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A prism of beauty and light

Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy has been overshadowed by the demand for bigger and more conspicuous designs. The Benton House in Malibu, created by his son-in-law and first apprentice, makes the case again for organic style.

August 17, 2006|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959, he entrusted wife Olgivanna to carry on his life's work. A week before her own death 26 years later, she passed the torch again, this time to Wright's closest disciple, his son-in-law and the man who more than any other had dedicated his life to serving the legendary architect.

William Wesley Peters was Wright's first apprentice, and for three decades he was a structural engineer and project architect for commissions that helped to define American design, most notably Fallingwater, arguably the most acclaimed home ever built in the U.S. Though relegated to a footnote in the telling of Wright's storied career, Peters did leave behind a portfolio of his own work, not the least of which is an idiosyncratic house that sits modestly on a most unmodest stretch of the Malibu coast.

Drive past the tabloid photographers camped outside Brad Pitt's compound on Pacific Coast Highway, get buzzed through a white entry gate, then ramble down the long, sloped driveway, and you'll see it -- one of Peters' last creations, part Modernist box, part Buddhist temple. The pitched roof looks Asian in inspiration, sheathed in shimmering tiles, each shaped like a rolling wave and glazed a cerulean blue.

The front door leads to a living room that feels like a temple of sorts, a reverent homage to Mother Nature more than any deity. Walls are spider webs of glass, geometric grids of copper mullions patinated blue with age, each framing an angular window to the Pacific.

"Strangely enough, when I first saw the house, I didn't like the diagonals across the glass," says Sinan Revell, a painter, photographer and performance artist who bought the house in 2004 with her husband, Graeme. "But I really have grown to love the design and how the lines actually frame the view. The little squares are so delicate. Of course, once you step outside, all heaven breaks loose."

Indeed, the Revells' 5 acres form a miniature peninsula that tilts gently, then drops precipitously 100 feet to the ocean. Stand on the lawn, and seagulls flap at eye level. The backyard feels like the end of the Earth -- because it is.

A path wends down 185 steps to the biggest surprise: a petite and private promontory where Sinan likes to meditate, accompanied only by black cormorants and views stretching half a dozen miles south to Point Dume. "Sometimes," Graeme adds, "you can see dolphins surfing."

Peters clearly understood that the magic of the property lay not in any structure he could erect, but rather in the land itself. On a coastline studded with grandiose mansions and the architectural equivalent of a hurricane, this house speaks in soft sunlight and ocean breezes.

In his book, "A Living Architecture," former Wright associate John Rattenbury notes the house's smart features. Windows complement the sloping angle of the roof. "Every detail relates to the whole design."

Spend one minute in the living room, and Peters' talent is obvious. "You sit in here and always feel like there's something to look at," Graeme says. "It's quirky, but emotionally it feels good."

For the architect, there could have been no better compliment.

WILLIAM Wesley Peters would have been a sophomore at MIT in 1932 had he not dropped out to apprentice at Taliesin, Wright's studio in Spring Green, Wis. There he quickly fell in love twice: with Wright's brand of organic architecture and with Wright's stepdaughter, Svetlana, much to his employer's dismay. The couple married and lived in a sort of exile in the Midwest for two years before they were invited back to Taliesin.

When Wright moved to Arizona in 1937 and established Taliesin West in Scottsdale, the Peterses moved too. Even after Svetlana and one of the couple's two sons died in a car accident in 1946, Peters stayed on, by many accounts more dedicated than ever. According to one biography, he wore two watches: one set for wherever Wright's commissions took him, the other always set for Taliesin West. At 6-foot-4, he was frequently teased by his mentor, who favored low ceilings. "Sit down, Wes," Wright would say. "You're ruining the scale."

He engineered Wright's best-known landmarks, including the Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wis., and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. History books credit him as one of the advisors who often warned Wright that his buildings needed more structural support -- a shortcoming famously evident at Fallingwater, the landmark cantilevered over a waterfall near Mill Run, Pa.

But in one of those unjust realities of life, Peters received his biggest splash of international publicity not for his professional accomplishment but for his second marriage, an ill-fated 1972 union to the daughter of Joseph Stalin that ended 20 months later. He filed for divorce, and Svetlana Alliluyeva eventually returned to Russia with their only child.

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