Personalities merge in a Romanesque industrial ‘loft’ in Topanga


John Howley, a story artist at DisneyToon Studios, spent a year and a half in Italy as a translator in an 11th century Franciscan monastery. Ask about his preference in architecture, and he answers: “I like Romanesque.”

His wife, Linnea Mielcarek, a former fashion and furniture designer, favors modernism’s simple, uncluttered lines. Ask about her taste, and she responds: “I prefer the raw industrial look.”

How can a husband and wife reconcile such wildly divergent aesthetics and end up with a house they both love? In a city where residential architecture is all over the map, the his-versus-hers styles prompted Howley and Mielcarek to venture into uncharted territory.


The couple enlisted Janice Shimizu and Joshua Coggeshall of Shimizu + Coggeshall Architects (, who merged medieval and midcentury traditions to create a hillside retreat in rustic Topanga Canyon. They borrowed the monolithic look popular in Italy from more than nine centuries ago and allowed thick, fortress-like walls to work to their advantage.

As Shimizu explains: “It was a matter of translating Romanesque into the abstract and giving it a contemporary treatment.”

Shimizu and Coggeshall’s approach hinged on CMU, or concrete masonry unit — the same humble concrete blocks sold at Home Depot for less than a dollar apiece. Not only are they a staple of commercial buildings and contemporary homes, but CMUs also would offer Howley the monumentality of stone.

“Romanesque churches were made of heavy stone cut and stacked on site,” says Coggeshall, who studied briefly in Italy and is himself a fan of the Romanesque style. “The massive stones were assembled with round arches and dictated small openings for light, so you got the overwhelming feeling that these large, dark structures were something permanent and of the earth.”

Quarrying local stone was out of the question, so concrete block was the next best thing. It was cheap, fitting the clients’ budget. And it was non-combustible, so it complied with the area’s stringent fire code. “CMU fit all the design criteria,” Shimizu says.

Mielcarek and Howley embarked on their quest for a new home after living in Venice for 12 years and watching it go “from fun and funky to hip and expensive,” she says. While checking out an advertisement for a “cabin in the sky” in Topanga Canyon, they fell in love with the rugged but tranquil terrain. In 2004, they bought an acre of land with plans to build a modest house from scratch.

“We figured we could buy the lot, sell the old house and have enough to build a new one with what was left over,” Howley says.

But no one knew how long it would take to build a foundation on the couple’s boulder-strewn lot. Engineers required Mielcarek and Howley to excavate deeper into the bedrock than planned, which meant coming up with an extra $50,000. The foundation alone eventually cost $250,000, driving the total price tag for a 2,145-square-foot house to slightly more than $1 million and pushing construction to two years.

“Building on a hillside and in a high fire zone meant we had expenses not normally associated with building in the flatlands,” Coggeshall says. “We also had to get 27 permits from all the different regulatory agencies involved.”

Indeed, the threat of wildfire forced the driveway and detached garage to be built first, so that fire trucks could access the site in case of an emergency. Corrugated steel, extra-heavy wood timbers and dual-glazed windows were chosen to combat flames. A sprinkler system was necessary. Trees and chaparral within 200 feet of the house had to be removed and replaced with drought-tolerant, fire-resistant plants.

Those requirements satisfied, the design team evoked Romanesque ruins by extending the concrete blocks upward from the foundation to varying heights. They topped the block walls with a steel roof, which was allowed to rust to a powdery orange. Once the shell of the building was done, Shimizu and Coggeshall shifted into midcentury modern mode, emphasizing bright, airy interiors connected to the landscape.

“We had to balance the old with Linnea’s desire for something contemporary, so we used the plywood inside and the large, metal-framed windows balanced on the heavier base,” Coggeshall says.

The house took shape as a long, minimalistic bar nestled below the crest of the hill. Positing the building in this way gave Mielcarek and Howley privacy and the best views of the landscape, not to mention the occasional deer or coyote.

At one end of the building, the open kitchen, living room and dining room feel bigger than they are because “the roof peels up and you get a lot of afternoon light coming in,” Coggeshall says. The canted ceiling is sheathed in birch veneer, a warm counterpoint to block walls left exposed to save on labor and material costs.

The other end of the house contains two bedrooms and two bathrooms, which receive morning light through clerestory windows. Downstairs, a studio provides space for Howley to paint and play a harp of his own design. Coggeshall created a Douglas fir bookcase that wraps around the hallway staircase and complements the coat closet doors, which were salvaged from a bedroom that he and Shimizu had added to the couple’s previous house.

Shortly after completing the project, Shimizu and Coggeshall moved from Los Angeles to Muncie, Ind., where Coggeshall now heads the master’s program in the architecture department of Ball State University. Meanwhile, their clients have settled comfortably into their new digs, which to them feels as rooted in Old World Europe as 21st century California.

“I can’t walk down to the corner store for a cup of coffee out here,” Howley says, “but we love living here and getting away from the constant pressure of city life.” You could call it their Romanesque loft in the sky.