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Light-filled Laboratory

An Architect Mixes the Sharp With the Sensuous in His Venice Home

August 08, 2004|Michael Webb

The compact house and studio that architect Whitney Sander built for himself on a narrow lot facing one of the Venice canals is packed with inventive ideas, but they all grew out of three cubes--two stacked to form the house and one above the carport to serve as a studio. "I have great faith in simplicity--the complexity will follow," says Sander, who got his master's degree in architecture at Yale before opening his first office in San Francisco.

In Venice, Sander has indulged his fondness for industrial materials, used in unusual ways, and to work within a footprint only 22 feet wide, 3 feet of which are occupied by a set-back entry and a stairway from the roof. Rather than max out the site, he sacrificed some space to separate the house from the studio, which is reached by a spiral staircase. "The narrowness made [the structures] tighter and more elegant," the architect says. "The two volumes play off each other and provide a sequence of experiences you wouldn't get in one block.

"With clients, the design process often starts with the number and size of rooms," Sander says. "Here I had only myself to please. I spent a year designing and continued sketching and improvising through the year of construction." Horizontal steel louvers shade the translucent plastic walls of the studio, while vertical louvers do the same for the south side of the house, fanning out to draw in ocean breezes. Cladding board on the northern and eastern walls is protected by perforated aluminum, which catches the light and makes the structure appear less bulky.

The loft-like interior has a central atrium that rises 25 feet from the glossy walnut-stained concrete floor to the gray-tinted skylight. The ground floor is divided into three zones. To the rear is a kitchen, with an island made from a woven polyethylene and resin composite. In the middle is the dining area, with a table and base designed by Sander. At the front, facing the patio and canal, is a sitting area with furniture by designer George Nakashima, which Sander's parents bought the year he was born. Pebbles and papyrus surround the small patio and discourage neighborhood cats and ducks from entering when the door is open.

"The downside of having a glass wall a few feet from a public footpath is that everyone stops and looks in," Sander says, "and that prompted me to add parachute nylon drapes that can be drawn around the living area, providing privacy and an element of shade." The drapes soften the steel of the stair treads, mantel, fireplace and braced columns that support the upper floor. Upstairs, the surfaces are softer, with a bamboo floor that links the office to the bedroom, where it forms a parapet.

Hard and soft surfaces, sensuous curves and sharp angles play off each other to enrich the house. Solid elements dissolve in light, most strikingly in the bands of acrylic that surround the atrium. The architect realized he could use this tough plastic to wrap the gallery that links the office and bedroom, and to make a translucent screen around the sleeping and bathing areas. Each corner took six hours to bend in a special mold, and sanding the surfaces by hand took an additional 50 hours.

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Resource Guide

Sander Architects, Venice, (310) 822-0300.

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