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Venice couple builds a modern home on top of a Venice cottage

With nowhere to go but up, they tried to make the cottage look invisible so that the transparent box addition on top became a floating island.

October 03, 2009|Paul Young

Venice is home to a lot of extravagant architecture, whether it's Frank Gehry's playful deconstructions or Franklin Israel's experiments in postmodern collage. Yet even in such environs, Robert Choeff and Krystyan Keck's home on Cabrillo Avenue stands out. "We definitely have more than our share of gawkers," Keck says. "But it's sort of nice to be a celebrity in the neighborhood."

The residence looks like two houses stacked on top of each other, largely because it is. The bottom is a 1913 cottage, the top a translucent modernist box. One almost expects to see Dorothy inside this bit of Oz.

"We get a lot of cyclists stopping to take pictures," Choeff says, adding that the only criticism he's heard came from one guy who declared, "That's weird."

Perhaps, but the house is also a clever solution to a difficult problem: How do you take a small lot, double the size of your living space and still end up with a piece of interesting architecture? Though the husband and wife have worked together on projects in the past, this is their first collaboration as the Bureau of Architectural Affairs. Each decision they made was driven by pure practicality.

The choice to float the new space over the original home, for instance, was driven by code. If they had built a new structure from the ground up, they would have been required to include a garage, which would have taken up precious space.

"We also needed to keep the cost down," Keck says. "So that was a big factor in keeping the original house intact."

Still, major alterations were required to transform the original 800 square feet into three bedrooms, one for themselves and two for their children, ages 1 and 4. Though the couple remained faithful to the original interior aesthetic of white walls, country maple floors and built-ins, they took more liberties with the old cottage's exterior.

The plan called for it to be stripped of any ornament, then painted black, or the "color of sleep," as Choeff describes it. They also wanted to coat the exterior with a slick polyurethane resin to give the home -- the old lower level as well as the new upper floor -- a uniform sheen. In the end, fearing that the polyurethane would be problematic, the couple ditched the resin, kept the shingle siding and went with a charcoal color instead.

The kitchen and living areas were moved into the new construction upstairs, which feels like a marvel as soon as you step into the stairway. The transparent facade allows for views of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, while the stairwell's bright orange cabinets (which can be seen from the street) provide ample storage space.

"My son loves the stairs," Choeff says. "He uses them like another room."

The passageway leads into the new kitchen. A long, black countertop spans one wall, and an array of dark cabinets helps to conceal the refrigerator and other appliances. Charcoal-colored facades (chalkboard paint, actually) and polished concrete floors make the kitchen feel expansive, even though it's a mere 125 square feet.

"The dark color also works from the outside, because when you look up through the windows, you can't really see any real definition inside," Choeff says.

A cozy work area is actually an extension of the kitchen counter as it wraps around the southern wall. Beyond that is a 125-square-foot lounge area with three comfortable built-in couches, a flat-screen TV and a 5-foot-square sliding-glass window. When opened, it brings in breezes to create an outdoorsy, treehouse feeling -- much like a fourth-floor apartment Choeff and Keck lived in when they first moved to L.A.

The couple met at Princeton's graduate School of Architecture. The Brooklyn-born Choeff had spent years in Berlin, where he worked on Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum. Keck, an upstate New York native, worked for Rem Koolhaas' firm, OMA, in the Netherlands, where Choeff eventually landed as well. They worked on Koolhaas projects, including the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin; the Casa da Musica orchestra hall in Porto, Portugal; and the celebrated McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

In 2000, the lure of sunny weather brought the couple to Los Angeles, where they embraced the region's history of experimental architecture. They purchased the Venice property in 2003 for $450,000 and embarked on the expansion with a budget of $400,000.

There was never any question that they would build up. The challenge was to make the 500 square feet upstairs feel as spacious as possible. To that end, they added a rooftop deck, which acts as its own live-work area.

Some of the most noteworthy additions came not in the form of space but in the home's appearance. Choeff and Keck sheathed the house in a semi-translucent polycarbonate skin made by the Italian firm Gallina. The covering brings in light and affords additional views, and at sunset, as interior lights come on and the sky turns red, the surface shifts from transparent to almost metallic, with a subtle moire effect.

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