David C. Martin builds a hillside compound in Santa Monica.
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 7/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
Applied to an American house, the term villa usually sounds pretentious, but it is quite appropriate for this grand yet inviting 6,000-sq.-ft. structure in Rustic Canyon. David C. Martin is a third-generation architect who is design principal and co-chairman of A.C. Martin Partners, founded in 1906 and one of the oldest firms in Los Angeles. Mary Klaus-Martin, a former world-champion triathlete and fashion designer, is now a cultural commissioner for Los Angeles. She has a long-standing commitment to the city's architectural history, having grown up in a Paul Williams residence and counting John Lautner as an old family friend. Moving from a modest home in Manhattan Beach, the Martins created this house as a sanctuary for their family. They were no less keen on preserving the surrounding vegetation, which encompasses more than 100 species of trees and shrubs planted over half a century by the previous owner.
The Martins eschewed the obvious in their choice of location. Instead of situating it on a flat expanse that would afford views of the ocean, they opted to build on the sloped sector behind an arc of 80-year-old eucalyptus trees. The flat center, as the compound's symbolic piazza, would be left open and simply landscaped with raked dirt and concrete enclosures for plantings and a water lily pool. This decision dictated the form of the house. The structure's south-facing crescent "was the first big idea," says David. Its contour and placement would not only reflect the landscape, but also establish a sense of procession and, he continues, "ameliorate mass." The sequence begins with the apartment block and garage, linked to the principal structure by a trellised promenade with a water wall. A terraced walkway forms the path leading from garage to front door.
A rotunda, construed as the modern-day counterpart of Mediterranean hillside towers, signals the entry. The adjacent barrel-vaulted rectangular volume forms the heart of the house, with public spaces downstairs and bedrooms above. As direct sunlight is scarce in the canyon, the Martins planned the main living expanse to maximize its penetration. A glass-and-steel framework dominates the south elevation, where French doors open onto a patio with built-in Jacuzzi; the grid introduces both pattern and framed views. The apex of the 34-ft.-high, maple-faced vault is punctured with a skylight running the length of the room.
The space is high on drama, beginning with a bent glass-and-aluminum-framed elevator cage inspired by Los Angeles' late 19th-century Bradbury building (familiar to fans of Blade Runner). The overall conception, however, does not depend solely on splendid scale and an amorphous floor plan. "This is not loft living," remarks Mary. Various architectural elements and furnishings serve to articulate otherwise unwieldy spaces. A colonnade mediates between the grand central volume and the intimate library. On the upper level, the columns permit framed views of the mezzanine, which leads to the more modestly scaled bedrooms. "The step down to smaller rooms was a deliberate device to encourage family togetherness," Mary adds.
"The idea for interiors was to keep the palette simple," David continues. Furnishings present their own intriguing story. While the Martins were building their former residence in the early '80s, Mary discovered the work of Andrée Putman—a prescient inspiration at the time, when Putman was known in the United States primarily for her design of New York's Morgans hotel. She tracked down Putman's Paris address, wrote her a letter, and waited. Six months later the connection was made, and the designer selected a handful of classics by various 20th-century masters. The collection was moved intact to Rustic Canyon, where the pieces look equally at home. The arrangement of furniture suggests intimate oases. "It's not minimal," says Mary. "It's chic, warm, and serene." The Martins did not succumb to the temptation to fill their expanded quarters. "There's architecture here," they say. "And there's detailing—in the surfaces, the grid, and the horizontal planes. That's the beauty of the project."
David C. Martin, whose firm concentrates on large-scale institutional projects, has built only three houses, including this one. All have won AIA awards.