Of more than 100 houses that Ray Kappe designed over his long and distinguished career, the one he designed for himself and his family in Los Angeles' Rustic Canyon is the most important. "Maybe the greatest house in Southern California," Stephen Kanner, the former president of American Institute of Architects' Los Angeles chapter, said in a 2008 interview.
Indeed, that year, when the Home section polled architects, historians, academics and critics on Southern California's best houses of all time, the 1967 Kappe residence ranked No. 8, just behind Chemosphere by John Lautner and the Gamble House by Charles and Henry Greene. Had Kappe, 83, not been one of the panelists and precluded from voting for his own work, the architect's personal residence would have landed even higher in the final rankings, a list of classics by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames.
Unlike most hillside homes, the Kappe house isn't tucked into the hillside. Rather, it runs along and above it, seeming to hover over the slope on Brooktree Road in the Palisades. The structural plan allows its 4,000 square feet of wood and glass to rest on laminated beams bolted to six massive, deep-set concrete towers. Gurgling water from natural springs courses through the space underneath, running down the rocky hillside to the street. Mature eucalyptus, sycamore, oak and bamboo shroud the home in an evergreen canopy.
The property, 100 feet wide, is a transitional zone between a level lot on one side and a lower neighbor on the other. Kappe House floats across the resulting 45-degree angle on seven levels, with cantilevered wooden decks, trellises and platforms reaching out into the environment. From inside, views run in every direction, yet at the same time the landscaping provides a natural seclusion.
"It's remarkable for the way it's constantly relating back to the hillside," Los Angeles architect Ron Radziner said. "It's the quintessential tree house."
Added Linda Dishman, head of the Los Angeles Conservancy: "Inside that house, you feel like you're one with nature."
The house's innovative footing and posture are a result of the architect's adapting to the challenges of the site, which he initially thought might be un-buildable because of the groundwater. A geologist told Kappe that the springs could be diverted, and the architect's original plans were to build on a series of pads set in the hillside. But when the springs could not be diverted, he turned away from a conventional grade-beam foundation and, instead, raised the house up, "letting the site flow through it," Kappe said. "I'm a pragmatic guy."
He had to sink the front concrete columns down 30 feet through clay to get to bedrock. An advocate of the "design build" approach, Kappe served as his own contractor and personally supervised not only the foundation but all elements of construction.
"He wasn't a person who drew," says Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, a former faculty colleague of Kappe's at Cal Poly Pomona. "He was a person who built his ideas, and you can see it in the house."
In the early 1960s, Kappe had been experimenting with modular prefab construction for condominium developments, using load-bearing vertical core units as a way around bulldozing hillsides, and he brought some of that thinking to Brooktree Road. The house has a skin of plate glass combined with wood panels and concrete. The ratio of glass to floor area is about 50-50, predating later California residential code that limits glass to 20%. Where two glass walls meet, Kappe mitered the joints head-on rather than use wooden mullions; glass meets glass for a nearly invisible intersection, furthering the feeling of the house adrift in nature. Yet in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which hit the Palisades hard, the only damage that the house sustained was two broken windows.
Kappe, described by Architectural Record as "an unsung modern master," has designed many houses of steel and concrete and has claimed not to prefer one material over another. But his own house, with all its beautiful wood, has earned him the label of "warm modernist." The 21/2-foot-thick laminated beams, hard to miss, are indeed made of Douglas fir. The rest of the lumber is redwood. Interior roof joists run across the beams and through the exterior wall, extending 12 feet beyond as a shadow-making trellis. None of the wood was stained or treated other than with clear Thompson's WaterSeal.