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Guided by height, light

A tiny Venice bungalow becomes bright and airy, seeming almost to float. How'd they do it? By raising the roof, combining structures and adding lots and lots of glass.

March 04, 2004|Andrea R. Vaucher | Special to The Times

Shafts of sunlight pierce the high windows and turn the Moroccan carpets a pulsating pomegranate red as Sharon Smith, a Canadian composer, sets out colorful platters of Mexican dishes and Fina Torres, a Venezuelan film director, brews strong lattes. A few of their friends are over for Sunday brunch, and everyone seems inordinately at ease in the casual setting, filled with flowers, books, CDs, original art, movie posters.

Even with its lack of pretense, Smith and Torres' house comes as something of a surprise in this Venice neighborhood of unassuming beach bungalows. It looks, on the outside, like a stylized California version of Japanese shrine architecture -- a postmodern pagoda, perhaps -- with its burnt-orange roof, tapered rafter tails and torii temple gate that opens onto an entry rock garden.

No less surprising is that it was once a 600-square-foot bungalow that was cleverly combined with a garage by Smith's brother Garfield Smith, a sculptor whose only architectural experience had been in cabinetry and remodeling back in Toronto.

Peter Trias, the owner of a sushi bar on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, stands before an expanse of glass, watching the uncannily tall palm trees sway against a blue sky. His eyes are lured toward the roof, which floats above the house on a wraparound stretch of clerestory windows.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Bungalow owner -- In two photo captions accompanying an article about a remodeled Venice bungalow in Thursday's Home section, owner Sharon Smith was misidentified as Susan Smith.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 11, 2004 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Bungalow owner -- In two photo captions accompanying an article about a remodeled Venice bungalow in last Thursday's Home section, owner Sharon Smith was misidentified as Susan Smith.

"Anyone who walks into the house looks up and goes 'Wow,' " says Smith, smiling at her younger brother. "It was the completion of a dream I had with him." She had wanted Garfield, who briefly studied architecture at the University of Toronto and who occasionally worked as a designer-builder, to create a studio where she could write music.

"But this was so much bigger," Sharon Smith says. "I never thought we were going to build something of this scale."

She gestures toward the sunken living room, where Garfield's wife, Lisa Fischer, a Hollywood set decorator, has settled into a leather club chair the same shade of ruby as the scarf around her neck, and Ed Rothfarb, a chef turned art historian, sits on the ledge in front of the two-sided fireplace.

Hand-painted tiles, which Torres bought in Puebla, Mexico, and carried back in her suitcase, lean against the fireplace, ready to be glued into place. Slow-burning church candles on a shelf that's part museum, part altar, illuminate a collection of miniature paintings made by Zapatista rebels.

Smith and Torres' ardor for south-of-the-border culture and design has been amped by a recent trip to Mexico City, where Torres has an apartment. Today's meal is not just any brunch, it's a Frida Kahlo brunch, with stuffed chili peppers and chicken mole straight out of "Frida's Fiestas," the cookbook put together by the Mexican artist's stepdaughter and known for its complicated recipes.

Smith leans over the cookbook and wrinkles her forehead. Though some guests mingle on the bamboo-lined pocket patios that seem to be everywhere, the others gather around the curved slate counter that separates the living and dining areas from the kitchen, where housekeeper Marina Ayala slaps dough between her palms as she prepares tortillas.

"We brought the mole negro back from Mexico," Smith says, arranging the food on vibrant hand-painted Mexican platters while Torres perches on a bar stool, animatedly talking.

Smith had known Torres, the director of "Woman on Top," only a short time when she began renovating the 1946 bungalow in 1999. But Torres' gift to her of Tim Street-Porter's book "Casa Mexicana" inspired Smith's choice of materials, textures and colors, from the fossil-encrusted limestone vanities in the two bathrooms to the color of the roof.

In the beginning, though, Smith had no idea what she desired in a living space and environment. In fact, when her brother first asked her, she was at a loss for words.

"I knew I wanted a house that would be an expression of my sense of beauty and space," Smith recalls, "but as a musician, I had no architectural vocabulary yet to describe what exactly that was. I kept saying, 'I want something beautiful,' and he kept saying, 'Sharon, I need to know more than that.' "

Eventually the theme became "height and light," two words that pretty much describe everything the original structures lacked. One thing the place did have going for it was its location on a southwestern corner in Venice, a lot soaked in sunlight filtered and dappled by big ficus and palms.

"I wanted to be as connected to the outdoors as I could," Smith says. "As children, we summered in a wooden cottage on Georgian Bay in the Great Lakes where we lived half in the elements. I wanted that."

There are echoes of that cottage's wraparound porch in all those little patios and decks. The outdoor nooks and crannies also compensate for the 100 square feet of garden space that was eliminated when they joined two of the original structures, a 20-foot-by-30-foot bungalow and a converted three-car garage. (Another bungalow is now a rental unit but will eventually be converted into a music studio.)

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