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Dramatic Dwelling That Says 'I Love L.A.' : Vienna Architect Matches House to Spectacular Site

February 05, 1989|LEON WHITESON

Austrian architect Wolf Prix was startled by the mysterious phone call from California. A man he had never met, from a part of the U.S. he'd never visited, wanted the Viennese architect to build him a home like the one he'd seen on a book jacket.

The client--a San Francisco psychiatrist and art collector who declines to be identified--imposed only two conditions: the budget, including purchase of the site, could not exceed $1.2 million. And the house had to be built in California, "somewhere south of San Francisco."

"We had dreamed up the concept of what we called the Open House as a fantasy, an exercise in certain ideas we were kicking around," Prix said, referring to the concept drawing his client had seen on the book jacket.

"We scribbled the design with our eyes shut--literally--one cold day in Vienna. We had no client and no particular site in mind when we did it back in 1983. Then, suddenly, there was this stranger from California telling us to go ahead and build it!"

Prix and his partner, Helmut Swiczinsky, who together head the Co-op Himmelblau (Blue Sky Cooperative) architectural office, spent two years searching for a site for their idealized house. They finally settled on a spectacular location on Anacapa View Drive in the Trancas Beach area of Malibu, a site with a steep slope and dramatic view. Set on a small hill between canyon walls, the lot falls toward Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean beyond.

The fantasy house, resembling an insect-like creature in a "Star Trek" episode, is constructed of curving trusses splayed like giant steel spider legs. Entry is from the top of the site into the upper, bedroom level. The lower level, reached by an angled steel stairway, is the living-dining area. The 3,500-square-foot space will not be divided into separate rooms until after the owner--who has not yet seen the site--moves in later this year.

"The house is 'open' in several vital ways," Prix explained in his small, recently opened Los Angeles branch office. "Its final layout is left open for the client to define after he's lived in the house for a while. At the same time the house is open to the wide Southern California sky and sea, and, in turn, the interior is open to view from outside looking in.

"On a more fundamental level," he added, "the idea for this house came out of an open-ended dreaming about ways you might create a shelter without caging the soul."

Prix, 46, is tall, lean and intense. His brand of openness--more Continental than Californian, more intellectual than instinctive--is haunted by the ghost of ennui lurking in his ironic eyes.

Coop Himmelblau, founded by Prix and Swiczinsky in 1968, came out of the pair's boredom with architects and the cookie-cutter Modernist buildings that dominated the international design scene.

"1968 was a time of disastrous warfare (in Vietnam), space exploration and (rock style) rave-ups," Prix said in a 1988 interview published by the London Architectural Assn. "There was anger on the streets and a fascination with power. We wanted to see more vitality and fantasy in a kind of highly personal architecture that expressed our weaknesses as well as our strengths."

To the Drawing Board

Filling their Vienna studio with the blare of pop music--from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix--Prix and Swiczinsky shut their eyes and let their fingers do the drawing. Design ideas were improvised in an architectural commune where every dream was valid and every sensibility had an equal right to self-expression.

"Like making music, our architecture is a spontaneous feedback process," Swiczinsky said. "Tossing rhythms back and forth between us produces images free of cliches, we hope."

This "spontaneous process" generates unusual buildings. The remodeling of a Viennese attic tops a conventional apartment house with jutting steel ribs and shattered planes of glass that seem to have survived a severe earth tremor. A Formica factory in the Austrian province of Carinthia features "dancing" chimneys and crashed corners.

"Why should architecture always be rectangular, static and straight?" Prix asked. "Why shouldn't walls wobble, roofs zigzag and chimneys dance?"

Several of Coop Himmelblau's projects were featured in the high-profile 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Deconstructivism--a term that combines destruction and Constructivism --was defined in the MOMA exhibit catalogue as "a slippery architecture that slides uncontrollably from the familiar to the unfamiliar . . . in which form distorts itself in order to reveal itself anew."

Or, as one wit put it, "kick the house down and hope the pieces fall prettily."

Prix, currently a guest professor at the Santa Monica-based Southern California Institute of Architecture, like most so-called Deconstructivists, detests the clumsy label.

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