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A house at stake, an attitude in flux

The battle over preservation of an Oscar Niemeyer home shows a region waking up to cultural needs.

October 23, 2002|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

Political maneuvering, legal threats--preservation can be a nasty business.

The latest example can be found in a dispute over the fate of a sleek, glass-and-steel residence designed in 1963 by Brazilian Modernist Oscar Niemeyer. Last spring, the house, which stands on a choice parcel of land in Santa Monica overlooking the Riviera Country Club, was sold for $3.4 million by its original owner, Anne Strick, to local developer Jon Monkarsh.

But soon after, neighbors learned that Monkarsh planned to tear down the 4,500-square-foot house and replace it with a more imposing residence. When a local architect, James Schwentker, caught wind of Monkarsh's plan, he contacted the Los Angeles Conservancy and Santa Monica's Landmarks Commission. Officials then informed Monkarsh that the commission was considering nominating the house for landmark status.

Since then, the commission and Monkarsh have signed an agreement that effectively delays demolition while Monkarsh explores other options, including selling the house or building an addition that would satisfy landmarks officials. (Monkarsh would not return several phone calls for this story.)

What is at stake is a significant architectural landmark. Niemeyer, a disciple of Modernist architect Le Corbusier, is a well-known figure in South American architecture. Among the greatest of his works is the 1942 Casino at Pampulha, Brazil, whose flowing interiors were once described by architectural scholar Kenneth Frampton as an expression of "an elaborate game ... as intricate as the habits of the society it was intended to serve."

The architect is best known for his design of Brazilia, the vast Modernist city whose looming abstract structures and sterile plazas became an emblem of modern alienation.

Strick hired Niemeyer in 1963, a few years after Brazilia was completed. Since the U.S. government refused to grant the professed Communist a visa, he was forced to design the house without visiting the site. The plans were completed by a local architect, Ulrich Plaut. The interior was designed by Amir Farr.

Nonetheless, in its sensuality, the house is closer to Niemeyer's early work than to the colder visions of his later years. It is also his only known residential commission in the United States.

The house is designed in a T-shape, with the top of the T set perpendicular to the street. Visitors slip along one arm of the T under a narrow trellis before entering the double-height living room and kitchen area. The two bedroom wings extend out from this central space.

This layout creates a subtle hierarchy of public and private zones. The kitchen and dining area -- set at the intersection of the structure's three arms -- becomes the house's communal focal point. From the living room, a stunning view opens out across a rectangular swimming pool to the Santa Monica Mountains. The children's wing, by comparison, is remarkably tranquil, with light filtering down through narrow clerestory windows.

There are other quintessentially modern themes here. The house's hedonistic aura, for example, stems from its careful blend of indoor and outdoor spaces. Its long, sleek lines reach out to embrace the surrounding landscape, framing a series of outdoor rooms. In back, the pool, nestled between the living area and master bedroom, projects toward the edge of a hill, drawing the eye out to the languorous mountain views.

But the house also occupies a critical place in the history of L.A. architecture. During the early and mid-20th century, architects in places as disparate as Brazil, Southern California and North Africa often looked to each other for examples of how to adapt the Modern aesthetic to a tropical climate.

Niemeyer stood at the cutting edge of that experiment, and his influence can be felt in the later works of such architects as John Lautner, whose compositions of concrete and glass made him a major force in L.A. architecture in the 1950s and '60s.

As such, the Santa Monica house embodies a rare link between the city's Modernist tradition and a broader cultural conversation.

Such connections may be lost on many of Southern California's homeowners. In the last year alone, several significant landmarks have been demolished, including Rudolf Schindler's Wolf House on Catalina and Richard Neutra's Maslon House in Palm Springs. In Santa Monica, a group of homeowners is lobbying for a ballot measure that would effectively ban the creation of historic districts in the area, something that would deal a serious blow to the preservationists' cause. The landmark commission's willingness to negotiate with Monkarsh over the Niemeyer house's future can be seen as a reflection of its desire to avoid the homeowners' ire.

Nonetheless, the strength of L.A.'s preservation movement is clearly growing. And if there is a benefit to such brazen cultural violence, it is that it awakened many people to the vulnerability of our architectural treasures. The destruction of the Maslon House, in particular, was met with a national outcry. Given that changing climate, it is less likely that a homeowner such as Monkarsh would take the risk of being labeled a cultural barbarian.

Some homeowners may see this as evidence of the erosion of their sacred property rights. It is, in fact, a sign of the region's growing cultural maturity.

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