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Simple Pleasures

A Family's Light-Filled Home Is a Minimalist Work of Art

June 13, 2004|Michael Webb

Geoffrey and Christina Kahn live in a simple rectangular box that's as precisely detailed and crafted as a fine cabinet. The couple built the 2,750-square-foot, open-plan house as a place to raise their two small children and as a showcase for the prefinished wood panels he imports from Europe. "In a climate like this, there's an opportunity to experiment," says Geoffrey Kahn, who received a master's from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and learned about construction while working on spec houses in Boulder, Colo.

Though he has never found time to practice architecture, Kahn stayed in touch with his classmates and talked to designer Ken Mori about replacing their little cottage in Mahattan Beach. "Ken is a dear friend, knew how we lived, and one day he came over with plans and said, 'Here's your house.' " Mori, who designs homes as well as movie sets and remodeling projects, had worked for architect Arata Isozaki in Tokyo. "In Japan I lived in tiny multipurpose rooms and learned that bigger isn't better," Mori says. "Here the goal was to achieve a sense of physicality through the meticulous detailing of simple materials."

Mori enlisted architect Dane Twichell, who had worked for Frank Gehry before starting his own practice, to develop the design. In the absence of ornamentation, every screw and switch had to be exactly drawn, and the process continued for a year as a collaboration between client and architect.

The result of their efforts looks deceptively simple. The structural frame is wrapped with a waterproof membrane and clad with 4-by-8-foot sheets of Parklex 1000--a Spanish-made composite of resin-coated wood veneers with a Bakelite core--spaced half an inch apart to articulate the panels. These are attached with stainless steel fasteners to wood strips raised an inch above the membrane to allow air to circulate and avoid condensation from rain or sea fog. A minimally sloped roof projects over the walls, and windows are arranged in abstract patterns like squares in a Piet Mondrian painting.

Inside, three 15-foot bays contain the sitting, dining and family areas in a single sweep of space that extends from the Dutch door in front to the glass sliders that open onto the rear patio. The kitchen, bathrooms and a study are in a semi-enclosed space to the left, which concentrates the plumbing and mechanical services. The radiant-heated concrete floor, ground smooth to expose the aggregate, was an inexpensive alternative to terrazzo. "Concrete is indestructible and kid-friendly," says Christina Kahn. "Mine enjoy the wide-open spaces to run around in."

A cantilevered steel staircase leads up through the 26-foot-high, clerestory-lighted atrium to the master suite and two children's bedrooms. Walls are paneled with different colors of Koskiform, a Finnish birch plywood, screwed to drywall--yellow on the service areas, natural in the dining area, green for the family room and light brown and yellow in the bedrooms, which have pale ash floors. Mori also used Koskiform for his cabinetry and custom furniture, including a bright red coffee table, as well as for the stair treads and window and door jambs.

Windows open on all four sides to pull in breezes from the ocean half a mile away, while the floor soaks up the warmth of the winter sun. At night, uplights play off the galvanized aluminum ceiling, intensifying the lighting behind wood overlays and from the suspended paper lamp. Christina Kahn praises the warm minimalism of the house: "There's no need to hang paintings--the art is in the paneled wall, the placement of the windows and the way they frame the trees and sky."

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