Case Study Houses revisited in this L.A. hillside home that gives a sense of levitation
Energy. Harmony. Balance. The hillside residence was meant to make a statement by achieving a synchronicity with its location. It was inspired, in part, by the Case Study Houses (the mid-twentieth-century program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine to foster modernist home design), such as Pierre Koenig’s iconic Stahl House, where views of Los Angeles shimmer through the windows of a room like a cube of ice jutting out over the hill. Here, too, I cantilevered the living room and twisted it at an angle to create an exhilarating sense of levitation for anyone inside the aerie. Throughout the residence, we incorporated opportunities for this kind of elevated experience.
While the site offered several obvious catalysts for the design — chief among them the desire to maximize the views — the clients also wanted to create a real family home. That meant supporting stylistic bravado with functionality and livability. We faced a challenge: When someone says “family home,” I usually think of nice, flat grounds with sprawling lawns and gently flowing areas on hills that are not the least bit dangerous. Neither of those serene images describes the reality of the original hillside property. The solution was to build a spacious underground level with an expansive lawn on top.
Easy access to outdoor areas was important for the family, and so we designed a transparent, double-sided living space. When they’re all together in the family room, large sliding glass walls allow gatherings to flow outside onto the big lawn. The other side of the room gives way to a private, protected garden. Life moves inside and out with very little effort, as do the elements.
Throughout the home, straight lines, geometric shapes and tight corners abound. I had originally designed the site walls to fit this vernacular as well. But something was missing. The house was predominantly orthogonal, but those walls? They needed to curve. Made of well-crafted board-formed concrete, these sinuous site walls engage the home with the hillside and help guide the eye. From the entry gate to the front door, these walls suggest motion and procession from outdoors to indoors. Suspended over the arrival court, the section of the home that contains the living area beckons as soon as visitors enter the front gate. Two curving walls then invite the visitor up to the front entry: a simple shaft between volumes that creates a glassed-in foyer.
The idea of natural topography continues inside the house. Here, the moving line is rendered as a sinuous spiral stairway — feminine and sexy, like a stiletto or a ribbon unfurling. And the views of the city and the ocean — the undulating skyline, the water and the hills below — extend the balance and harmony inherent in living with the world at one’s feet.
Architect Grant Kirkpatrick has been investigating California modernism for thirty years through his firm KAA Design. His new book, California Contemporary, published by Princeton Architectural Press, features two dozen KAA residences, including Balance Hill, excerpted here. Working with Los Angeles designer Antonia Hutt, Kirkpatrick created a dramatic hilltop house that celebrates the Southern California climate and landscape while paying homage to midcentury California architecture.