From mishmash to a ‘gallery’ home

Special to The Times

WHEN Tim Campbell was hired to take on the Luis Barragan project, he faced not only the pressure of building next to what could be a piece of architectural history, but also the task of sorting out the tangled house that went with it.

The former owner, Douglas Argyle Campbell (no relation), was the heir to Canada’s Campbell Flour Mills fortune, and he augmented his wealth in the 1960s via commodity trading and stock brokerage. In 1967, while living in New York, he purchased the house from actress Elaine Hollingsworth, who went by the stage name Sara Shane in “Magnificent Obsession” and “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.” Douglas Campbell hired interior designer Clyde Rich to create an eclectic abode that mixed wood paneling, Mexican tile, erotic Indian artworks, suede couches, modern furniture and zebra skin rugs.

It remained something of a bachelor pad until he married the British-born Allegra Kent Taylor. Together they transformed the house into a place for entertaining friends from New York, Europe and, of course, Bel-Air.

In the 1970s, one could have arrived to find Alan Watts hosting Zen sessions, or backgammon matches between actor David Janssen and designer Tony Duquette. Royals such as Scotland’s duchess of Argyll brought the likes of Henry Mancini, Sergio Mendes, Stirling Silliphant and Ricardo Montalban into the social circle.

Carlton Winslow, one of the architects behind Los Angeles’ Central Library, originally designed the house in 1927 as a two-bedroom, Spanish-style carriage house with a five-car garage for a larger estate up the hill. Before Douglas Campbell bought it, a small pool had been added to the courtyard, and the garage had been transformed into a pool house.


Douglas Campbell made more than a dozen alterations of his own. He added a terrace on the pool house rooftop in 1968, and he enclosed part of that terrace to create a second-story studio in 1969. After Allegra moved in, he added a fireplace in the den and ample skylights. The second-floor Jacuzzi came in 1977, after his divorce. In the 1980s there were more changes, inside and outside.

By the time Tim Campbell was hired by current owners Eugene Leoni and Anthony Brent, his primary goal was to fix what his clients called a “disaster of a house.”

“It was still basically two houses patched together in a mishmash of styles,” Tim Campbell said. “There was a little Spanish, Mediterranean, French and even English.”

He had lived in Mexico City and knew of Barragan’s work, but aesthetic challenges were matched with serious problems in how the house was laid out and how functional the rooms proved to be -- or not.

Tim Campbell’s design is clean and comfortable, with four bedrooms and six bathrooms. The spaces flow easily from one to the next with logical precision. The heart of the ground floor is an expansive entertaining area with wet bar and wine cellar right off the pool deck. Sliding glass doors open to the hand-chiseled cantera stone of the fountain, now re-piped and equipped to run at variable rates of flow. When the fountain is running, water cascades over 10 stepped ledges and can spill into the pool. When anyone wants to use the pool as additional patio space, it can be drained without affecting the operation of the fountain.

Kitchen and living areas upstairs have picturesque views of the fountain too, but the rest of the floor is about finding peace and privacy.

The den and three bedrooms at the north end of the property are clearly designed to be cozier and quieter. Three of the rooms have cantera stone fireplaces, the one in the den is bathed in sun thanks to a skylight.

“I thought it would be better to have the house back away from the fountain and go quiet,” Campbell said. “I really wanted to take advantage of the light so that the building would almost disappear.”

That would have pleased Barragan. As Mexico’s premier modernist, he won the Pritzker Prize in 1980, a first for any Latin American architect. His stripped-down aesthetic paralleled others of his era, and yet his form of modernism was unlike those of his peers.

“Like Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, he was one of the great form givers who came up with a whole new vocabulary,” said author Keith Eggener, who has written extensively on Barragan. “But more importantly, he’s regarded as an architect who reintroduced a discourse about beauty, spirituality, memory and regionalism, which wasn’t popular at the time.”

His trademarks were inward-looking spaces defined by heavy-walled courtyards, a tactile sense of material, vibrant colors and prominent use of fountains, which he often called upon for sound as much as aesthetics.

Some of those ideas appear in Tim Campbell’s remodel, which uses simple, perpendicular planes and repeating geometry.

Box-shaped windows in several rooms echo the stone patterns of the fountain, and bathrooms feature tiny squares of CaesarStone.

But the most deliberate reference to Barragan, he said, is the squared-off tower that stands just outside the front door.

It was designed as a passageway from the master bedroom to the living areas on the second floor. However, its block shape recalls some of Barragan’s residences in Mexico.

Tim Campbell avoided color and opted to paint the house off-white. He wanted to play with the ever-changing shadows that pour through the skylights during the day and allow the fountain’s red tone to reflect on the building as the sun passes overhead.

“For me,” the designer said, “the house is the gallery, and the fountain is the art.”