overcome other architects who have designed structures near the ocean front.

The Parrott house, so named after its owner, Dr. Fred Parrott, sits on a modest hillside lot that's merely 35 feet wide and 60 feet deep. That is all that is modest about the 4,400-square-foot home, which rises four levels in a series of sharp geometric forms, accented by exterior walls of smooth, white stucco and topped by a sloping concrete-tile roof.

Despite its very contemporary--almost arbitrary--form, the house is not arrogant in its modernity. It is well scaled and massed, and the blend of stucco and high-tech materials in a modern Mediterranean mix seems much at ease near the beach. The windows--set off by angles and varied balconies--break up the front facade so that the structure does not look like a squat bunker or a "gentrified" motel, as do some of its neighbors. The Parrott house is individualistic but not obnoxious and appears quite livable.

The two bedrooms on the ground level, the living room and dining room on the first level, a study on the second level and a mezzanine on a half level above all are well proportioned and are oriented to take advantage of the ocean views. Actually, the levels vary, with the living room opening up to the study above, which in turn opens to the mezzanine. The effect is an attractive flow of various spaces that makes the house seem larger and more open than it is.

The high ceilings in the living room and the study contribute to the open feeling, as do the spacious windows that face the ocean, seemingly in ignorance of neighboring homes that are expected to rise soon on the adjoining lots. It is the anticipation of these neighboring homes that prompted the design of an interior courtyard, which will offer the Parrott house some light and privacy. But the focus remains the ocean, and that's as it should be.

In contrast, there was no single strong focus to the four-acre canyon site for which architect Wallace Cunningham of Carlsbad was commissioned to design a home for a golf professional and her family. It was a raw, rural site of trees, rocks and gravel that formed a natural amphitheater.

Cunningham designed the 3,600-square-foot house to fit into the amphitheater as unobtrusively as possible. No mature trees were removed and no major grading was undertaken other than excavation for foundations. With its sweeping, cedar-shingled roof trimmed in redwood and copper, and its subtle, soft-blue stucco walls, the house looks very much at home in the canyon.

In fact, a three-car garage a few steps away from the house is tucked into the side of the amphitheater so that its roof is completely covered with sod. The siting is further enhanced by extensive landscaping, designed by Cunningham with the same exacting attention to each detail he displayed in the design of the house.

The house takes the sculptural form of two curved wings that play against each other in a design that is surprisingly open. One wing contains two children's bedrooms, a family room, a guest bedroom and an office; the other wing houses the living and dining spaces, a master suite and a kitchen. Off the kitchen is a breakfast terrace that's situated to catch the morning sun. It is a very logical, harmonious and traditional layout, made interesting by the sweep of the wings and raised to the level of the dramatic by the detailing.

The result is a structure with a rather organic feel, in the tradition of Frank Lloyd Wright's later elliptical designs. There also are other touches of Wright's influence in the detailing, such as the strong horizontal lines, the extensive use of glass, clerestory lighting and a prominent fireplace in a well-scaled living room brightened by a paraboloid skylight. The lighting is particularly effective in linking the interior of the house to its surrounding site and the sky above.

It is no surprise that Cunningham studied design at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts with Marya Lilien, who was a friend of Wright's, and at Taliesin West, the architectural school that the late, great designer established outside of Phoenix, Ariz.

The "wing house," as Cunningham has labeled the structure, carries forward the noble concept of Wright's that a home should be one with nature, and expressive as well. That concept also is displayed by the Parrott House, but in an appropriately more assertive form. Both homes deserve attention.

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