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Ashes To Alchemy

Conjuring An Other Worldly Look on a Fire Ravaged Cliff-Top

September 10, 2000|SUSAN HEEGER

What kind of garden belongs atop an ocean cliff that has been ravaged by flames, pummeled by winds and parched by the Malibu sun? "Something otherworldly," suggests Venice-based designer Jay Griffith, "a scene beautiful and bitter, with an edge of terror--spiked leaves, noxious plants, acrid colors."

Which is exactly what Griffith conjured up for his client, an advertising creative director who bought his three-quarter-acre property in October 1993. A month later, fire destroyed the house, leaving only the blackened swimming pool and a few scorched eucalyptus trees.

Architect Bruce Bolander designed a new house--a bold assemblage of glass, concrete and steel--which rose from the ruins in 1996, and Griffith arrived a year later. Griffith and the owner walked the lot, looked at views and discussed the program. "All I asked for was a bocce court," remembers the owner, "which Jay, intrigued, pretended to resist."

He got his bocce court, on a ribbon of land above the Pacific, and for the rest, Griffith got what designers crave: carte blanche. What's more, the owner told him, "Go wild. Don't be afraid to show me anything."

In short order, Griffith sketched out a pool terrace with sheltered seating--a sort of teahouse-cum-surf shack--and a frame of brilliant red flax, orange cannas and blue agaves. On another side of the house, he proposed towers of purple and orange lantana, flaming bougainvillea and violet morning glory as selective scrims against the ocean view. Near these, past a "poisonous portal" of sweet-but-toxic angel's trumpets, he planted "the Mystic Eye Garden," arranging roses and crushed rock in a triangular bed around the "all-seeing orb" of a gazing globe. Considering the terrain's uncertain conditions--the threat of mildew, foraging deer and future fires--rose varieties were restricted to those symbolic of powerful women: 'Mamie Eisenhower,' 'Madame X,' 'Nancy Reagan.' And for a scrubby hillside above the house, Griffith suggested "a pantheon of gods" tableau, in which plaster deities would rise from a field of century plants. However, when the gods struck the owner as being "too much," they were scrapped for other dramatic props, such as a neon sign that reads "Corn," in honor of the owner's Midwestern roots.

Griffith's plant picks were just as theatrical. "I chose leaf shapes with a cardboard, fake quality," he explains, "like bits of a 'Star Trek' set that would make you say, 'What planet am I on?' " Agaves, aloes, sedums, flaxes and cannas form backbone plantings throughout the garden, though they're augmented by softer greens--king and queen palms, California pepper trees, Mexican bush sage--that are tough enough to weather the site's extremes and to grow in heavy soil with poor drainage and few nutrients. Equally practical, Griffith laid precast concrete pavers in grids around the landscape, connecting its parts and linking them to the house, which has concrete floors and stucco walls.

With the garden largely done, Griffith is now eyeing the garage: "Picture this: We turn it into a futuristic car-hop lounge, fill it with boy toys and install sliding doors onto the bocce court. Voila, the ultimate beachside clubhouse."



The movie "Ciao, Manhattan,"

in which Edie Sedgwick made a

home for herself in her mother's

empty swimming pool.

Ray Bradbury's "Martian Chronicles,"

for capturing "the drama of life on

the edge."

Strong, audacious women:

amazons, sirens and goddesses.

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