Architecture aficionados sometimes liken Bart Prince's soaring, layered residential designs to the work of John Lautner and Frank Lloyd Wright, but drive by one of his projects in a pleasant, tree-lined South Pasadena neighborhood, and you'd never suspect what hides behind the unassuming exterior.
Perhaps the biggest clue is the entrance, set at the far side of the house, recessed under the roof and tucked behind an elegant curved-stone planter filled with blossoming bird of paradise. The large window in the front door looks like an eye, a kind of winking invitation.
Enter the house, and curiosity turns to wonder as bright but diffused light fills a vast space with soaring cathedral-like ceilings. A long, carpeted ramp leads to another huge room, a second-floor sphere filled with more sunshine not only filtering down from skylights but also up from built-in display shelves that let in light from the ground floor.
The net effect feels akin to a Spanish house with a UFO attached in back. But what's most stunning is that Prince's modern additions to the original 1920s design don't seem like an abomination. Instead, they make a compelling argument about how best to add space to traditional or period homes. Rather than conform to the conventions of one architectural style, he built what amounts to a sculpture in the backyard.
Owner Irene Sang, an optometrist and mother of two, wasn't in the market for an architectural home specifically, but she fell for the house when she walked in the door 11 years ago.
"I loved the wood and the light and the combination of the traditional with the new and unconventional," she says. "I grew up in Oak Park, Ill., around all those Frank Lloyd Wrights, and this house reminded me of home. It felt familiar."
Prince's addition of more than 2,000 square feet was built for the previous owners, Judy and Stuart Spence, who wanted to keep their traditional home while creating a space to showcase their extensive collection of modern art.
"The addition began on one side of the existing house and snaked around to the back and circled the existing sycamore tree," says Prince, who is based in Albuquerque. "The idea for the design grew from the inside out as a response to the Spences' needs and desires."
In the gallery, the wood ceiling and beams contrasted with white walls for the Spences' art.
"I preferred natural lighting in this case because the exposed wood and naturally finished material come alive as they interact with the changing light," Prince says.
Christopher Mead, dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico and author of "The Architecture of Bart Prince: A Pragmatics of Place," says the result is a wonderful and magical house.
"One of the things that is consistent in Prince's houses is that you are always surprised when you go inside," Mead says. "You recognize every work by Prince because every work by Prince looks unlike anything else you've ever seen. What makes the Spence house so interesting is that it's a wonderfully poetic meditation on what it means to live in Southern California."
For Sang, the allure of the design is hard to resist.
"There are days when I miss having a traditional house," she says. "But this house is cool and beautiful. You open the door, you want to go in further. The house draws you in."