Domestic Democracy

Originally published in 

In a code-happy L.A. suburb, how do you break the mold without breaking the law? Architects Alice Fung and Michael Blatt steer clear of anarchy with a little democratic design.

Fung/Blatt Residence

All of a sudden, Los Angeles architects Alice Fung and Michael Blatt find themselves where so many cool kids wind up: as adults. Their funky vintage jalopy from grad school has been supplanted by a pair of sensible Volkswagens, and lazy coffeehouse weekends have been preempted by a pair of rambunctious daughters (Kai, nine, and Téa, six). In other words, they’ve become their own ideal clients: a nuclear family willing to try something out of the ordinary, but not out of the mainstream.

The house the architects designed for themselves is in a canyon on the northern border of Mount Washington, a hilly, northeast L.A. enclave that’s not really a mountain but a 940-foot hill. Travel farther along Fung and Blatt’s street and you reach Glassell Park, a flat neighborhood with a checkered gangland past. But in Los Angeles, your block is your nabe—no matter the municipal designation—and theirs is lined with mostly single-family homes, with kids riding bicycles down the narrow, tree-lined road (and adults driving carefully around them).

Stepped back from the street, Fung and Blatt’s new abode looks more organic to its setting than its 1960s-era neighbors, in part due to local setback rules instituted to prevent the looming fjords of vertical stucco that plague other lowland Mount Washington streets. (Blatt calls them “the culprit houses.”) While abiding by the letter of the law, their house also limns its edge: Where patio walls are prohibited, galvanized steel planters filled with reeds provide privacy and expand conceptual boundaries. The curved roof is made from the same corrugated steel used to make farm water tanks; when bowed and staked with stubby segments of stop-sign posts, scraps of the same steel also serve as retaining walls to keep the area’s heavy clay soil from spilling into the street during a hard rain.

Inside the house, the main floor is dominated by a living room that soars to 24 feet and flows out over the   garage, becoming a deck; hinged glass doors fold completely away. “Sometimes birds fly in and out,” says Fung. The high ceiling isn’t just decorative, however; since winter light comes from the south, it had to be tall enough to let the sun shine in over their north-facing slope.

Out on the deck is a thatchy “sod chair” designed by the architects (“I should probably water it,” says Blatt). Fung orients the chair to the west when she’s outside, cutting off the boxy downslope houses hunkered on the hilltops around them, leaving nothing but a wide slice of blue sky.

The dining area is raised behind the cement-floored living room, opening up onto a side patio that climbs the hill behind the house. A small kitchen is outfitted with Latvian birch-ply cabinetry; a stacked washer and dryer are hidden smartly in another cabinet, which also serves as the back wall of a guest bath. Throughout the house, cabinetry is used to define rooms—the only fully enclosed spaces are the toilets. Look closely, and a framed door hovers in the small office off the main entry; the walls between office and living room are actually double-sided bookshelves that stop well short of the ceiling.

“I think the house reflects our idea of how a family structure should be—open and democratic,” says Fung. “I tried to be a tyrant,” adds Blatt, “but no one listened to me.” The parents’ bedroom is exactly the same size as the girls’—a fact crucial to the architects, but (so far) lost on the kids. In Fung and Blatt’s room, a hand-built ladder climbs into an unfinished attic area, which may someday be a meditation room (or a teenage girl’s hideaway). Sheathed in Lexan, it’s the warmest part of the house on a summer day, and in the winter, it’s the coziest. While the formal entrance to the adults’ bedroom is through a hallway, the usual route is through the walk-in closet, where parents and kids congregate by the double sinks for morning toothbrushing. “We went with the 1950s thing—a family bathroom,” says Blatt.

Rather than give Kai and Téa separate rooms, the architects gave them a single large bedroom with bunk beds.   An airy, intuitive stroll up the stairs, through an open playroom, takes you out onto the flat, grassy patch behind the house, where the girls collect mourning dove feathers and help their mom plant vines to hide the neighbors’ cluttered backyard.

The open plan and equitable acreage are loving social engineering experiments by the parents. The most radical element, however, is the fact that neither of the bedrooms is completely closed off. The adults’ room opens fully onto the living room, while the kids have a “window” on the other side of the house. Parents and kids can wave to each other like Little Italy neighbors—and the girls can conduct gravitational experiments onto the heads of unsuspecting adults in the dining room below.

With a canyon breeze tempering hot summer days, and warm air collected in the cavernous ceiling radiating down during cooler months, forced-air gas heating is the only climate control required. But the most significant energy-saving feature of the house is the least obvious: the square footage, or lack thereof. In this day of great rooms and four-car garages, Fung and Blatt decided on
a 1,640-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath house with study (on a 5,000-square-foot lot). Granted, there is room to expand into the cluttered, carless garage, which is plumbed for another bathroom, but the living space is modest—which is to say, just right. “The smaller the house, the fewer resources you use—it’s as simple as that,” says Blatt.

Unlike so many architects’ homes, Fung and Blatt’s doesn’t feel overbuilt. It has the same light, middle-class feel that a bungalow or raised ranch has—built to code, and ready for living. When discussing it, the architects make the obligatory nod to L.A.’s storied modernist history, but more relevant are what Blatt calls “masterpieces of economy”—the mass-produced post-and-beam houses of the 1950s. Accordingly, Fung and Blatt’s heavy noodling was directed toward more modest goals of how to live harmoniously and comfortably within one’s means—with a little domestic utopianism thrown in.

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