Dwelling in the realm of fantasy

Times Staff Writer

FOR parents, it can be the key to summertime bliss: the play structure. But what if you crave something more individualistic than a store-bought swing set? For three Los Angeles artisans, cookie-cutter playhouses just didn’t cut it. “I knew I wanted to create a nest or habitat of some sort,” treehouse builder Ray Cirino says. “Habitats fuel children’s imagination.” These men sought to create a place that would inspire children to climb, swing and dream, that transformed a backyard diversion into a work of art -- and refuted the idea that kids just don’t play outside anymore.


Recycled, with a tree growing through it

RAY CIRINO is a dreamer.

He is also a builder, an artist and an inventor. His ideas are as never-ending as the recycled goods he uses to create unique projects.

Cirino is a man whose passion for “permaculture” -- a holistic approach to design based on working with, rather than against, nature -- fuels his utopian ideas. A few of his latest? Transforming radar dishes from a landfill into herb gardens, and Fresnel film lenses into solar cookers.

He dreams, basically, in green.

“I use the word ‘sustainable’ a lot,” Cirino warns before giving a tour of the treehouse he built recently at the Hollywood Hills home of Kari and Drew Dias. With its steeply terraced hillside, the backyard suffered from a common Los Angeles dilemma: The couple’s children -- Hugo, 5, and Maud, 8 -- had no place to play.

Cirino’s solution was to build them a nest 12 feet high in a sturdy ash tree. That he wanted to use all recycled materials pleasantly surprised the couple.


“Everything I do, whether it’s my clothing designs or my artwork, involves recycled things,” says Kari, a letterpress printer and designer. “I always make something from something.”

Cirino used recycled Douglas fir from B&B; Lumber in North Hollywood for the treehouse’s floating deck. He designed the climb-through entrance with a hatch door that prevents the kids from falling down and doubles as a bench when closed.

Woven willow branches that Cirino harvested from a stream in Topanga and curved metal railing from a junkyard form a sturdy banister surrounding the deck and give the treehouse a nautical feel. From below, it looks like a boat floating in the sky.

A stainless-steel turn buckle in the middle of the tree supports the structure. A rubber gasket underneath the steel -- Cirino guesses it was a former food conveyor belt of some sort -- protects the tree from “choking.” As it grows, the buckle and gasket can be adjusted.

Copper tubes and solid metal from a junkyard provide additional support. An aluminum pipe that Cirino found in the garbage serves as a fireman’s pole. For added charm, a pulley that Kari found in a Big Sur junk pile 15 years ago serves as a dumbwaiter for picnics, toys and homework.

Cirino is pleased that the treehouse turned out as organically as it did. “I wanted it to look like nature,” he says. Fittingly, he has added a leaf-shaped shade made of recycled canvas to shield the kids from rain and leaves.

More projects are ahead. There’s a yurt to be built in Altadena. Then a slide composed of billboard tarp in Topanga. With an enormous waste stream at his disposal, opportunities are endless.

“I catch things before they go to the landfill,” Cirino says. “I’m like that barnacle that sticks to the ship.”


Sculpted with whimsy and affection

STAND outside Don Grose’s home on a nondescript north Long Beach street, and it’s hard to envision the wild imagination that’s hidden from view. But step behind the gate and walk around back, and everywhere the eye falls, there’s something colorful, something unexpected. The landscape takes its shape from artworks instead of plants, and the result is a mixed-media valentine for Grose’s daughters Asana, 7, and Nyala, 9.

Inspired by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle and adobe eco-home architect Nader Khalili, Grose set out to create an environment that he conceived as “from the Earth and not just concrete.” The heart of the project is a dome-like playhouse made of rebar, chicken wire, linen, papier-mache and mortar -- all put together with guidance from his daughters.

“It wasn’t like I sat down and designed it,” he says. “It was an organic process.”

When the girls said they wanted to host sleepovers in the playhouse, for instance, it grew larger. “I envisioned it as a place they would never grow out of,” Grose says.

Asana and Nyala confidently start a tour along a checkered, yellow brick road that ends at the playhouse, splashed in bold reds and blues. Pieces of plates from a local 99-cents store cover the exterior in a ceramic mosaic. Light filters through glass bowls, also from that store, scattered in the walls and embossed with sea star patterns. Inside, the working fireplace complements two sculpted seats, painted in colorful abstracts and placed underneath a window, where they create a reading alcove.

Asana follows stairs up to the turret, a golden crown at the top, framing her head like a princess. She descends the outside of the structure like a rock climber, grasping sculptural protrusions that jut out as handholds.

When Grose purchased the 1928 property four years ago, the backyard was “wall-to-wall dead grass, but full of promise.” The first-time homeowner was excited about cultivating the only backyard his daughters had ever known. “Instead of taking them to the park, I wanted to bring the park to them,” he says.

Juggling two daughters, a hermit crab, a gecko, a rescued Dalmatian, Knick (Knack) the cat and his job as a middle-school teacher, Grose needed more than a year to finish the playhouse. He laughs at the thought that he originally dubbed it “a weekend project” and guesses it cost him a few thousand dollars to build, most of it for concrete.

Now that the work is nearly done, he says he has learned from the creative process. It reminds him of the sets he built years ago while working in theater in San Francisco and New York.

“When I watch my girls playing on the playhouse, I can see their imaginations take flight,” he says. “The play becomes something bigger than simple make-believe. They are building a connection to the structure, almost framing their entire childhood experience. Of course, they don’t see it this way, but in time they might.”


A kid’s hybrid train is his castle

PETER RADER, a screenwriter and sometime builder of one-of-a-kind play structures, peppers his speech with words like “magic” and “fantasy,” which are just what the lucky kids in his Nichols Canyon neighborhood want to hear.

For 8-year-old Ben Tzudiker, the fantasy was a treehouse -- an elusive dream, considering his family’s yard had limited space and no trees strong enough to support such a structure.

But Ben also was obsessed with the 1927 Buster Keaton silent film “The General,” the story of a Confederate train engineer in pursuit of his beloved (a locomotive, naturally). After walking the property with Ben, Rader incorporated the two wishes into a single vision: a train-treehouse.

Set off the home’s deck, the multilevel structure blends naturally into the landscape. It is an enchanting place, where fantasy speeds along through Rader’s unconventional use of ordinary hardware store materials.

A suspension bridge connecting the deck to the train is made from 2-by-4s and heavy airplane cable. The door to the train is an attic vent. Galvanized sheet metal riveted with roofing vents forms the body of the train and serves as a tunnel to the “treehouse,” which is a raised, free-standing structure built amid the trees but not actually in one. An oscillating roof exhaust fan, spray-painted black, simulates a smokestack. Corrugated metal siding paired with trellis panels give the three-story exterior a scrappy, hand-built look.

To finish it off, Rader connected a train store whistle to an air pump so Ben can blast real sound. Working headlights and a bell add to the sensory experience.

Rader, the son of an architect, fell into his secondary profession ( out of necessity. His children Matteo, 8, and Luca, 5, needed a place to play on the hillside lot where he lives with wife Paola Di Florio.

“Both my kids are not the kind of kids that would climb things or take physical risks,” he says. “So I thought, why not create a structure where they feel embraced and safe?”

For that project, Rader started with a prosaic store-bought structure and elaborated with decking, a crow’s nest and a captain’s wheel. After adding a tower, his first hyphenated work, a pirate ship-castle, was born.

Blocks away, in the former 1920s speak-easy-turned-home of Angus and Linda Wall, Rader created a half-pipe-pirate ship for sons Quinn, 8, and Jake, 4, two boys he calls “precociously gifted in sports.”

The boys were very specific, Rader says. They initially wanted a pirate ship, but as construction unfolded, their fantasy became a 45-foot-long half-pipe for skateboarding.

“What makes me excited about building these is the kids requested these structures,” Rader says, nonchalantly ducking underneath a zip line in the Walls’ backyard. “They specifically described them to me. I want the kids to feel like they contributed.”

Seeing the kids having fun is satisfying and thrilling.

“These years, when kids are little, are so precious,” he says. “They have a job just like we do, and their job is to explore their environment and experience things on a sensory level and a fantasy level. It’s like writing. It’s like software for their brain.”


More photos at

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