Hidden nature, in two boxes

Times Staff Writer

IT’s rare for a guesthouse to so boldly and refreshingly stand on its own aesthetic and yet remain out of sight. Camouflaged partly by a rooftop of native plants, an 800-square-foot guesthouse built into a slope and made up of two cubes is largely hidden from its host above -- a modest 1928 Spanish bungalow in West Los Angeles.

A creek gurgles below. Sunlight filters through tree canopies and fills the cubes with light. A hush envelops the space.

“The goal was to make something that felt timeless and so much a part of the site that it would disappear,” says architect Susan Lanier, who designed the house with Paul Lubowicki. “The context allowed for a pure response to the natural surroundings.” Their design earned a prestigious Decade Honor Award from the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects at last week’s national conference here.


Lanier and Lubowicki are quick to give credit to the late Donna O’Neill, who with her husband, Dick, used the West Los Angeles house as a second home when they were in town from Orange County. The couple purchased the two-bedroom house in the 1960s and decided to add guest quarters in the early 1990s.

O’Neill, 83, says he had no input on the design but closely followed the budget during the two years of construction. “I thought we were being overcharged until I saw it finished and it’s so beautiful,” he says.

“Mrs. O’Neill would be very proud of this award.”

His wife of 51 years, who died in 2002, may best be remembered as a conservationist, art lover and philanthropist who urged her family to preserve thousands of acres of its vast Orange County ranch land as open space that today is part of O’Neill Regional Park and a land conservancy named in her honor. She was also known to have a keen eye for architecture. She hired Frank Gehry in 1968 -- “before he was famous,” says Dick -- to design a Modernist hay barn constructed of corrugated steel and telephone poles for their San Juan Capistrano ranch.

Donna selected Lubowicki to create the L.A. guesthouse, in part because he had worked for Gehry and she found Lubowicki’s and Lanier’s portfolio to be mystifyingly modern.

Lanier says Donna didn’t want to disturb the then small scale of the neighborhood by adding a second story to the main house. At one point they discussed adding a room over the garage. But Donna realized that by building into the long sloping lot, the couple could re-create some of the quiet and natural setting of their ranch.

“Donna was passionate about art and nature. She knew about every plant, animal, bird, bug and artist. She was as much an advocate of the natural world as a supporter of the art world,” says Lanier. “If every house is a portrait, then this is a portrait of Donna.”


The two cubes -- one is the living room, the other a bedroom -- are linked by the planted, terraced roof of a dining area.

Each cube is similar in size and proportion but differ in character and relation to the terrain. The bedroom, partially buried into the hillside, has a suspended roof in the shape of a boat hull that is planted with native grasses. Lanier says this transformation of roof to planter with windows on three sides visually joins the landscape of the upper and lower gardens and the canopy of trees beyond.

The living room, with its copper exterior and maple panel interior, looks like an upside-down orange crate. Two-inch strips of glass allow light to seep in. A hatch-like roof enclosed by glass on three sides lifts to the sky.

Many times, Dick says, they would stay in the guesthouse instead of the house because it reminded them of their ranch. Its terraced gardens are crowded with trees and native vegetation his wife transplanted from San Juan Capistrano. In the morning, the sun would flood through the clerestory windows, sometimes waking them up earlier than they would have liked. At night, they tracked the stars.

“We just loved the place,” says Dick, though now he only visits a few times a year when he’s meeting friends, his stockbrokers or attending the horse races at Hollywood Park. “It’s so nice to go there. You sit down and you feel as if you’re so far away, as if you’re in the mountains. You can’t hear a thing.”

Decade Awards are granted to projects that received a Los Angeles AIA award in the last 10 years and continue to impress the judges. The O’Neill Guesthouse won its first award in 1998, the year it was completed, and continues to draw praise.

“It’s a startling design because the architects plunked this big cubic volume down as a retaining wall to make a transition between the upper and lower terraces. As you wind your way down, you see a very bold statement that is more than simply a cube,” says architect and architectural critic Joseph Giovannini, who was on this year’s jury.

“What’s interesting years later is it remains playful but in a rigorous way....It’s an intriguing puzzle of space and form that is as fresh as when I first saw it.”

Mrs. O’Neill would, indeed, be proud.


Janet Eastman can be reached at