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House of Blues

An Architect Makes Beautiful Music With His Remote Topanga Canyon Home

September 03, 2000|BARBARA THORNBURG

Music can certainly be felt, but could it be seen, wondered architect Finn Kappe. So he asked a Design Studio class that he teaches at the Southern California Institute of Architecture to transpose a piece of music into a physical structure. "I wanted the students to chart it graphically, analyzing the music's emotional content, rhythm, time and sonic space--that place you go when you shut your eyes and just listen," says the architect, who also plays the guitar.

While some describe architecture as "frozen music," Kappe says, "my experience with music is that I can feel it but I can't see it. Now, how to bring that effort to your work architecturally is the question."

The most obvious answer is Kappe's own remote Topanga Canyon home, which he built in 1993 and now shares with his 13-year-old daughter, Tessa. "I suppose it's closest to the blues," he says when asked to describe the structure as a musical style. "It's not overly complicated, like Bach or Beethoven, and it's very personal."

Using a simple "kit of parts," much like the simple format of blues harmonies, Kappe came up with an inventive sequencing of common materials (block, steel and glass) to create spaces that resonate.

He began by asking himself: "Just how much protection do you need and how open can you be at the same time?" Kappe translated that lyrical question into a home that emerges from a rugged canyon hillside into massive exterior walls that don't fully enclose. Its glass-pavilion interior feels completely open.

"Architecture is seen before it's felt," he says. "I want to link how the composition as a whole feels. I'm concerned with the memory of it: It's not just about first impressions, but lasting impressions."

Entry into the airy, light-filled house is through a tall glass door set into an imposing 35-foot-high block wall. On the open first floor, the living room, dining room and den revolve around a modern, compact kitchen. The sunken living room features floor-to-ceiling glass walls and looks onto the mountains and the soaring red-tailed hawks, while the glass-cornered dining room takes in the long, rolling canyon.

Upstairs a 30-foot-long deck floats above the living spaces below. Dubbed by friends "the minstrel's walk"--a reference to a balcony from which blind musicians played for a sultan's harem--it's where Kappe plays and composes on his electric guitar.

In designing the home, Kappe drew on a long tradition of Southern California Modernism as well as his experience growing up in a landmark home designed by his father, well-known Modernist architect Ray Kappe, founder of SCI-Arc. "My father gave me a joy of life and love of architecture," he says. "When I was growing up, I wanted to know how he did what he did. I learned as much as I could from him--the honest expression of simple materials in a home that relates to and incorporates its surroundings. I never wanted to copy him but, rather, to find a way of my own."

Besides, he points out, "the magic of music is that you can't always pin it down. It's not an exact science. Architecture, like music, is something we all perceive individually."



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