'E.T.' House Last Symbol of Architect's Gonzo Flair

Whiteson is a Los Angeles architecture critic

Driving along Canoga Avenue south of Ventura Boulevard you can catch a glimpse of an amazing house that rises like an extraterrestrial beacon opposite the Woodland Hills Country Club.

The house might also appear to be looking at you through four bug-eyed plexiglass domes set in the redwood tower. The small dwelling seems almost alive as it peers through a grove of tall eucalyptus trees set back from the avenue.

Owned and built by retired manufacturing engineer Al Struckus, the house was designed by maverick Oklahoma architect Bruce Goff. Goff's equally remarkable design for the Pavilion for Japanese Art addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, now under construction, is scheduled for a September opening.

The Struckus house is the last design completed by Goff before his death in 1982.

'His Last Smile'

"When Bruce heard on his deathbed that I was starting to build the house, I was told he smiled his last smile," Struckus said. "When I heard that, I knew I just had to complete the place, no matter what the cost or the trouble involved."

Six years and almost $200,000 later, after surviving the hostility of his neighbors and many hassles with the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department, the Struckus house is close to completion. The result is one of the most original domestic designs in Southern California--which has many strange houses--and Goff's only residential architecture on the West Coast.

The Struckus house consists of a cluster of six interlocking vertical cylinders on a small 50-by-100-foot lot on wooded Saltillo Street off Canoga Avenue.

The main cylinder, four stories high and 24 feet in diameter, contains the main living spaces. A 12-foot-diameter cylinder houses the dramatic circular stair that joins these levels, and sports the bulging "eyes" that give the house its "E.T." effect. Four smaller tubes contain closets, bookshelves, a kitchen larder, a shower stall and a vertical art gallery suspended over an indoor pool.

Circular Layout

The house's layout is also unusual. The living room is on the top floor, under a circular skylight. The main bedroom and bath are one level down, with the dining, kitchen and an open-plan sitting area on the floor below that. The first-floor entry level has a front door shaded by a projecting canopy that serves as the deck of a balcony overhead.

The edges of the third and fourth levels are cut away on sinuous curves to allow an overlook. This gives the interior drum of this small, 1,500-square-foot house a dramatic sense of spaciousness that is the hallmark of all Goff's residential architecture.

Struckus discovered Goff's work in an article in Vogue magazine that featured the house he designed for Joe Price in Bartlesville, Okla. Price is the millionaire oilman whose collection will be housed in the County Art Museum's Japanese Pavilion.

"I was knocked out by the design's boldness and originality. So I wrote to Bruce and told him I had this empty lot next to my house--I owned the place next door at the time. He phoned me and said, 'I'd like to come and see this little lot.' And he did. Typically, we settled the whole thing on a handshake."

Struckus, 70, retired from a career with Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, felt he could afford the house if he did a lot of the interior finishes himself and spread the cost over five or six years.

"It's been an almost religious experience," Struckus said.

A certified practitioner of the Church of Religious Science and a licensed alcohol-abuse counselor, Struckus has strong feelings about man's place in the universe. A handwritten text in his bathroom declares: "Man is a living expression worthy of God."

Goff's house designs strive for a kind of spatial harmony akin to the rhythms of music.

"If a building is truly a work of art, then it will be harmonious," Goff said in a 1966 interview in the book "Architects on Architecture."

"Music helped me understand this. Music alone is able to make the improbable visible and alive."

The Struckus house is filled with improbable details.

The multicolored mosaic in the showers, fireplace and indoor pool is a miracle of skillful tiling that copes with the interlocking curves that are the house's main theme.

The cylindrical closets enclose rotating rails that cram 9 feet of hanging length into a 5-foot diameter. At ground level one of the vertical closet cylinders rests on a mushroom-shaped pedestal finished in the beige stucco that, apart from redwood strips, is the house's main facing material.

Sparse Furnishings

With all the built-in closet space the furnishing is simple and uncluttered. A double bed, a few sofas, an antique Stickley oaken armchair and a polished mahogany dining table are all that is needed to serve Struckus' bachelor life style.

"Maybe only a bachelor could comfortably live here," Struckus said. "The layout is so open, vertically and horizontally, that privacy between two or more people would be almost impossible. The whole point of the design is the free flow of the interior space."

Internal partitions enclosing the two bathrooms and the first floor kitchen are kept to a minimum so as not to clutter the free flow of air and space through the height of the house.

A sinuous aluminum handrail winds up the length of a second steel post that supports the projecting treads of the circular stair. At each landing the plexiglass bubbles frame views of the surrounding woods.

The windows of the Struckus house are all composed of curves. The top window at the living room level, under the hat of the round roof, is a semicircle resembling a half-open eye framed with a series of rings. This gives the house the look of a bleary Cyclops waked from sleep.

"I love the uniqueness of the house among all the conventional boxes here about," said next-door neighbor Adam Shreve. "It's like a surreal silo. It must be great fun to live in."

Goff's architecture was strongly influenced by the work of master designer Frank Lloyd Wright. Goff told his students at the University of Oklahoma, where he was dean of architecture from 1948 to 1956, that seeing Wright's designs was "like entering an enchanted world."

"Wright helped me more than any other single thing in my life to realize you should develop your own feeling about architecture in your own way."

In the 1940s, '50s and '60s Goff designed a series of dwellings that carved his name into the landscape of the U.S. heartland. All these designs were highly original.

A house in Aurora, Ill., is a series of interlocked Quonset domes lined with cypress boarding. Another in Norman, Okla., features a 96-foot wall in the shape of a helix coiled around a steel column from which the roof, stairs, living room and connecting bridge are hung on cables.

The Oklahoma house for Price that so attracted Struckus is composed of a series of triangles with sloping walls supporting a roof covered in gold-colored anodized aluminum.

The Pavilion for Japanese Art at the county museum features two huge floating saddleback roofs suspended on cables from a series of steel posts. The design is a dramatic reinterpretation of the lightness and grace of traditional Japanese architecture.

A shy man who nevertheless dressed in colorful shirts and flamboyant Navajo turquoise neck strings, Price treated each client with respect.

"The particular expression of my buildings usually derives from working with individual clients and using their character as a starting point," he said.

"Bruce became my friend," Struckus said. "He cared about what I thought and felt. I wept when he died. Completing this house as he designed it is my homage to his genius."

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