After architectural designers Louis Molina and Laurent Turin of Good Idea Studio revamped a tiny, dilapidated 1923 clapboard house in 2004, they moved their Los Angeles office into the ground level and have taken turns occupying the 578-square-foot living quarters upstairs. While Turin is supervising the firm’s office in his native Switzerland, Molina, who also teaches at the Woodbury University School of Architecture in Burbank, gives us the tour of their diminutive-by-design Echo Park remodel.
My grandparents’ first house was in Echo Park. My aunt and uncle lived here, too. After World War II, my family moved out to the San Fernando Valley where there was more interest in the newer, the cleaner, the fancier. But my generation has rediscovered the appeal of living in a place with easy access to transportation, coffee shops, and galleries, a place that has parks, history, and complex layers.
There used to be three houses on this lot. The city issued a permit to knock down the two in front in 1978.The place was like a rundown public park because it was open to the street on three sides. The house was in such a bad state of decay that the property was sold as land value only. But we thought the foundation, redwood structure, and roofing were in pretty good shape. It was just the siding, interior finishes, plumbing, and the electrical that needed help.
Given our original budget of $50,000, which eventually bumped up to $62,000, it didn’t make sense to tear down and start over. That would have cost more financially and environmentally, and it would have come at the expense of the historic nature of the neighborhood. To me, the most sustainable house is the house that’s already here. So we saved the structure, wrapped it in cement fiberboard paneling, and donated whatever materials we could to a salvage yard.
The interior is 15 feet by 37 feet, which means we have 578 square feet above in the residence and the same below for the office. We thought this could be like a little working box with a living unit on top. Our goal was to imagine ways to live in a small space that weren’t about living small. Instead of dividing it into several rooms like before or building bigger, we use the garden for meals and other gatherings.
The house is one room with the bathroom in the middle. By creating complexity and visual interruptions, we changed the way you experience the space so you perceive it as a larger volume. You get different perspectives, different views. When you’re in the living room, you see shelving with books along a long wall, but you don’t know that’s the bedroom at the other end. With light coming in from the skylights and sliding glass doors, the impression is not of a darkening, shrinking space but of a more generous room.
We wanted the house to function in all the necessary ways, but we didn’t want to be reminded of those functions all the time. Laurent and I could have filled the kitchen wall with cabinets, but then it would have always looked like a kitchen. Instead, we created a table as a more neutral space—–for eating, chatting, or just hanging out—–and put the sink, oven, and storage on the back side of the table.
The wall remains open so we can hang a picture, a map, or something else. There’s intentional ambiguity in other areas, too. The storage wall doesn’t have to be filled, but we mixed books, sweaters, and a little stereo system in there. Because there’s a tendency in domestic spaces to privatize certain areas, we parked an eight-foot-long sliding panel in front of the clothes, but we can slide it anywhere because the track runs the entire length of the shelves. We can also turn on a projector and use the panel as a screen. We have so little space that every inch matters. It should all be meaningful and beautiful.
The bathroom is supposed to feel like a bubble inside the main room. The same MDF [medium-density fiberboard] panels from the floor rise up to enclose the bathroom, and mirrors make it seem like the bathroom isn’t connected to anything. Inside, the size of the tiled wall creates the illusion of more space, and this exaggerated proportion—–plus another sliding door with a view to the rear garden—–help make the room feel larger. We open the shower curtain, it’s on a hospital track, when we’re not using it.
We were really attentive to placing doors in front and back, so the house acts like a porch when it’s hot. We have vintage linen curtains indoors and Ikea canvas curtains out in front to block the late-afternoon sun. When everything is open, we get nice, cool cross-ventilation, and I love to watch the curtains swing in the breeze. This house is all about the way light and air move through.