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New Nest

A House That Stands Apart From--and Rises Above--Manhattan Beach's Maddening Crowd

November 01, 1998|MICHAEL WEBB

Alison Wright likens Manhattan Beach to its East Coast namesake--"It's a place where people live on top of one another"--so the challenge of designing a new house for her family was making it feel spacious and open to the sky yet private. She and her husband, entrepreneur Dana Montgomery, had lived in a downtown L.A. loft before moving to a tiny house in this beachfront community. When their second child arrived, they knew it was time to move out or add on. They chose to stay put but to replace their existing home with a three-story structure set back from the street.

Wright, a graduate of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, worked with architect Brenda Levin on the rehabilitation of the Oviatt and Fine Arts buildings in downtown L.A. Later she set up her own office in the former Helms Bakery on Venice Boulevard, where she created several studios utilizing concrete block, raw plywood and barbed wire chandeliers. "I like doing creative spaces that are fun and fast, where you can introduce sculptural elements and not get bogged down in construction," she says.

Home was something else. "There's a mother and an architect in me, and the two sometimes compete," Wright admits. "This was my first ground-up house, and I had the chance to try new things. But I didn't want to be constantly warning my kids and their friends." To childproof the house, she installed walls with railings around the upstairs terrace, tapered bookshelves downward so they wouldn't tempt young climbers and used laminated glass in doors around the play area. "Sometimes," she explains, "safety measures can be turned to visual advantage."

In contrast to many new houses in the neighborhood that shoulder up to the narrow streets, Wright placed the bulk of her building to the rear of the site. The kitchen juts forward like the prow of a ship. Behind is a snug dining area and a lofty living room; above are the children's bedrooms and playroom leading out onto the second-floor terrace. A narrow stair leads up to the compact master suite, which has the character of a rooftop belvedere.

The most important feature of the house, however, is the patio that wraps around the front and one side, extending the livable space and making the entire site a visual and functional whole. The courtyard is an outdoor living room with a durable floor of concrete pavers surrounded by low-growing baby's tears. The kitchen opens onto it through four glass Dutch doors; the indoor living room, by way of three 8-foot-tall doors. Although rooms are open and filled with light, a wall of giant timber bamboo affords privacy.

The overall structure is built up--with drywall soffits and screen walls--then cut away to reveal spaces beyond and make small rooms seem much larger than they are. Curves play off angles, and splashes of dark color animate white walls and acid-etched concrete floors. Built-in shelves and work surfaces of dark-toned Fin-ply, coupled with painted galvanized steel handrails, add a '30s flavor. The house has a jazzy, syncopated rhythm that makes it much more than the sum of its parts. Wright looks back on the design as "a puzzle in which all the pieces eventually fell into place."

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Styled by Barbara Thornburg

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