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A Collector's Gallery

Viewing Contemporary Art and the Beauty of Nature Through a New Prism

October 18, 1998|MICHAEL WEBB

As an ardent fan of contemporary art, Dallas Price wasn't going to stop collecting just because she had run out of wall space. Instead, she commissioned the young architectural partnership of Steve Johnson and Jim Favaro to build a separate structure that would complement her Santa Monica wood and glass house, which had been designed by local architect Ray Kappe in 1978. "They had never designed a gallery, so it was a gamble," Price says, "but I was impressed by their approach, and they were highly recommended by Merry Norris, who has helped me start my collection."

Norris, an independent art consultant, worked closely with the two architects, but Price, a businesswoman, knew exactly what she did and didn't want. "I decided to build over the volleyball court since my kids have grown up and moved away." Price recalls. "And I insisted that the gallery open up to the house through a wall of glass, with water running over rocks in the space between."

For Johnson and Favaro, both alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the challenge was to design a structure with a balance of openness and enclosure, intensifying the viewer's experience of the art inside and nature outside. From the landscaped entrance court, the gallery appears to emerge from behind a tall sycamore, one branch of which dips into the open-roofed stair hall. This outdoor room, which links a deck extending from the house to the two levels of the gallery, is a pivotal space that sets up expectations for what lies beyond. "We began with a simple box, then began shaping and inflecting it," Johnson explains. "We established a circuit through the building, down one flight of stairs and up another, and walled in the upper galleries as a contrast to the airy spaces below."

A key member of the building team was construction manager Dick Minium, who achieved a seamless flow of bronze-framed glass and stained redwood, limestone and maple strip floors, and interior walls that are cut away or angled as precisely as though they had been sliced with an X-Acto knife. The gallery is 1,400 square feet but seems much larger, for space eddies throughout like the water flowing around the rocks outdoors. A gauzy curtain of deconstructed silk flowers by Jim Hodges hangs against a rear glass wall that reveals a bamboo grove. A spider web of fine silver chains, also by Hodges, shimmers on a high wall. Faceted white balustrades that lead to a second floor play off a black angular acrylic sculpture by John McCracken. Upstairs, an enclosed room--designed to contain a square glass composition by Larry Bell--is rotated a few degrees, imparting a sense of motion to the surrounding spaces.

Like Frank Gehry's new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, this private gallery functions equally well as both a piece of sculpture and as a building, fostering a lively exchange between art and architecture. Inside and above the entry, a three-word blue neon work by Dennis Hopper neatly sums it up: "This is Art."

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