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Out Of The Shadows

Barbara Bestor finds her own angle on the Wright landmark across the street.

April 17, 2008|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

SOMETHING about Barbara Bestor's dining table, an inexpensive minimalist steel piece, isn't quite right. The glossy surface, powder-coated a watermelon pink, is perfectly cheerful. But laden with platters of finger foods, the table is falling a little flat.

Suddenly inspired, the architect sprints to a nearby bookcase and pulls down two thick volumes.

"I knew that 'The Name of the Rose' and 'A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method' had some purpose," says Bestor, 41, placing the books as impromptu pedestals for her dishes. "I'm a completely topographical architect."

Indeed, even when she is throwing a party, Bestor considers every elevation. Tonight's fete celebrates a new furniture line by her friend David Weeks, the lighting designer. It's also her first large gathering in the Los Feliz home she recently built on a promontory directly across the street from the iconic 1924 Ennis House, Frank Lloyd Wright's fourth and final textile-block house in Los Angeles.

Yes, Bestor admits, it was daunting putting her creation in such close context to what she calls Wright's "high-concept, radically huge gesture." Built from patterned concrete modules that transcended the flat look of cinder-block construction, the Ennis House was inspired by Mayan and Aztec structures.

"It is L.A.'s Machu Picchu," Bestor says, referring to its tomb-like appearance and current state of disrepair, partly due to the Northridge earthquake in 1994 and fierce rainstorms of 2004. "I'd much rather look at that every morning than the Getty Center."

VISITING the Wright landmark did offer some revelations for Bestor as she planned her house. "It looks so monumental," she says, "but on the inside it's a fairly modest one-story house with secret gardens and a linear pool hidden from the street view."

The latter was an inspiration for Bestor, who purchased her steeply sloped property in late 2005.

"If you put a pool at the bottom of a hill, you'll never use it," she says. "Or you'll spend all your time running up and down stairs to make sure the kids are OK."

Instead, she dropped the 2,800-square-foot, two-story house into the hillside, angled away from the street to follow the topography of the lot and to maximize a southwestern panorama that stretches from Long Beach to Santa Monica.

That placement created a triangular patio with enough room for a thin 27-foot-long pool, part of an indoor-outdoor living space at the front of the house.

"One of the most unusual and useful things in the L.A. codes is that you can build a pool right up to the property line," she says.

A concrete wall meant to keep the pool safe for children and inaccessible from the street also gave Bestor a chance to put the Ennis House on a pedestal. Sitting in one of her favorite outdoor chairs, she observed that a properly angled barrier would obscure street traffic and the hillside below Wright's house, so that it would appear to rise from her pool wall like an intricate tribal sculpture on a museum riser.

"The sloping angles pull the houses together," says Culver City architect Steven Shortridge, a guest at the party and an early client of Weeks'. "The strength of the house is how well its spaces and form relate to and 'dance' with the Ennis House across the street."

FOR Bestor, it almost wasn't to be.

She has been drawn to Glendower Avenue since the late '80s, when as a student at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, she had a crush on the street, she says. "There was a Schindler down the road and the Frank Lloyd Wright house. For someone who had come from New England, it was an architectural fantasyland."

But after she was hired to design a house on the challenging site, her clients bailed.

"It was bananas. I had to buy the property. It was out of my league financially," Bestor says, adding that construction costs alone for the hillside site eventually ran slightly more than $1 million. "But the house had to be built."

So Bestor, author of the 2006 style guide "Bohemian Modern: Living in Silver Lake," became her own client, moving forward with her usual cost- efficient materials and processes.

"Barbara's work is definitely populist," Shortridge says. "It is about how you experience being in and living in the spaces that gives it its meaning and quality."

Bestor speaks passionately about the "suppressed narrative of Los Angeles modernism: livable architecture built for artists with features that people take for granted now in the American home." It's this kind of romanticism tempered with a grounded pragmatism that has won Bestor such an ardent following.

TONIGHT, the guest list for the Weeks party skips across the fashion, design, movie and music industries, and as newcomers arrive, they all beg for a home tour.

On the entry floor, a huge window in the dining room offers a western vista of the basin below. Downstairs, however, sleeping quarters for Bestor and her 8- and 9-year-old daughters are shrouded by treetops for privacy.

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