A high-concept hacienda

A couple's Westside compound combines classic elements of ancient courtyards with a Modernist's love of glass and light. The result? `It's so right.'

November 30, 2006|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

WHEN you first walk into Casa Moderna, you feel as if you've been here before. The courtyard. The colors. Something about the place feels very familiar. And it should, especially for Angelenos, for whom Mexican-style architecture -- and the hacienda -- is something we're accustomed to. Casa Moderna, like its name suggests, is both old and modern, and certainly more than a house.

It is a self-contained compound, an architectural riff that melds Modernism with aspects of ancient Mexican tradition. And it is nothing the owners, artist Nancy Louise Jones and entertainment executive John Richard Diaz, imagined when they asked the late artist and architect J. Frank Fitzgibbons to design something for them.

Jones and the architect were friends for 20 years before she and her husband asked him to pick up his pen. He didn't live to see it completed, but his vision is well-preserved in this design.

"Frank considered this a very modern hacienda," Jones says. "If you'd asked him how to advance the hacienda to the Modernist mode, he would have told you this is it."

The Jones-Diaz house in Mar Vista has many classic traits of a hacienda -- the use of courtyards and water, bright colors and simple materials. It is completely enclosed; an 8-foot-tall redwood fence circles the property. There is no front door; guests enter through a front gate that opens into a courtyard. There is virtually no delineation between indoor and outdoor spaces; the house has a long, narrow spine that contains the public rooms -- an open kitchen, a living and dining area, all of which face the courtyard through a 10-foot-high wall of glass with sliding doors that open onto it.

The result is a home that is ideal for entertaining. At night, light pours through windows high and low, illuminating the courtyard and playing on the water of the oblong pool. The great room, Jones' studio, Diaz's office, even the master suite -- with its glass walls and molded plastic Frank Gehry couch -- are natural gathering spots.

But more important, Casa Moderna is nearly self-sufficient. Here its owners can work, exercise and accommodate overnight guests with convenience and ease. Self-sufficiency is important for Jones and Diaz, especially after an airplane accident left him partially disabled.

JONES, 55, and Diaz, 56, are a matched pair. Both are intensely energetic. They talk fast, move fast, like to swim and work out. And both have a curious buoyancy. Jones -- 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds, with pale, pixie-cut hair -- seems to waft rather than walk. Diaz, even on crutches, propels himself as if borne on air.

When the couple married 10 years ago, he moved into her Santa Monica loft, designed by Frank Gehry. "We adored the place," Diaz says, launching into a wistful description of their former home.

"Nancy's studio was on the first level; the second level was a large living area that overlooked the studio. The top floor was a big private space, a master suite and bath."

Four years into their life together, Diaz traveled to launch his digital music firm,, in Asia. In 2000, he boarded a Singapore Airlines flight in Taiwan for the trip home and was one of the few to survive a take-off crash.

He was not hospitalized, and he returned to his wife and their loft. He thought the aches and pains in his lower body were relatively minor and would slowly disappear. Instead, they got worse. "Everything hurt, all the time. It took awhile to find out I had damaged my spine stem and all the nerves in it."

Doctors told Diaz the damage was probably caused by extreme pressure from the plane's seat belt at impact, and that such injuries were common after high-impact car crashes in the days before shoulder harnesses were added to auto seat belts. What's more, they said, there was a chance his condition might become progressively worse.

Unable to navigate the many steps of their loft, and with his prognosis for mobility uncertain, it became unthinkable for Diaz and his wife to continue living there. He needed a flat house with dimensions that would let him navigate easily if he were to require a wheelchair.

FITZGIBBONS was the ideal choice as their architect, and it was a fruitful partnership, if not friendship. "Frank named this place Casa Moderna," Jones says, "because my husband is half Mexican, and because one of Frank's favorite architects was Luis Barragan, also Mexican."

The home became a blending of their aesthetics. Fitzgibbons was a Modernist who used basic materials -- concrete, steel, glass -- to create sculptural forms of light and color. Jones' artwork, which she describes as contemporary abstract, is compatible with this style.

Today the house and studio are adorned with Fitzgibbons' other work. More than just an architect, he sculpted torsos -- plaster casts of nude torsos -- some brightly colored. They had been in storage; his widow is allowing Jones to rehabilitate them.

"That one's me," Jones says of a plaster torso mounted on a hallway wall.

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