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A clear, shared vision

A small California dream house links the past and present.

August 23, 2007|Morris Newman | Special to The Times

TOM and Judy Berg startled their architect at the first meeting by asking him to design a dwelling of only 1,100 square feet for a vacant lot in Santa Monica.

"It was the first time that clients had asked me to minimize the size of the house rather than make things larger," Michael W. Folonis says of the meeting six years ago.

The empty nesters had definite ideas about their dream house.

At that meeting, Tom, a retired lawyer, presented a sketch he had made of a dumbbell-shaped complex with three buildings: a master bedroom suite and separate guest quarters connected by an art gallery.

"I've never experienced a client coming to me with such a clear vision of what they were seeking," says Folonis, who is based in Santa Monica.

The Bergs, having left behind a 5,000-square-foot, Italianate-style house built in the 1880s in Janesville, Wis., wanted to simplify their life. Enough of the ornate Victorian home, let alone the Wisconsin winters. They wanted something different when they moved to Los Angeles in 1998.

Although the couple did not ask for a Modern style, Judy's deep interest in architecture led them to seek out Folonis, based on his published work. The resulting house is a glass-lined essence of Minimalist Modernism -- a good fit for a couple wishing to divest themselves of unnecessary things, such as closets. "If you have closets, you start keeping stuff," Tom says.

Like many couples, they didn't always agree or share tastes. Though Tom is a frugal Midwesterner, Judy "wanted the best in everything, especially in expensive fixtures and details," says Tom, who at the time had no idea how life's changes would later affect the final design.

The house did stay small (the design grew to 1,300 square feet), but the Berg residence achieves richness through the use of industrial materials, such as steel, concrete block and polished concrete floors. Floor-to-ceiling glass makes the inner courtyard visible to all parts of the house, which has "more glass than nearly any other house around here," Tom says.

The architect combined his clients' request for three buildings into a single structure, for cost reasons. Otherwise, the house as built is remarkably close to Tom's original drawing. At the north end is a compact master suite that feels almost like an efficiency apartment on two levels, with a sitting room and kitchen on the ground floor and master bed and bath on the second. A long gallery-hallway, roughly 10 feet wide, stretches 35 feet south to a guest bedroom and bath.

A classic California Modernist touch is the close relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces, particularly the continuity between the courtyard and the gallery. The architect says the gallery is an extension of the courtyard. Whenever Folonis stops by the house, Tom says, he always opens the doors of the gallery to combine the indoor and outdoor spaces into a single area

The centrality of the courtyard, as well as its southeast orientation, is part of a carefully considered example of passive solar design, according to Folonis. The concrete of the courtyard and the interior concrete floor act together as a "heat sink" to absorb the powerful sunlight, while a large overhang shades a portion of the courtyard as well as the gallery/hallway.

The architect says he likes the radical simplicity of the house, calling it a "living diagram." To further that sense of clear organization, Folonis used certain materials consistently for certain features of the house. Walls are concrete block and stairs are steel.

The house, which sits on a steep slope, changes levels twice, each time marked by limestone steps that contrast luminously with the gray concrete floors. To add privacy to the living area, Folonis added walls of semi-opaque glass on either side of the long hallway.

In the 1990s, Judy developed a passion for landscaping and planted 13 gardens around the Janesville property. Framed with tall grasses and other drought-tolerant plants, the courtyard in the Santa Monica house was intended as a showplace for Judy's considerable gifts as a garden designer. Her horticultural skills so impressed Folonis that he hired Judy as a landscape designer on several other residential projects.

Enthusiastic about the construction, the couple walked almost daily from their rented apartment in Venice to check on the progress of the house. Judy had already planted part of the new garden, including tall grasses for the green spaces bordering the courtyard.

One day after returning from their daily visit, she collapsed.

"She never got to live in the house," says Tom ruefully of his wife who died from a heart attack that day in 2002.

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