What Shulman Knew
Studio 0.10 Architects returns a Los Angeles house to the way it looked in Julius Shulman's 1962 photographs
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 7/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Looks can be deceiving, especially in Hollywood. And that's not just for movie actors and aspiring models. Consider the case of a house that recently won a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission award of excellence. When David Gold bought the cast-in-place concrete residence, built into a steep hillside, he hadn't a clue about the architecture's provenance or true appearance. That is, he says, until he started tidying up in preparation for a major renovation: "I came upon a photo of the house that looked totally different—like a piece of sculpture. Then I turned it over and found Julius Shulman's name stamped on the back."
An investor in commercial real estate, Gold went to the Shulman archives at the University of Southern California to conduct further research. There, he learned that architect Carl Maston had designed the house as a prototype for cost-effective hillside building—and decided to get in touch with Shulman directly. "Julius saved the house," says Gold, who was captivated by the legendary architectural photographer's passion for modernism. "He transformed my renovation into a restoration. His photos became the driving force of the project."
Armed with his new knowledge, Gold opted to live in the house for a year before progressing. He contacted the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission to spearhead a landmark designation and commissioned Studio 0.10 Architects to undertake the job.
The three-story, 1,600-square-foot house was essentially constructed around a concrete retaining wall. Public spaces are on the top level, sleeping quarters in the middle, and a garage and mechanical room below. "It was meant as an insertion into the landscape, one that minimally disturbed the land," says Studio 0.10 principal Li Wen, contrasting the house to those on level terrain. "It's a shaft," adds Andrew Liang, the other Studio 0.10 principal. And that shaft's intrinsic design had been poorly altered over the past four decades.
Before Studio 0.10's arrival, green paint slathered the facade's Douglas fir, and the second level's wooden balcony was in terrible shape. Inside the house, wall-to-wall carpet covered the concrete flooring on the first two levels, and the top level's fire-brick flooring was varnished a grayish green. The book-matched mahogany-veneered partition separating the kitchen and dining area were painted pink, the living area's strikingly simple concrete fireplace had been clad in fieldstone, and the redwood ceiling was in utter disrepair. Nevertheless, the attributes that had initially attracted Gold to the house shone through: a cast-in-place concrete stairway, which connects all three levels, and an open-plan top level, with its panoramic view of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean.
Once the restoration-oriented approach was outlined, says Liang, "There was no place to stop." Shulman's photographs guided an examination of every material to determine sources—and whether it should be refurbished or replaced. The architects exhibited painstaking care. They replaced the mahogany partition and parts of the redwood ceiling, hand-stripping the paint on the fire-brick flooring and wood surfaces. Time-intensive water jets were used on the concrete. "Sandblasting would have obliterated the texture," explains Wen.
The top level's layout remained unchanged, with three steps dividing the living and dining areas, but some renovation did take place. In the kitchen, for instance, Studio 0.10 installed Honduran mahogany cabinets and a stainless-steel countertop and hardware. Furniture isn't entirely orthodox either. Rather than "stocking up on mid-century pieces," says Liang, he selected a collection of spare Italian contemporary designs "for the right combination of materials and scale." Tabletops are zebrawood or back-painted glass. Both leather and wool upholster seating in the living and dining areas. To underscore the importance of the three steps separating the two zones, the architects designed a contiguous mahogany banquette upholstered in pony skin.
Downstairs tells a slightly different story. Liang and Wen transformed two bedrooms and two bathrooms into a single concrete-clad master suite. Honduran mahogany reappears for a built-in bed unit and an overhead enclosure for recessed light fixtures, air-conditioning vents, and speakers; doors pair the same wood with laminated glass. In the bathroom, French limestone strikes a lighter, contrasting note as tile for the walls, floor, and a vanity.
After three labor-intensive years, Gold has come to anthropomorphize the completed project as a mirror image of himself. "It's me," he insists. "It has a severe exterior and a warm interior. It's strong, small, and straightforward." Shulman might take a different view. If he were to visit today, would he see a refraction of 1962?