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Welcome to the House That Jorge Built

Building in scenic Mount Washington, Jorge Pardo takes his cue from such designers as Wright and Schindler. MOCA lets you take a look.

October 11, 1998|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A cacophony of pounding hammers and buzzing table saws disrupts the quiet Mount Washington neighborhood. Artist Jorge Pardo surveys the handiwork of carpenters, painters, electricians and technicians bustling to complete the angular redwood house at 4166 Sea View Lane. This is no ordinary house; it is actually intended as a functional artwork and opens to the public today as an off-site exhibition, part of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Focus Series. A shuttle bus will transport viewers from the museum to Pardo's sculpture-cum-house.

Over the last decade, Pardo has established an international reputation for his sculpture fabricated to look like modern-style furniture, lighting systems and cabinets. It seemed, therefore, a logical extension to build a house that would be viewed as a sculpture, which he could also live in.

Pardo describes the immodest proposal he put forth in 1993, when MOCA invited him to participate in their Focus exhibition series: "I have a sloped lot and an idea for a house. How can I take those ingredients and make them do something you wouldn't expect?"

MOCA has an impressive track record for its architecture exhibitions, and this show was conceived by curator Ann Goldstein (with exhibition coordinator Staccia Payne) as a way of addressing Pardo's unique interest in dissecting and integrating ideas about what constitutes art and architecture. As Goldstein puts it: "The sculpture is also a house, which puts it in the context of artist-designed houses and furniture. In the past, when artists have made architecture or architects have made sculpture, it has been seen as a crossover. Jorge obliterates the distinctions between the disciplines, between art, architecture and design. I think his work comes out of a broader context."

Citing the work of Minimalist or Conceptual artists like Donald Judd, Dan Graham, Vito Acconci and Michael Asher, Goldstein says: "They used architecture as sculpture to address the social context in their work. But younger artists like Jorge make assumptions that those boundaries are not important, and the work can have meaning as a sofa or chair but also have sculptural meaning."

Pardo, 35, agrees that such categories are "pretty stretched."

"That crossover is about the least interesting part of what I'm doing," he says. "Generally speaking, most architects are bad artists, and most artists are not good architects. But it's not the category that is doing the limiting. Tony Smith was a wonderful architect before he became a sculptor."

Soft-spoken but articulate, Pardo guides a visitor up the entry of railroad-tie steps shaded by a eucalyptus tree and onto a patch of dirt that will become a landscaped U-shaped courtyard surrounded by linked redwood pavilions with floor-to-ceiling windows. "There are no windows to the street. All the glass looks into the courtyard," he explains. Through the opening between pavilions, there is a vista across the arroyo.

"During the winter, you can see sailboats out on the ocean," says Pardo, noting that his Sea View address is more than wishful thinking. "The thing about the house is the site. I am trying to maximize something pastoral," he says.

Pardo bought the 9,000-square-foot lot after touring architect-designed homes in the neighborhood, such as the nearby Usonian-influenced house built in 1942 by Harwell H. Harris, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Before preparing his drawings for the house, Pardo considered Mount Washington's architectural history, which includes postwar homes built by such Modern architects as John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Gregory Ain. The artist sought to pursue their groundbreaking discoveries in orienting residential construction to the natural environment and prepared elevations that follow the bowl-shaped site.

"I wanted the rooms within the house to reflect the sloping of the lot," he says. "I was conscious of wanting as many different spaces as would be available."

Architect Mark McManus contributed technical expertise and dealt with getting permits from the city, and contractor Robert Gero translated the unconventional shapes into functional rooms. Pardo, however, specified everything from doorknobs to window sizes to the choice of siding. Referencing the many redwood houses in the neighborhood, he ordered 5 1/2-inch redwood boards with a half-inch reveal to underscore the striations of the wood grain. Instead of sealing the redwood, as do most builders, he will let it gray with age like the bark of a tree. The roof is made of corrugated, galvanized steel and oriented so the grooves funnel rain away from the house so he could avoid gutters.

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