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EXTERIORS

It's a Cliffhanger : Swiss Ingenuity Shapes a Hillside Home From the Top Down

September 25, 1988|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' urban design critic.

A HOUSE ALMOST always takes shape from the bottom up--foundation, perhaps a basement, then a ground floor, and so on until topped off by the roof. An exception to this usual progression is a striking house recently completed at the boxcar end of Dixie Canyon Place, south of Valley Vista Drive in Sherman Oaks.

From the street, the angular, stucco-clad house appears to be of conventional construction. But actually, it is suspended from steel-reinforced concrete pilings set deep into a cliff. It was built, in effect, from the top down, like an upside-down pyramid, with the larger floor space on the upper levels tapering to a small entry at the ground level.

Builders excavated not the ground beneath the 3,000-square-foot-plus structure but the rear cliff, creating what amounts to three terraces, onto which the wood-frame house was fitted. Acting as a buttress and anchor to the suspended structure is a well-hidden elevator shaft.

The structure, which avoided the usual cut-and-fill approach to hillside housing and preserved the natural contours of the site, was devised by architects Heinz Meier and Victor Schumacher of Meier, Schumacher and Associates, Santa Monica, with the aid of structural engineer Eugene Birnbaum. Not coincidentally, Meier and Schumacher were born and educated in Switzerland, where designers commonly cope with steep terrain.

"With most of the flat land in Switzerland devoted to industry, commerce and agriculture, there aren't too many places to build housing except the hillsides," Schumacher says. He adds that he originally came to Los Angeles in the 1960s to work on a terrace-housing scheme. Schumacher also says he has been influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie houses, an influence he has expressed in the distinctive detailing of the Sherman Oaks home's exterior railings, sun screens and angles.

The house is the first of four developer Joseph Bardi plans to build on five steep lots in the canyon. All are to be suspended structures designed by Meier and Schumacher, combining Swiss ingenuity and contemporary styling.

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