A Case Study in Reinvention
Reinterpreting modernism in Pacific Palisades, Stephen Kanner recasts his own professional reputation
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 3/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Stephen Kanner, a fixture of Los Angeles architecture and subject of the 1998 monograph Pop Architecture, is usually associated with the '50s-inspired googie movement. Ultimately, the identification has proved a double-edged sword, garnering publicity but deflecting attention from Kanner's serious side. Designing a house for his own family was a chance to tell the world a different story. "It was a turning point. It gave me an opportunity to rethink what really matters about a building, not how it's cloaked," says Kanner, who chose a lot in Pacific Palisades, a hotbed of seminal residences by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, and Ray Kappe.
Focused less on visual pop than Kanner's In-N-Out Burger in Westwood or his Montana Collection retail complex in Santa Monica, the house brings to the fore his prowess as a problem solver. Challenges began with the site: 60 by 120 feet (the dimensions of a tennis court) with an 8-foot slope. For starters, Kanner conceived his plan in three volumes. The first one houses an open living expanse on the ground floor and private quarters above. The second is a stair tower, joined to the main part of the house by the final and smallest volume, a narrow entry piece. No arbitrary gesture, this basic planning decision allows for unobstructed, floor-through views plus an illusion of a larger side yard, given the skewed position of the lot. Separating functions also provided Kanner with two distinct canvases. The tower, clad with blue mosaic tile and punctured with porthole windows, alludes to the nearby Pacific Ocean, while the main structure is finished with white-painted scratch-coat plaster, a contrapuntal rough texture.
This main volume owes an unmistakable and appropriate debt to California's Case Study House Program. A canted construction, its upper level forms an integral canopy over the floor below. Garden-facing elevations at the side and rear are glass expanses articulated by the building's exposed steel structure, a framing and support system conceived as a curtain wall in reverse: Pipe columns and an X-brace moment frame stand outside of the glass rather than behind it.
"Blurring the line between inside and outside was of the highest priority for me," says Kanner, speaking as a true southern Californian. Universal words, distinctive solution. Taking advantage of the largest expanses of glass possible, he effectively created sliding walls, not just sliding doors. The longer face has two 9-foot sliders, which pull apart to leave an 18-foot opening; the end wall has a 10-foot slider. With these walls virtually vanishing, Kanner further broke down the indoor-outdoor boundary through continuous concrete flooring, extending from the interior floor plate to the patios. No more than a subtle strip of aluminum marks the boundary.
Inside, the emphasis is on space, not an elaborate mix of materials. From an aesthetic stance, the argument held that expensive wood and stone would conflict with modernist intent. Finances also figured into the equation. Deploying a palette of plywood, medium-density fiberboard, corrugated fiberglass, and glass tile, Kanner held costs to $200 per square foot for the 3,200-square-foot project. Humble, however, does not mean boring. The architect took cues from the Eameses and Albert Frey to build catchy cabinetry. Lighthearted and colorful with lacquered MDF panels and sliding fiberglass doors, these storage units reappear throughout the house, in kitchen, baths, and work areas.
On a larger scale, freestanding shelving of plywood and MDF divides living from dining sectors without interrupting the flow of the 50-foot-long expanse of public space. The living area's fireplace elevation, surfaced with glass tile washed by indirect lighting from a trough below, recalls the mosaic-tile cladding of the stair tower. For furnishings, Kanner worked with Sarah Chavez and Fouad Mirza of Diva, L.A.'s premier design shop, to select pieces by Gae Aulenti, Antonio Citterio, and Marc Newson, contemporary classics displaying just a hint of cutting-edge appeal.
Upstairs, woodwork makes a dramatic point in the circulation spine while solving a specific issue for Kanner's daughters' small bedrooms. Closets were limited, and his storage scheme included rolling wire carts needing more floor space than allotted. Canting plywood walls out into the corridor released a few extra inches and betrayed, perhaps, just the slightest trace of the architect's jauntier, pop-cultural inclinations.