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Design : TURNING INWARD . . . A SPECIAL REPORT ON THE PEOPLE AND IDEAS THAT ARE SHAPING OUR HOMES, OFFICES AND STYLES OF LIVING : Architects as Their Own Clients

June 14, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Kaplan is The Times' Design Critic

"When you design your own house you are in control . . . ."

--Pierre Koenig

"When you are designing your own building, you go for it."

--Rebecca Binder

"My house is my best business card," said architect Ron Goldman, summing up his well-detailed, well-lit Malibu residence.

Goldman explained that while he had designed and built the house primarily to live in and enjoy, he also was quite conscious that it was a form of self-advertisement.

"Your house when you design and build it really displays not only the work you are capable of doing, but what you prefer doing," said Pierre Koenig. After 35 years of a distinguished practice as an architect, Koenig recently constructed his own distinctly styled and structured house in Brentwood.

Goldman and Koenig designing their own houses are in a long tradition of the profession in which architects, looking for a project to test their talents, take on the role of a client, and in effect hire themselves.

"Being one's own client allows you to do things, like using a lot of skylights and windows as I like to do, that perhaps I would have hesitated doing for someone else," said Goldman. "You tend to spend the extra money on effects that you know will make the house better and more valuable."

"When you design a house for someone else, you have all the responsibility and none of the authority," said Koenig. "When you design your own house you are in control. There is no one else to blame. It's exciting."

This freedom to pursue one's design and construction theories constrained only by varying budgets often has produced some of architecture's more experimental, and controversial, houses, while not coincidentally boosting the careers of their designers.

Legendary are the early efforts of Philip Johnson, now one of architecture's leading personalities and more successful practitioners. While a student at Harvard, Johnson not only designed a house for his senior thesis project, but went one giant step further and had it built. Having an independent income helped.

A few years later in 1949, Johnson, in a continuing quest for notoriety, designed a pristine glass house for himself in the New York City suburb of New Canaan, Conn. And while the house proved uninhabitable, it did at the time generate considerable publicity and is now considered an architectural landmark.

Always alert to the dividends such attention generates, Johnson subsequently used his New Canaan estate as a sort of architectural museum, designing a variety of structures on the property in a variety of styles. Each structure prompted considerable coverage in the professional journals.

Local architect Frank O. Gehry similarly stirred the architectural scene and his career when he bought a nondescript house in Santa Monica and, in 1977, enlarged it by wrapping it with an addition of awkwardly angled corrugated sheet metal, plywood and chain-link fence. The result was a singular Neo-Constructivist effort that continues to generate comment.

"What I did with this house is plain R&D (research and development)," said Gehry in a 1981 interview. "You can't take chances or risks with a client because you're playing with other people's money. So I have to do such R&D work on my own time and with my own money."

Research and development, and the attention it sometimes generates, marked the effort a few years later by former Gehry associate Barton Phelps. A UCLA architecture professor, Phelps used the design of his house in Beverly Glen to display a wide and witty range of allusions to favored historical architectural elements. It also won him a few coveted design awards.

Peripatetic architect Charles Moore, wherever he has practiced and philosophized, seems to find the time to design and celebrate his own residence, be it a condominium in Sea Ranch or Westwood, a cabin in the hills of Connecticut or California, or a house in New Haven, Conn., or Austin, Tex.

"It is the only way I know to get something I really like, and make myself at home," Moore has said of his designs. They also have been impressive display cases for Moore to open to curious critics and potential clients.

Other noted architects for whom their residences have proved effective advertisements have been Raymond Kappe and Rebecca Binder. Kappe's dramatically sited and framed house he designed for his family in Rustic Canyon in 1968, and where he still lives, prompted a number of commissions for similarly styled structures in the area.

"There is no doubt that clients having seen my house felt more comfortable with the style I was pursuing," said Kappe.

Binder described the high-tech condominium complex in Santa Monica she designed with Jim Stafford "without a doubt the single most effective marketing tool" in her practice. She and her husband financed the complex on Pacific Street and lived in it for five years, before moving on to another house she designed and, with the aid of her husband, built.

Discussing the design of the condominium, Binder said that because they were in control of the process and within reason could spend money on elements they felt important, they got a better, more distinctive complex.

"I did things like the red diagonal support braces (marking the west facade) that I know a client would not have gone for," said Binder. "But when you are designing your own building, you go for it. I went for it and I can truthfully say that it made my career."

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