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Home's a Real Beach : Lifestyles: It seems nothing can shake the passion Californians have for oceanfront houses. Elizabeth McMillian's new book offers a colorful glimpse of properties by the water.

November 06, 1994|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nothing, it seems, can cool Southern Californians' passion for beach houses.

Not breathtaking prices, not exorbitant insurance premiums. Not eroding shorelines, not burning hillsides. Not environmental zoning laws, not complicated building permits. Not coastal traffic jams, not cocoa-buttered crowds outside the door.

"It's not rational. There is just that intangible something that makes you think you have to get a beach house. There's something psychological about it, about seeing that expansiveness of the ocean, instead of being locked into the land," explained Elizabeth McMillian, an architectural historian and beach-house aficionado.

That magnificent--and sometimes not so magnificent--obsession is abundantly displayed in McMillian's new book, "Beach Houses From Malibu to Laguna" (Rizzoli International). With lush photographs by Melba Levick, the volume offers satisfying or envious glimpses behind all those brick walls and garage doors along Pacific Coast Highway.

As its $50 price tag might suggest, "Beach Houses" does not go slumming. About the closest it comes to beach-shack funky is a lovely 1920s shingled cottage in Orange County's Crystal Cove, north of Laguna Beach.

The other 23 houses include an elegant, ultra-white Cubist affair designed by architect superstar Richard Meier in Malibu; a Santa Fe-style eco-retreat, also in Malibu, built by singer Olivia Newton-John and her actor-husband, Matt Lattanzi, with nontoxic materials and recycled lumber; a traditional Craftsman-style building in Hermosa Beach that exudes stability, and a faux French chateau in South Laguna that seems to utter the final word on 1980s excess, down to a staircase taken from a 19th-Century mansion.

No dumps, to be sure. And if the architecture and the interior design offend, just obsess on the beckoning ocean views, the rugged cliffs, the perfect gardens. If the million-dollar-plus price tags induce vertigo, imagine marring the pristine white floors and upholstery with proletarian beach mud.

Just don't hold a grudge against McMillian. She lives in a high-rise condominium on Downtown's Bunker Hill, much closer to the concrete Los Angeles River than to the blue Pacific. She once shared a Santa Monica beach house for a few years in the '80s, but now counts herself among the many wanna-be beach-house owners.

McMillian, who has a doctorate in art history from USC, worked as the architecture editor at the imperious Architectural Digest for a decade and has been a landmarks commissioner in Santa Monica and president of the Society of Architectural Historians/Southern California chapter. Under that group's sponsorship, she recently finished a five-city lecture tour on beach houses. A recent session at the Los Angeles Central Library attracted about 60 people, an excellent turnout for a warm Sunday afternoon when many might rather visit the beach than watch slides of it in a darkened auditorium.

"I just want people to see a documentation of some of the really exciting images along the beach," McMillian, a stylish woman with hints of a hometown Houston accent, said after her presentation.

"I like to show the variety. I'm not going to judge and say this or that is a better style. I want people to come away with an idea of some of the exceptional, maybe eccentric things that are characteristic of beachside settings."

Several factors make beach-house design a challenge: The often narrow building lots, code requirements for bulwarks, construction materials that can stand up to the elements and a desire to harness sunlight and breezes. And Southern California beach culture long has encouraged experimentation and downright weirdness that might not play in Pasadena or Irvine.

In the introduction to McMillian's book, architect Frank Gehry explains that "the beach inspires dreaming, dreamers, and artists, and it seems to engender the free creative spirit." He also suggests that a threatened environment almost encourages artistic risks. Recalling his move to Los Angeles from Canada in 1947, he writes: "I was taken by the fact that, despite storms, mudslides, and fires, many Californians took risks and dared convention to live near the ocean."

Those dares to nature--and to savings accounts--continue unabated, reports Meg Vaughn, a staff analyst for the California Coastal Commission, the agency that issues construction permits for beach houses. "To many people, certain benefits (of beach living) seem so attractive that they outweigh the negatives," she said in a telephone interview.

The energetic, multicolored house that Gehry designed for Lyn and Bill Norton on Venice Beach in 1984 is a prime example of unconventionality that borrows from location; its signature feature is a front study humorously shaped like a lifeguard stand. Another example is the concrete and curvy Byer residence in Malibu that architect John Lautner created in 1983 to mimic nearby hills, even placing river boulders indoors as constant reminders of nature.

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