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Pretty spaces all in a row

By creating pairs of indoor and outdoor rooms, each with its own distinctive style and function, a Studio City couple turned a narrow house and its narrow yard into an expansive, airy experience.

April 20, 2006|Morris Newman | Special to The Times

WHEN Fegie Barkan takes visitors on a walk through her Studio City home, they may have the sensation of walking through one garden after another -- even without having set foot outside.

Through an all-glass corner in the living room of this house of minimalist Modernism and enormous windows, we can see a shadowy garden filled with plants -- ferns, bamboos, philodendra and Boston ivy -- that thrive in the shade.

At the invisible line where the living room transitions into the dining room, the garden changes into a patio with brick pavers and a fireplace -- an outdoor living room in effect, where guests frequently gather at the end of a party.

Off the kitchen is another courtyard, this time an outdoor dining area, where the family eats "at least once a day," says Fegie, a quiet woman with black, hyacinthine curls whose accent betrays her Welsh origins.

On the other side of this patio, hidden by hedges, is a private Zen garden for the home office of her husband Moshe Barkan.

Beyond that is still another courtyard with a concrete floor, suitable for constant cleaning, where Fegie holds art classes for children.

The five distinctive outdoor spaces are lined up in a row, like beads strung together on a necklace. The crowning idea of the design -- pairing each garden with an indoor room -- is one reason why the Barkans say they are glad they did not sell the steeply sloped property when earlier construction plans proved too costly.

"It's a radical solution," Fegie says of the design of her 3,000-square foot, two-story house, which is only 20 feet deep and faces a tall retaining wall only 15 feet away.

Having designed a narrow house to fit a narrow hillside site, architect Jeffrey Tohl looked for ways to make the house seem wider.

"We decided to create these garden zones and extend the rooms outward," says the architect, who is principal of the Architectural Studio in West Los Angeles. The pairing of indoor rooms with outdoor spaces "allows the gardens to take on some of the qualities of the indoor spaces," adds Tohl, who collaborated with landscape architect Rob Pressman.

The strategy seems to have worked. Despite the narrowness of the house, Fegie says, "I've never lived anywhere so spacious."

Worldly and imaginative, the Barkans were probably the right homeowners for a design that required some imagination.

Fegie is an artist as well as an art teacher, who has filled her house with works by a global array of artists, along with her own dark, heavily worked, mysterious drawings.

Moshe, a development executive for a pharmaceutical company, is a native of Israel, where he met Fegie when she was a tourist, and later married her.

The couple lived for many years in Israel and moved to the San Fernando Valley about 15 years ago. They have three grown children, all professionally involved in the arts.

The sense of spaciousness suits the lifestyle of the Barkans. They recently hosted a musical group, which performed in their 9-foot-high living room. Guests sat in the living room and dining room as well as outside in the patio with the fireplace.

The concept of a series of backyard garden spaces, striking as it is, was actually an afterthought to an earlier scheme to enlarge the original house, which was about 1,000 square feet and had grown too small for the couple.

After Tohl designed the addition, a contractor told the owners that the new construction would be on a site that would require costly engineering to stabilize it. At this point, the Barkans were prepared to sell the house and move.

The architect then proposed an entirely different solution: Demolish the existing house and build a new two-story home on a narrow shelf-like site, to be protected by a new retaining wall.

"We found that if we were able to push the house against the retaining wall, we could get three-quarters of the house onto bedrock, and that saved a lot of money." That pragmatic choice "sort of drove the design solution," Tohl said.

Yet solving one problem created another: Locating the house on the hillside necessitated the construction of a massive concrete retaining wall, 14 feet high and 60 feet long. Building codes required a 15-foot distance between house and the rear wall.

The resulting backyard, left unchanged, could have been a long, unsightly wall and "a backyard that looked like a bowling alley," said Pressman, the landscape architect, who is principal of TGP Inc. of Encino.

The design solution to the problems of the ugly wall and the awkward backyard was a row of backyard spaces, Pressman says.

Facing a long, unsightly wall, "an obvious response to that kind of space is to 'green' it, or somehow hide it," he says. The 14-foot-high retaining wall, however, "can't be hidden," Pressman adds.

Rather than fight the wall, he chose to work with it, introducing some variety in different places to relieve the monotonous expanse of concrete. In the green garden area, he trained Boston ivy along the walls.

And to add some variety to Moshe's private Zen garden, Pressman adorned the wall with pilasters (half-round columns), originally intended as a giant frame for an outdoor artwork.

"By treating the surface of the wall in different ways," such as adding columns in some areas and ivy in others, as well as the outdoor fireplace that grows out of the wall, the retaining wall "loses its monolithic character and becomes more compatible with the house," Pressman says.

Now, he adds, the wall becomes "a dynamic backdrop for what goes on in those outdoor spaces," whether that activity is entertaining, communal art-making among Fegie's students or some quiet contemplation for Moshe in the midst of the workday.

Morris Newman can be reached at

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