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STYLE: ARCHITECTURE : Room at the Top

April 25, 1993

When Linda Lawson and Tracy Westen prepare dinners for guests gathered around the kitchen island of their new house, they look up past catwalks, exposed steel beams and a circular staircase--up to a dizzying cylindrical space that peaks four stories above their work counters. In hiring Los Angeles architect Eric Owen Moss, known for his radical designs for the Petal House and commercial conversions in Culver City, they specified that he make the kitchen the center of their West Los Angeles house. Now it is the hub and heart of the long, narrow structure. Because of its spatial complexity and energy, the design may represent the region's most significant residential work since Frank Gehry sculpted his own Santa Monica house from a two-story bungalow in 1978.

Philosophers have written about special spaces in a house, such as the basement or attic. These spaces are domestic refuges, where adults store memories in old trunks and children play make-believe. In the new Westen-Lawson residence, Moss essentially dismantled the traditional house, taking the corners and nooks of attics and basements and mixing them throughout, especially in the kitchen. This four-stories-high cooking, eating and dining area, topped with an off-center roof cone, now has the evocative power of an attic with its odd and unexpected spaces. "We took something known and made it unknown," Moss explains.

In the kitchen, Moss' structural design--a cylinder supporting the tilted cone--is a space that escapes immediate understanding. "You don't get it all at once--there's no conceptual distinction between the roof and wall," Moss says. "You don't know what to find when you turn a corner."

Lawson and Westen had been told that Moss might be too avant-garde for their tastes, but the warning only provoked them, and it happened to dovetail with an unusual design agenda they already had in mind. "We didn't want a house with chandeliers," recalls Lawson, who for two years helped supervise construction. "We wanted the experience of looking at the house to be like looking at art . . ."

". . . a house where the architecture, and especially its space, are the treat--not a routine series of square rooms with lots of decoration," adds Westen, a lawyer who heads the California Commission on Campaign Financing. In an early letter to Moss, Westen recalled memorable features of houses he had lived in, especially the two-story-high ceilings of a Spanish house in Santa Barbara and the wood beams of another house in Los Angeles.

Moss organized the house so that the narrow end faces the street and extrudes deeply into the lot, leaving a long, wide side garden with a sunny southern exposure. A series of laminated wood beams, one with lanky steel struts, supports a vaulted roof that anticipates the kitchen's concrete nose cone. The exterior cement plaster is troweled smooth on the roof as well as on the walls and mixed so that off-yellow and blue-gray pigments swirl throughout the surface.

Just inside the glass-and-wood front door, the low, one-story entry opens to the 2 1/2-story living room, which angles off to the vertiginous kitchen adjoining the dining room. The living room and the kitchen, and the family room that curves around the back of the house, all open to adjacent yards. The master bedroom, off a landing above the kitchen, allows easy access to a terrace equipped with a hot tub. "We wanted to be able to enjoy the outside easily from every major room," Lawson says.

But perhaps the most unexpected characteristic of the house cannot be seen in a single brief visit or in a photograph. "Tracy wanted eccentric sources of light," Lawson says--and, indeed, sunlight through the irregularly placed windows seems to rotate gyroscopically on the curved walls.

"The sunlight streaming in and moving around constantly changes the house, and makes you aware of all the processes of change around you," she observes. "The house wakes you up."

"Some people collect art to open up their lives or read Kierkegaard's 'Either/Or,' " Moss adds. "A house can do that, too."

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