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HOMES OF THEIR OWN : When Architects House Themselves, They Too Face Budget, Site and Design Hurdles

November 27, 1994|Michael Webb | Michael Webb is the author of "Architects House Themselves: Breaking New Ground," published this year by National Trust

"A good house," wrote architect Charles Moore, "speaks not just of the materials from which it is made, but of the intangible rhythms, spirits and dreams of people's lives. Its site is only a tiny piece of the real world, yet this place is made to seem like an entire world." Moore died last year while planning his seventh house, but each of his six previous residences, designed while he taught at UC Berkeley, Yale, UCLA and the University of Texas, tells a story of the man and the place where it was built.

Few of us can afford our dream house, but we might all benefit if more of us followed Moore's advice to expose our dreams and fantasies. Self-expression once abounded in Los Angeles, but today, invention and exuberance are often crushed by censorious committees, a fear of what the neighbors might think or simply hard times. Architects from Thomas Jefferson to Frank Gehry showed the way when they took chances on their own houses, responding to site, surroundings, needs and personal tastes.

For John Ruble, a partner in the Santa Monica firm of Moore Ruble Yudell, the Venice bungalow he bought seven years ago was "all I could afford, but a little too funky." The rooms were tiny, the structure decayed. His plans to remodel it were inspired by the light, breezy houses and lush gardens he saw during a vacation in the Caribbean.

The remodel became a rebuild that preserved only a couple of walls and a few windows but stayed within the original footprint. "I wanted to show how you could add to a little house like this without destroying its role in the neighborhood," Ruble says. A pedimented porch embraces the street front, playing off the mix of styles to either side, and the narrow addition is situated to the back and crowned with a balustrade of the same Chinese latticework that fills the pediment.

"I wanted a few colonial touches and a suggestion of a plantation house to remind me of my home state of Virginia," Ruble says. He has created a house that is playful without being cute, a mix of East and West coasts. The wood deck serves as an entry hall, from which visitors step into the main room with its pitched ceiling. Wood pilasters and a low divide define an intimate sitting room. A conical skylight gives it the feeling of a conservatory. Two more pilasters frame the stair hall, which is flanked by the kitchen and his son's bedroom. Space flows around these divisions, which make the room feel much larger than it is.

Ruble and his wife, Cecily Young, are still adding to the house and discovering how to use it. "Sometimes we'll spend weeks living upstairs, treating the bedroom-study as a one-room house," he says. "A house should have a rich series of places, and not force you to live in just one way."

Raquel Vert was challenged by her husband, Chaim Meital, to enlarge their '50s ranch house in the foothills of Encino. Born in Tel Aviv, Vert worked for several radical architects in Los Angeles before setting up her own practice in Santa Monica and winning commissions for ambitious houses. Rough masonry and daring angles are combined in this fusion of old and new. Like Ruble, she extended the house upward, raising the height of the hall and living areas, and inserting an upstairs office and new master bedroom.

The goal was to add as much usable space for her, her husband and their two children as could be squeezed from a tight budget. Split concrete-block walls conceal the steps that lead down from the street, enclose the forecourt and flow through a sheet of glass that lights the lofty entry hall. An entrance that was formerly cramped and exposed is now spacious and private. More concealed steps flow up to the gallery-like office that is lit by big corner windows and screened by mature trees. The hall leads back to the central dining room with its 20-foot arched vault of fir studs. A living room that used to be dark and claustrophobic is now flooded with light from a window wall that faces north over the San Fernando Valley, and from a skylight tucked into the angles of the old roof.

Vert is proud of the economies she achieved by using industrial-grade oak and bulk-rate Italian limestone for the floors, birch ply for the cabinets and steel-troweled stucco to tie together old and new. The concealed lights that play off rough textures and dramatize the lofty rooms were $3 each at a hardware store. The simple practicality of these materials enhances the impact of a glass-topped dining table by Carlo Scarpa, the legendary Italian designer, and a few favorite chairs and artworks.

"I wish I could have gone further," Vert says. A lot of her custom furnishings remain unfinished, but she is pleased by how much she was able to do and how well the house survived the earthquake that shook down several of its neighbors.

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