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Frank Gehry's Schnabel House: Updated, but would the master approve?

When the architect is Frank Gehry, renovation suddenly becomes more complicated. How a Broadway producer writes his house's second act with one question foremost on his mind.

November 06, 2010

To some design aficionados, altering landmark architecture can be as perverse as painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa; any departure from the original tampers with its integrity.

Frank Gehry, not surprisingly, takes a contrarian view.

"I don't have a compulsion to preserve things like that," the architect said. "People have to live in buildings. You have to roll with the changes. To get locked into a straitjacket of design seems to me counterproductive to one's life."

That's good news for Jon Platt, owner of Gehry's Schnabel House in Brentwood. The residence has been called many things since its completion in 1989: deconstructivist design (which Gehry says is inaccurate). Free-form architecture. Career watershed. Antic cross between cartoon geometry and elaborate medieval village. Status symbol. Family home. Sculpture.

When Platt, Tony Award-winning producer of "Angels in America" and "God of Carnage" and a current producer of "Wicked" on Broadway, moved into the 5,700-square-foot residence in 2006, it became something else: passion project. He went on to spend four years "invisibly shepherding this house into the 21st century."

Simple tasks such as replacing fluorescent light bulbs with LEDs were accompanied by massive undertakings, such as centralizing and consolidating the home's climate controls, TVs, lighting and security cameras onto one technologically advanced system, now managed by eight iPads. Platt altered the wading pool three times until he deemed it perfect. Through it all, he considered the architecture to be nothing less than sacred.

"My mission statement for the house was: Take this gorgeous piece of art that happens to be a home," he said, "and allow it to function as efficiently as a residence designed in 2010."

Oh, and do it in a way that pleased Gehry.

The renovation process wasn't easy. "How to hide wires when the ceiling is exposed wood, the floors are concrete and the walls are glass?" Platt asked rhetorically. One day at Gehry's office in Venice, the two were speaking about the sunlight that pours into the diamond-shaped master bedroom, the window-wrapped space ringed by a sparkling wading pool, which original owners Rockwell and Marna Schnabel affectionately called "the aquarium." Platt wanted to block the morning sun, so he asked Gehry for advice. Gehry's response: Install electric shades.

"That's great at night, Frank," Platt recalled saying. "But looking at those wires during the day — it'll just scream at you."

Gehry turned to Platt and replied: "Oh, Jon, you're such a purist."

Forging ahead

Platt pressed for solutions, eventually tracking down a company in Taiwan that makes a thin film that can render windows less transparent on demand. Controlled by iPad, the technology blocks glare while leaving the room's aesthetics untouched.

For Platt, who splits his time between L.A. and an apartment in New York, the Schnabel House was an immersion in architectural preservation. He agrees with UCLA professor Sylvia Lavin, who in the introduction to the 2009 book "Frank Gehry: The Houses" wrote: "Every inhabitant of a house by Gehry becomes an artist, as they are called on, not merely to use its spaces, but to preserve its architectures."

One isn't so much the owner of a Gehry house as its steward, Platt said. "It's your responsibility to maintain the Gehry vision for as long as you can and then you do your best to pass it on."

At first glance, the vision here is controlled chaos: abrupt juxtapositions of spheres, trapezoids, cubes, railings, pools and pillars in harmonious balance. The "house" is actually composed of four buildings on a 100-by-250-foot lot. The office and guesthouse stand alone. A two-story structure housing the garage and gym are connected to the main house by an outdoor breezeway, which Gehry added to get around code limitations on the number of buildings allowed on one property. The main building includes living room, library, family room, kitchen, dining room, media room, study, sauna, plant room, two kids' bedrooms plus that master suite, which has the appearance of being a fifth structure.

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