A lot of "B" words came to mind when first I encountered Richard Carlson by phone: brisk, businesslike, brash, bottom-line. I got a vague picture of him in my head, maybe a short, square-shaped guy who talks out of the side of his mouth and runs his palm over his sweating scalp. Possibly it was the rapid-fire way he spoke, or his immediately identifiable New York accent, or the fact that he was saying no, and no again, to my relentless entreaties. I wanted to see his new house. The Seatrain residence, as it was called on architect Jennifer Siegal's Web site. The one made of seagoing storage containers and open-topped produce trailers.
No. Not yet, not until all the furniture was in place, and the water was running in the stream. Water running in a stream? It was beguiling enough that Carlson was living in steel boxes, but a stream in the heart of industrial L.A., now this was worth begging for. No! His "creative team" was not ready to unveil its work. But he was beneficent enough (already the mind was rounding onto softer "b" adjectives) to be amused and not annoyed, and so we made a compromise. I'd come over to his office, and instead he'd take me on tour of the Brewery, the 350-loft work-live arts complex he developed 22 years ago.
Right away I got the tingle when I drove onto the 20 acres of property and saw all the beautifully textured old warehouses surrounded by cottonwood, poplar, ficus, bougainvillea and vinery that make up this housing community of 600 artists.
Carlson, a boyishly handsome, jogger-thin man in black dungarees with playful eyes and a shock of Kennedyesque salt and pepper hair, stood up from behind his massive L-shaped desk and shook my hand warmly. This must be some other Carlson, not the brusque real estate entrepreneur on the phone, who must surely look more like Jason Alexander as Max Bialystock in "The Producers."
We drove around for a while in his black Caddy SUV looking at photographers' studios and architects' offices, and stopping in at the SuperHappyBunny studio to say hello to the designers. His cell phone rang. The waterscapers over at the Seatrain needed to consult with him.
I made my play. Could I go along? "Yeah, sure." The kinder, gentler Carlson -- the real one.
We drove directly across the street and parked in front of what looked like a salvage yard housing graffiti-embellished storage containers. Next to it was a solid 12-foot steel fence that did a thorough job of hiding and protecting whatever was behind it. Carlson pulled a remote from his pocket. The doors opened in a dramatic, almost biblical way, like the parting of the seas. And behind them was his walled compound, his secret garden, his tropical microclimate, leading up to a glass-and-steel house that gave the appearance of being very far in the distance. Up a twisting stone path, past palm trees, banana trees, rubber trees, lemon, orange and guava trees, past California poppies and koi ponds and, all along the way, the stream -- babbling now with running water.
Welcome to industrial L.A.
It was Carlson's need to be in nature that inspired the whole innovative Seatrain project. He wanted to have it both ways: city and country, downtown and the wild outdoors, a place he didn't have to "commute to, or away from. Why couldn't I create it right here, where I already was? Instead of having to travel to get to nature, I would bring nature to me."
And so, exactly one year ago this week, he decided on the site, this 55-by-260-foot empty storage yard on the opposite side of North Main from the Brewery. For months he worked in close collaboration with Siegal, interior and furniture designer David Mocarski, landscaper James Stone and waterscaper Jim Thompson to get just what he wanted: a house "boiled down to its essence" in a setting reminiscent of forests, islands, mountains and most of all, water elements. "It's very important to me to have running water," Carlson said. "I spent a lot of time as a kid in the Catskills, and there was a particular stream I loved. My wife says that I've been following that stream my whole life."
So much so that the house itself, however personal and true to his style, seems secondary to the plot of thickly green earth on which it sits. I had wanted to see Seatrain because I knew a little about Siegal's work with mobile home design, explained in her mission statement, in the usual grandiloquent architectspeak: "By designing non-permanently sited structures that move across and rest lightly upon the land ... [I'm] rethinking and reestablishing methods of building that contrast the generic clutter that increasingly crowds the landscape."