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STYLE / ARCHITECTURE : SOLITARY REFINEMENT : A Math Professor Finds Peace and Privacy in a Sophisticated House Among the Tumbleweeds

October 01, 1995|Emily Young

John Sarli's new house, just over the San Gabriel Mountains from Los Angeles, isn't far from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin in Palmdale or the space shuttle runway at Edwards Air Force Base. But despite its proximity to civilization, the home's strikingly spare design, in the middle of parched desert terrain, gives visitors the impression that they've, well, dropped off the face of the planet.

Near the intersection of 121st Street and Tumbleweed in the community of Juniper Hills, the house stands sturdy and serene, mirroring the landscape's raw beauty. Sarli, a mathematician and professor at Cal State San Bernardino, wouldn't have it any other way. As a child in Ohio, he watched cowboy shoot-'em-ups on TV and fantasized about living out west. Later, he developed a passion for skiing, hiking and mountain-biking, not to mention an appreciation for the outdoors and a craving for solitude. So when it came to building his dream house on five acres in the desert, Sarli turned to architect Judith Sheine, a college friend who had worked in New York City before moving to Silver Lake and teaching at UCLA and Cal Poly Pomona. "She came up with the idea for a concrete-block house, and I said great," recalls Sarli, who saved money for the project by renting a room in a friend's house for six years. "I told her I wanted something uncluttered with the sense of a lot of open space."

Sheine delivered. For her first free-standing residential structure, she designed two simple, 16-foot-wide wings. Thick concrete-block walls minimize the need for air conditioning and heating and are topped by two graceful arcs of corrugated steel decking that echo the wind-worn foothills on the horizon. "The block takes on the color of the dirt, and the roof takes on the color of the sky, depending on how the sun hits it," Sheine says. "The house plays off the landscape without disappearing into it." While she likens the 1,300-square-foot building to a geode, it also resembles an observatory with its domed roof parted for stargazing. "It can look so different from different angles," Sarli says. "It's a real three-dimensional structure rather than a simple facade."

Inside, rooms are sparsely furnished by choice, warmed only with custom Douglas-fir windows, a bit of red rustproof primer, wool carpets and golden birch-veneer plywood paneling finished by Sarli himself. The living/dining area, with views on three sides of surrounding junipers, Joshua trees and the Mojave in the distance, has a steel-and-wood staircase leading to a loft hung from the ceiling by steel cables. The other main space contains the bedroom with a built-in desk, another loft accessible by ladder and panoramic views of its own. Along the corridor are the entrance, bathroom, kitchen and storage.

Sarli has enjoyed settling into his home, discovering that life in such a remote location has its peculiarities. For one, his television picks up only one channel, so he spends more time doing other things. Like reading or playing his electric guitar or listening to the metal roof as it expands and shrinks throughout the day. "When a cloud moves overhead," he explains, "that slight temperature drop causes the roof to ping." He's also held an open house of sorts for his nearest neighbors--the rabbits and tarantulas that sometimes wander in through unscreened windows and doors. "The first year," he says with a smile, "I had two road runners run into the living room, and one morning, a horned owl the size of a dog was hooting in the dining room."

As time and money permit, Sarli plans to enlist Sheine's help in adding a redwood deck on the flat portion of the roof, a hot tub in the as-yet-undeveloped courtyard and a path down the slope to the concrete-block garage. In the meantime, he's quite content to commune with the lizards, reveling in the sun and the stillness.

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