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Pushing the city's limits

In restrained, restrictive Santa Barbara, Jeff Shelton's smart, playful homes tweak tradition -- gently.

January 19, 2006|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

Santa Barbara — FOR nearly a century, the heart of this city has maintained one cohesive look, and not by accident. Architectural guidelines stipulate that buildings downtown should be of the "Hispanic Mediterranean" tradition, specifically Andalusian. Walls should be thick, smooth stucco (white or ivory, please). Trim should be dark ("Santa Barbara blue" is traditional, hint, hint). The roof? It should be low, pitched and made of red tile, specifically the two-piece barrel variety.

Classic Santa Barbara, the guidelines say, looks historic and restrained.

So what's this rambling new complex on Cota Street? Could those polka dots on the facade possibly be ceramic dishes? That curved spire -- the one that splits into two -- is that really a chimney? What about all those iron handrails that twist and turn and loop the loop, or the gigantic purple door that looks like a portal to another world, or the Seussical whozits and whatzits at every turn? Is this Santa Barbara?

For Jeff Shelton, the Who behind this Whoville, the answer is yes.

Though many top-name architects have all but written off building in the city's historic core, Shelton is constructing a portfolio of playful residential projects that exhibit a whimsical sense of humor and push the limits of what's considered the Santa Barbara tradition.

Call it Storybook Spanish Revival.

At Shelton's recently completed Cota Street Studios, a cluster of seven live-work condos, an ankle-high water faucet sits outside the front gate -- a drinking fountain for four-legged passers-by. Enter the first courtyard, and curvaceous 10-foot-tall steel-framed glass doors pop in purple and blue. Balcony railings zigzag like a wicked rollercoaster track turned on edge, and stairway handrails wrap around potted aloes and geraniums like some tentacled creature from "Little Shop of Horrors."

In many ways the design bucks convention, but Philip Suding, chairman of the Historic Landmarks Commission governing central Santa Barbara, says Shelton has succeeded because he has paid homage to Mediterranean architecture while executing his own distinctive vision. "He interprets it in a playful way, which some people appreciate and some people don't," Suding says. "But ultimately Jeff's designs are good. That's what's key."

Shelton says his work is rooted in the basics of good architecture and the classic look of the Mediterranean. "It's not intended to just be a Disneyland version of Spain," says Shelton, 48, who has been in private practice here for 12 years after working for L.A.-based Levin & Associates, where he was project manager for the team renovating the historic Bradbury Building downtown.

He sited Cota Street Studios to preserve views of the mountains. He laid out the courtyards to create a sense of mystery. Interiors are open and airy, full of thoughtful detailing. Local craftspeople provided artistic embellishments, so the complex looks like "this was built by hands, not a machine," he says.

Those hands included those of Shelton's brother David, who fabricated the giant sliding glass doors, iron handrails and lanterns. Sculptor Andy Johnson's animal heads grace entrances, and Santa Barbara sail maker Bill Paxton's pergola canopies, balcony awnings and courtyard table umbrellas incorporate the same sun-resistant woven acrylic that he uses for sail covers. Local ceramicist Linda Godlis was commissioned to make hand-painted porcelain dishes that Shelton used as exterior accents, inset in the plaster.

"At first he asked me to make 100 dinner plates. I thought he was kidding," says Godlis, who collaborated with Alvaro Suman to eventually turn out 130 plates and platters, as well as ceramic tiles for staircases, benches and fountains. Godlis, who lives near Shelton in the foothills above town, says the unique touches give the buildings soul.

"Up where I live, a lot of buildings are these huge mansions that have no personality. They're huge blotches," says Godlis, who discovered that she and Shelton find inspiration in the work of Spanish legend Antoni Gaudi. "I think Jeff's buildings have some Gaudi-ness to them." Not enough people are taking these kinds of risks, she says.

Architects can't take chances, not in this city, says UCLA architecture professor Barton Myers.

"I had students ask, 'Can you do good contemporary architecture in Santa Barbara?' The answer is yes. The bylaws are fine," Myers says. The problem lies in city officials who interpret architectural guidelines too narrowly, he says. The result? "What's produced is very mediocre work," Myers says, adding that he's unfamiliar with Shelton but does know that top architectural firms such as Thom Mayne's Morphosis are building homes in Montecito or on county land, where they have more freedom to innovate. Myers chose to build his own home -- a series of steel and glass pavilions -- outside Santa Barbara city limits.

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