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STRUCTURES : Daring Design : A Mandalay Beach house plays tricks with geometric forms. Its curved facade embraces the dunes.

February 27, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sand has turned into real estate in the Mandalay Beach area in Oxnard, one of the last prime stretches of available beachfront property in Southern California. Three years ago, the California Coastal Commission granted approval to develop the previously untouched sand dune area.

As it has shaped up so far, the neighborhood is very quiet, consisting mostly of second homes. Architecturally, conservatism is the byword, following the cues of Mediterranean or Cape Cod styles--good, all-American beach architecture. Often, the houses swap aesthetics for bulk and maximum footage, crowding out the narrow lots.

And then, sitting in gently rebellious splendor, there is the home of Mike and Chris Connor and family. The house was distinctive enough to garner two American Institute of Architects awards in the past year--from the Ventura chapter last spring and, in December, from the chapter in Santa Barbara, where the DesignARC architectural firm is based.

At first blush, the house might appear an unassuming example of contemporary design. But the closer you look, the more charm, creative flair and logic of the design emerge.

The house's personality changes, depending on your perspective. From the street, it's an innocuously postmodern construction with a pyramidal skylight on the section closest to the street, on an otherwise flat roof. Only the green glass-paneled, roll-up garage door tips you off to its nonconformity.

From outside the high-ceilinged living room, which sits in split-level fashion between the family room/kitchen upstairs and the bedrooms below, the structure's deceptive verticality comes into play. From the beach, the structure's one curved facade embraces the dunes--which are protected by the Coastal Commission--separating house from sea.

From a bird's-eye view, it's like nothing else on the block.

Despite the contrasting angles and intersecting geometric forms, the house is made basically of three separate rectangular modules.

By skewing these modules at an angle, the dreaded long shoe box effect--so prevalent on lots such as these--is avoided. On a more practical level, ocean views are maximized (including views via small windows by the kitchen sink and the master bathroom toilet).

Inside, the visitor is subtly swept in and upward from the main entrance through the living room, with its exposed concrete pillar contrasting with the stainless steel smokestacks rising from the fireplace.

In the interior's open, wall-resistant design, you haven't really arrived until you reach the final landing. Here, the family room blends into a high-tech, neon-lit kitchen and the dining room--all with an ocean view. Intimate and livable, yet outside the norm. The house has the feel of functional artwork.

DesignARC, with offices in Venice and Irvine in addition to its Santa Barbara headquarters, has a burgeoning reputation validated by its winning four of the nine awards given in the Santa Barbara competition (in a field of 46 entries).

The Connor house, finished two years ago, has served as a concrete calling card for incoming clients: DesignARC is designing the house next door and two other Mandalay Beach residences.

According to DesignARC's David VanHoy, the home's project manager, "That house has been a good one for us in that everyone who sees it seems to like it. People call us after looking at it. That's happened three times now. We like it when those things happen."

To complete the circle of influence, Mike Connor, a general contractor and developer, is building two of those new DesignARC houses, just as he did his own.

In this case, the client/architect relationship was highly interactive.

"They're dream clients in that they know how to read drawings and have very good taste," said VanHoy.

When the Connor family, who previously lived in the Hollywood Beach area of Oxnard, decided to build its own house it shopped around for the right architect. The Pacific Corinthian Yacht Club, an earlier DesignARC project in Channel Islands, led them to the firm of choice.

"We wanted something that was daring but that didn't stick out like a sore thumb," said Mike Connor.

The Yacht Club, on Harbor Boulevard, is decidedly more in keeping with the architectural surroundings, with its generous Mission Revival references. With a red-tile roofed entrance and a series of small square windows punctuating its long horizontal facade, it makes an official presence from the parking lot.

But, as with the Connor house, the squared-off "public" profile is contrasted with the warmer, rounded, harbor-side facade. In the private inner sanctum, right angles are dispensed with.

And so it goes on Mandalay Beach. The challenge now for DesignARC as it prepares to put its stamp on neighboring beach houses, is to maintain a standard of freshness combined with a trademark sense of style.

"We get hired to do custom designs and so we make a big effort to do one-off designs so that they'll all hopefully look like good pieces of architecture, but not necessarily like DesignARC buildings," said VanHoy.

"There's no signature style other than that they should all be interesting."

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