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Thoroughly Modernist Living

A home's high-end design blends in with mixed-use neighborhood

July 04, 2002|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a south Glendale neighborhood where the distant buzz of traffic and the clacking of railroad trains are never completely gone, palm trees line streets defined by sturdy bungalows and small postwar homes. It is a place where, despite differences of language and ethnicity, people come to stay and become friends. It is also a place where expectations for high-end design aren't normally a part of the picture, and, as a result, a jumble of zoning ordinances long ago allowed for some unusual juxtapositions.

Amidst the sameness of the residences here, a plain-Jane Seventh-day Adventist church attended mostly by Russian immigrants is neighbor to a produce warehouse. There's also a commercial structure that nearly two decades ago became the studio and loft-like apartment of artists Linda Burnham and her husband, Robert Overby, who since has died. The biggest change to the setting came about a year ago, when Burnham moved into a striking new Modernist home designed by Stan Allen, a New York architect best known for designing urban art galleries and work spaces. Dubbed the LB House and completed last summer, it is defined by a mix of light gray stucco, corrugated aluminum and fiberglass exterior surfaces, and it neatly fills the once-empty western half of her studio's plot. Standing next to the church at the end of a long street, the LB House punctuates a vista north toward the hills like a dot on an i.

Burnham, 51, is known for her abstract paintings and as Distinguished Professor in the painting department at Otis College of Art and Design, where she recently stepped down from an eight-year post as chair of the School of Fine Arts. She has a warm, friendly personality that eschews flashiness. She is a lover of good design--evident not only in the house, but in every object in it--but her taste is underlined with a desire for the practical. Nothing is just for show--what she has, she uses.

After Overby died of Hodgkin's disease in 1993, Burnham made a decision to take her living quarters as seriously as she had long taken her careers as teacher and painter (she shows her work regularly at Fredericks Freiser Gallery in New York). She thought first about buying something, and her taste for California Modernism led her to look at existing homes by Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler. She found, however, that her strong attachment to the neighborhood around her studio was a good enough reason to build something new, and she liked the idea of being an architectural patron.

Burnham and Allen first met in 1996, when Allen, then a professor at Columbia, was in Los Angeles for a ceremony honoring Rafael Moneo, architect of L.A.'s new downtown cathedral and in whose office in Spain Allen had once worked. Introduced by a mutual artist friend, Allen visited Burnham in her studio, and the two hit it off immediately.

"Our sensibilities were perfectly in line," Allen says. "I remember on the table were Eileen Gray books, as well as Mies van der Rohe and Rem Koolhaas books. I thought this is the kind of thing I'm interested in. We were right on the same wavelength." Theirs was the kind of personal chemistry essential for the architect-client collaboration on a residential project. Still, for Burnham, signing on with Allen was a leap of faith; she had seen and says she "loved" the art gallery spaces he had created in New York and was willing to proceed on that basis, even though hers was to be Allen's first design for a home. (As it turned out, his second residential design, for a house in upstate New York, was completed before Burnham's.)

The ordinariness of Burnham's neighborhood, Allen says, was part of the appeal of the project: "It is a weird, complex mix of stuff that is not conventionally beautiful, but just the mix adds up to something interesting." In response, Allen has created a Modernist structure whose design accommodates the neighbors without overwhelming. With 1,800 square feet of living space, a 400-square-foot garage and a lap pool and garden at the back, the house is classical in its simple Modernist clean lines, which mesh with the now-common use of industrial materials. It also graciously adds a new generation of architecture to the area, a sign of stability in a place that could have had the potential for decay.

The house Allen created feels both compact and expansive. Sized to accommodate a single person's lifestyle, with room to entertain, the living-dining room extends into an open kitchen with the interruption only of a workspace for cooking and storage. A wall of windows gives the home a rich indoor-outdoor feel with a view of the pool and small desert garden area, landscaped by Pam Burton.

A small guest room and downstairs bath are the only other elements on the first floor; a semi-enclosed spiral staircase leads to the upstairs master bedroom, bath and balcony office. The grandness of the master bathroom, in particular, which has some of the best views of the hills, stands out for its extravagance.

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