Building on the edge

Special to The Times

Sean BRISKI’S new house in Silver Lake is traditional only in the sense that it follows L.A.’s history of architectural experimentation. Tire treads, like the strips of shredded rubber left behind by big rigs, hang in his windows. Three basketball hoops are mounted on a wall of the living room. Glass panels reveal that an exterior wall is filled with foam packing peanuts.

The house is more laboratory than showcase, a place for Briski to tinker and test. It’s where earnest explorations of new materials alternate with ironic, wise-cracking details -- the kind of house one might expect from an architect who’s a Cal Arts-trained painter.

Briski is a cheerful, irreverent and inquisitive man, and his house reflects his personality. He describes his design as a rejection of convention and current fashions in architecture, including what he describes as warmed-over Modernism.


“There are no dissenting voices,” he says of current design tastes. “Everybody accepts Modernism as the official style. I’m opposed to that.”

For a house to be truly contemporary and of its own time, he adds, “it has to be unique. It has to express something.”

Friend and architect Edmund Einy, design director at Gkkworks in Pasadena, says the Briski house is “about experimentation and doing what has rarely been seen before, especially in terms of the informality of the house.” He adds, “There is nothing academic or faddish about the house. It is innocent, in a good way.”

Experimental houses have notable forebears in Southern California. Think Charles and Ray Eames’ 1949 house in Pacific Palisades, a factory-like dwelling made of industrial materials ordered from catalogs. Or Frank Gehry’s house in Santa Monica, a playful desecration of an otherwise respectable barn-style house, in which chain link and glass seem to explode through the facade.

Like many cliff-hanging dwellings, the Briski house might seem upside down to people who live on flat land. The street-level top floor contains the garage and the architect’s home office. Go down one flight and you’re on a mezzanine that overlooks the living room and contains bedrooms for the two children, Ari and Kyle.

Down another flight is the double-height living room, with the kitchen and dining room tucked under the mezzanine. On the lowest level, at the bottom of the slope, is the master bedroom.


The tire-tread curtains are meant to provide some privacy from an all-glass wall that faces the street. Seen in silhouette, the tire treads are surprisingly beautiful, resembling snakeskins, or maybe dry palm fronds.

More playful and ironic are the triple basketball hoops, although they serve a practical purpose of visually separating the living room and the mezzanine area used for exercise. Briski and Kyle, 16, have played basketball several times, and Briski points sheepishly to a dent in the wall he made with his shoe while going for a rebound.

The glass wall with the plastic foam peanuts was meant to diffuse sunlight through the cracks between individual bits of foam. Dissatisfied with the result, Briski pledges to continue working on the effect.

If his home has a single overarching idea, however, it is house as part of the landscape, however difficult that may be to achieve. The house fits the slope so exactly, it seems to push out of the hillside like a giant rock formation, if one can imagine a rock made of steel, glass and multicolored concrete block.

To make the house fit into the slope, Briski made the adventurous decision to carve out a very steep hillside. A more conventional, and possibly easier, solution would have been to stand the house on columns above the ground, like a box on stilts -- aloof from the landscape.

Building directly into the hillside meant massive excavation and foundation work. Most massive of all is the retaining wall -- 18 feet high and 2 feet thick -- to support both the steep hillside and the street above it. Although the retaining wall is largely hidden from the street, visitors inside can see a portion of the concrete mass exposed in the kitchen, as if Briski were offering us a cutaway view of the inner structure of the house.

The most spectacular interior feature is a set of 12-foot-tall windows in the 18-foot-tall living room. Although the windows weigh hundreds of pounds, they open effortlessly onto a bowl-like vista of Mediterranean-looking landscape and the freeway beyond. Briski says he spent $2,500 on the window hardware, “the single most expensive thing in the house.”

One reason for the enormous windows, he explains, was to gain experience in designing such a large detail. “Sometimes when you recommend certain design solutions to clients, they ask whether you have ever built something like that before,” he says. “You have more credibility if you have.”

Briski’s wife, Gayle, director of academic technology for Occidental College, says she was largely willing to let her husband have his way in the design process. “I did raise some objections to the basketball backboards, of course,” she says. Eventually, she gave in. “It was pretty quickly clear that it was something he really wanted to do, so I let go of that one.”

Now, she admires the back side of the backboards, which look like abstract sculptures of bent metal, while using the treadmill on the mezzanine.

Visitors often ask why her bedroom is on the bottom level, rather than the top, which has the better view. “It’s nice to be on the ground level, away from everything else,” she says.

Briski says he chose Silver Lake in part because of the freedom to design his house as he chose. Another neighborhood he considered had design codes requiring a “traditional” style.

In fact, several of his neighbors live in houses by some of the most famous architects of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, including R.M. Schindler, Harwell Harris and Gregory Ain. Briski says he feels comfortable living amid such innovative structures of the past.

Even a contrarian can find some traditions worth honoring. The horizontal bands on the exterior of his house are a quiet homage to the horizontal planking on the exterior of Schindler’s pioneering How House of 1925.



More on the Web

To view a photo gallery of Sean Briski’s house in Silver Lake, visit and click on the orange camera icon with this article.