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MODERN LIFE

Marvel or monster?

The hyper-architectural redos in Mar Vista have some residents scratching their heads and squawking their contempt. The debate is about views, privacy, taste and the right to build a dream home -- neighbors be damned.

September 21, 2006|Bettijane Levine and Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writers

TO some, it's the home of the future: an intriguing two-story jewel box with an atrium delivering sparkling light to glass-walled rooms, ecologically sensitive and built on a challenging urban lot just 25 feet wide.

To neighbors and passersby, however, the house only prompts questions: What is it? Miniature factory? Bomb shelter? Goth barn? Approach the structure on foot, they say, and what at first seems inventive and artfully minimalist begins to feel bigger, bolder, almost confrontational. In the eyes of one neighbor, mean. "It's a nightmare," he says. "A monster."

Yet the American Institute of Architects named it one of the best new single-family residences in the country. And therein lies the debate. Some residents of this Westside district say the recent evolution of the real estate market has spawned a new species: the Mar Vista monster house. Built to maximize square footage on modest lots and often designed in a modern style that's a distinct departure from the post-World War II cottages and ranch homes that have long defined the neighborhood, the new homes of Mar Vista represent broader changes -- aesthetic, demographic and cultural. The resulting conflicts have even made their way to film, most recently in writer-director Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money," in which a Westside remodeler symbolizes what Holofcener sees as a growing sense of entitlement.

The mansionization of this formerly modest neighborhood has some locals decrying the changing character of the place they call home. The award-winning jewel box, dubbed the Coconut House by its creators, is just one example of new designs in Mar Vista that pose difficult ethical questions: Do homeowners and architects have a responsibility to build homes that aren't too big or radically different in style? To respect others' views? To be a considerate neighbor?

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THE story of the Coconut House begins with its owner, Brenda Bergman, 57. She arrived in L.A. from Ohio, fresh from high school and recently married. The union was brief, but her love for L.A. endured. She found work in the escrow business and saved to buy her first house. In 1976 she discovered Mar Vista, its balmy ocean breezes and its lack of pretentiousness.

No one can seem to agree on precise boundaries, though many define the neighborhood by the ZIP Code 90066. The neighborhood had been developed in the 1940s to offer small, low-cost housing for soldiers returning from war. For the five decades that followed, it was an "adjacent to" neighborhood, as in adjacent to Marina del Rey, Venice and Santa Monica.

In '76, Bergman and a partner could barely afford their 800-square-foot house on a lot that was 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep. About 10 years later, Bergman says, she bought the house outright from her partner.

Her goal was to fix the place up, and she tried. "But whatever I did was like putting a little Band-Aid on a big wound," Bergman says. "The house needed new roof, new plumbing, new everything. It was too small, poorly laid out, too dark."

She saved money from each paycheck. Another decade passed, and she had almost $200,000 put away for remodeling. A Realtor friend recommended architects Cara Lee and Stephan Mundwiler, a Santa Monica-based husband-and-wife team. Both were touched by their first meeting with Bergman.

"She was such a hard-working person, nothing pretentious about her," Lee recalls. "And her motives were so pure. She never once mentioned real estate values or future profits. She just wanted someplace wonderful to live her life."

The architects declined Bergman's request for a remodel, however. So much was wrong with the structure, they felt the cost-effective solution was to tear it down and start anew. They said the project would cost a bundle, perhaps $500,000 or more.

Bergman considered moving to another house in the neighborhood, but prices had already risen, she says. Anything affordable would have required remodeling anyway. So she went back to Lee and Mundwiler, who had prepared two models.

"I knew immediately," Bergman says, "I wanted the house with the atrium."

The plan she chose features a two-story central courtyard that forms the home's core. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels slide and fold, opening all rooms to sun and sea breezes. Whereas homes traditionally have windows on the second floor facing the street, Lee and Mundwiler kept the facade solid, to reduce traffic noise in Bergman's master bedroom. Instead, the atrium delivers fresh air and light to the second floor.

"This project," noted the American Institute of Architects jury, "does a wonderful job of making you feel like you're living outdoors while sitting in your living room."

Bergman isn't alone in her aspirations. Dozens of other homes in the area have been built in a distinctly contemporary style defined by clean lines, minimal embellishment and facades clad in the now-ubiquitous horizontal-slat wood paneling.

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