Southern California has always been a place where reality and fantasy intertwine in commercial architecture. Most home design, however, has remained remarkably predictable, even ordinary.
But a few Southland homes stand dramatically apart from their neighbors in appearance. It's as if their builders tossed out the rule books to create houses unlike any others. Here are five homes that would cause most people to ask, "That's a house?"
Santa Barbara's Whale House, easily one of the most unusual anywhere, is a work of housing art that took engineer/developer Michael Carmichael and a crew of 20 workers three years to build.
When he looked around his wooded one-acre lot in Mission Canyon, Carmichael wondered how he could design a house without destroying the natural beauty of the site. Finally, he thought, "Why not go with the free-form shape of the property?"
Inspired by the fanciful creations of Antonio Gaudi, a turn-of-the-century Spanish architect, Carmichael let his imagination run wild. The resulting house has no straight lines, no flat walls, no conventional floor plan. In fact, nothing about the house is conventional, including the entrance, which is edged with rocks to look like a whale's mouth full of teeth. A window high above the front door resembles the whale's eye.
Three levels of living space wind around a rock-covered elevator shaft. Some stained-glass windows look to the outside, but most windows overlook the open interior courtyard full of oaks and sycamores. Curving rows of cedar shingles make up the outside skin of the house.
What is life like in such an unusual house? Tobias Hildebrand, the house's current occupant, described it as "very, very peaceful . . . almost magical."
"I feel like I'm in the world's most luxurious tree house," he said. "It provides a natural and nurturing environment that encourages flow and creativity and helps me focus."
During construction, the city of Santa Barbara required Carmichael to erect a 10-foot fence around the property, to prevent gawking passersby from getting into accidents. Now, with mature vegetation providing additional cover, the Whale House is seldom seen.
Privacy is harder to come by in the seaside Orange County community of Sunset Beach. But it helps when your house sits 87 feet above ground.
While utilitarian objects have been converted into homes before, few of these have resulted in structures as dramatic as the Water Tower House, located at Pacific Coast Highway and Anderson Street.
The house, which from below resembles a large wooden tub on stilts, takes full advantage of a 360-degree view with windows in each room and an observation deck at the kitchen/dining level.
Former owner George Armstrong bought the 45-year-old abandoned tower and the ground it sits on from the city of Seal Beach in 1980, and embarked on a four-year project to make the interior space livable.
Armstrong began by cutting the tower off its supports and lowering it to the ground to do the remodeling. Then he removed the outer wooden skin, saving most of the original material to reuse (and protecting its status as an historical landmark). Adding four feet to the diameter and six feet to the height of the tower, Armstrong created a windowed, trilevel, 2,900-square-foot round house from the original shell.
When the building was completed, the tower was hoisted back up to its elevated position overlooking the ocean, Huntington Harbor and northern Orange County. An elevator moves passengers from ground level to the three living levels above ground.
The Water Tower is the perfect home for a person who loves privacy and an unobstructed view of the ocean. "I've lived in many beach locations and this has it all," said current owner Bob Odell.
Far inland, in Mockingbird Canyon near Riverside, another one-of-a-kind house is almost impossible to see from the street--much of the house is underground.
Earth-sheltered is a more accurate term than underground because Riverside's building codes didn't permit a completely underground house when Solar Terra was built in 1982.
Conceived at the height of interest in energy conservation, the house has a conventional feel inside and plenty of natural light, although the structure was built into a north-facing slope and uses the insulating power of its underground location for heating and cooling.
Architect Charles Brown called Solar Terra a "back to the future" house because man has used the inherent heating and cooling features of the earth for eons. "We added mechanical systems because we didn't have enough faith or experience with the natural technology of earth heating and cooling," Brown said.
Owners Scott and Pam Bergy haven't felt like pioneers in the 11 years they've lived in the underground home, even though it came equipped with sophisticated UC Riverside monitoring equipment.
"Solar Terra proved that earth-sheltered houses like this work," said Scott Bergy, a commercial pilot. "And we've saved thousands of dollars on electric bills.