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Design : Pacific Rim

October 07, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Kaplan is The Times' design critic

Because of the villainy of the times those with wealth in 7th Century China had their homes and their gardens designed to be hidden from public view and, hopefully, from plunder.

A favored land form for these complexes was a bowl, in which for security there would be limited access. At the same time there would be maximum opportunities for a variety of perspectives which would provide allusions of greater size.

The gardens were called paradise gardens, and the more subtle in design and secluded the more coveted and valuable they were. As for the residences, the ideal was for them to somehow embrace the gardens and become a part of them.

This concept was very much in the mind of interior designer and orientalphile Rick Rogers when several years ago he purchased a mundane, modern-styled 1950s house sitting on spindly columns on a sharply sloped half-acre site above Mandeville Canyon and Brentwood.

Rogers wanted a larger and more distinctive house, something in which his collection of turn-of-the century arts and crafts and Austrian Successionist furniture and furnishings would feel comfortable. And he wanted a garden to complement the house and in which he could pursue his love of exotic landscaping studied at UCLA.

After living in the house a year to get a sense of the problems and potential of the site, Rogers began planning his paradise with the aid of friend and architect David Ming-Li Lowe. Joining in the effort in time was landscape architect Steven Ormenyi.

The result was a radical remodeling and expansion that completely reshaped and restyled the house into a complex of distinctive spaces balanced on a new structural spine. Piercing one of the spaces is an atrium, in which a mature pepper tree reaches for the sky, its branches dramatically shading the house's southern exposure.

Gone with construction dumpsters are any hints of the 1950s house, save a few wall segments and a trellis. In the house's place is a singular high-tech, iron-trussed structure, sitting on concrete pedestal supports, clad with cement flexboard, detailed with steel piping and topped in a Japanese tile.

Despite the high-tech materials and construction and a pool flanking an entry court, the house exudes an arts and crafts flavor. Helping are the gray tones of the flexboard and tile, which soften the hard edge of the materials and, of course, the interior design that features period relics.

The total is a distinctive and engaging melding of Southern California and its high-tech construction materials and techniques, and the Orient, and its concern for detailing and setting. "You could call the style Pacific Rim," Lowe said.

"We are not talking about a fad or fashion here," added the architect. "But a style that I think incorporates the best building traditions of the areas, while reflecting the strengths, sensitivities and gentilities of the owners."

The style is further expanded by how the house with its atrium and expansive use of glass relates to the landscaping and the lush plantings. Together the house and garden create the effect of a paradise desired by the designers and the owner.

Previous owners had planted the site with a confusing variety of shrubs and trees that, while stabilizing the slope, bore little relation to the setting, each other or the existing house. Banana plants elbowed out sycamores, evergreens shaded lilies and generally the landscaping was an ad hoc mess, said Rogers.

To create the setting Rogers and Lowe had in mind, much of the existing landscaping was torn up, tons of soil moved and more soil brought in. Out of the bottom of the bowl that was formed at the base of the slope a 40,000 gallon pond was fashioned, replete with boulders and a waterfall.

To ease access to the various levels of the garden, a bridge was built over the pond and decks set into the slope, each consciously sited with the aid of Ormenyi to vary perspectives of the house and garden. The effect is that the site appears much more like 10 acres than a half acre.

Then Rogers went to workplanting and shifting a variety of exotic and native plants and generally experimenting with the effects. "There were views I wanted to create, certain plants to be focal points, others to be backdrops," said Rogers. "Some let me do with them what I wanted; others told me by the way they grew, or didn't grow, where they wanted to be."

The process continues, "as I had hoped it would," added Rogers.

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