When people ask architects Apurva Pande and Chinmaya Misra where they live, they never get a straightforward answer. The couple's home lies at the end of a cul-de-sac somewhere between Culver City and West Adams-an amorphous zone west of downtown Los Angeles where angular streets rudely interrupt the city's regular grid. The neighborhood council is still trying to come up with a name for the area. "We live in an in-between of in-betweens," says Pande. "Given our penchant for complexity, this neighborhood really suits us perfectly."
Most recent architecture-school graduates content themselves with renting apartments for years until they generate enough money and professional kudos to buy or design their dream home. But Delhi, India, natives Pande and Misra decided, in spite of limited financial resources and full-time jobs, not to wait. "We were keen to break the stereotypical architectural career path, which renders inconceivable the possibility of architects fresh from school using their design education and training to build for themselves," says Pande, who used to work for Frank Gehry and is now striking out with Misra on their own. "We were inspired by the ideals of the '60s modernists who attempted to make modern design a way of life rather than an aspiration for the wealthy."
So the couple, who were then in their late 20s, scoured the escalating Los Angeles housing market for a suitable fixer-upper for under $400,000. "We were really down-and-out financially, with little cash and large student loans," says Misra, who was then working for the Jerde Partnership on large-scale retail and mixed-use projects. In the fall of 2003, after more than six months of searching, Pande and Misra spent just over $380,000 on a property so dilapidated that no one else bid on it. Then they set about making it their own.
The journey from concept to completion was far from easy. The couple worked on the project for a full year without taking a single day off. "We ended up leading really wild Jekyll-and-Hyde lives. Overseeing construction during precision-timed lunch breaks and late evenings was harrowing on our bodies," says Misra. "Every weekend without fail we'd find ourselves taking naps inside our car in the Home Depot parking lot." The process also involved refinancing their home several times and maxing out ten credit cards. With the house barely a third of the way through completion, Pande and Misra's contractor called and threatened a lien on the property if he didn't see a payment within ten days. The next day the couple's lender backed out from a planned remodel loan, because the property looked "unoccupied" to the appraiser. So the next night, Pande and Misra fashioned impromptu curtains out of bedsheets and hung ceiling lamps to make the house look like it was lived in. The plan didn't work. "We finally had to rely on our credit cards to carry us through," says Pande. "We dubbed the project `The House of Cards.' Our credit rating hit rock bottom. It was very scary."
Pande and Misra's new home is as multifaceted as their experience of constructing it. Built in 1950 on a 6,700-square-foot lot as a blue-collar variant of the then popular desert modern style, the 1,600-square-foot three bedroom, two-bathroom house is a typical of Los Angeles residential properties in that it is mostly concrete. The angular, wood-accented white box stands out against the trees, nearby Ballona Creek (which the property abuts), and the neatly contoured lawn. From the concrete floors of the kitchen to the bed of gray pebbles in the living-room fireplace, a hip, urban aesthetic prevails here-influenced by the gallery scene of nearby Culver City. Indeed, the house itself is full of artwork, including Misra's own photographs and handmade paper.
Pande and Misra began the renovation process by building a series of physical architectural models-a technique Pande had used while working for Gehry. Not only did the models help the couple plan the design, but they also helped the contractor measure and cut all the complex timber members, studs, and joists. The shared vision was to "peel away the layers" of the house to create more light, ventilation, and space, using minimal walls and doors. Having sandblasted away the layer of yellow paint that covered the concrete masonry, Pande and Misra, with the help of their contractor, began replacing the original crumbling extension at the rear of the building with an airy new addition. This annex bridged the two disconnected wings of the house, creating a single uninterrupted space.
Though the external concrete armature of the building was strong, the interior walls were in poor condition. So the couple had their contractor gut the inside completely to leave an open shell. Pande and Misra removed walls separating the old kitchen, pantry, and dining room, accenting the main living space with intersecting geometrical shapes. A cubist cluster of irregular triangular wedges leading up to a deep-set skylight now defines the space above the kitchen entrance.
Other parts of the house were similarly designed to maximize natural light and space. Pande and Misra created a porous partition between the living room and the study with a system of floating bookshelves built into an enclave that allow access to books from either room as well as a view from one space into the other. The living room's partially exposed wooden joists and rafters create a feeling of additional height while warming the white walls. A huge storefront-style window in the living room frames the view of the trees outside.
Pande and Misra reflect back on their year of construction with a combination of relief and pride. Despite their financial woes, the flexibility and liquidity of the local housing market, coupled with the distance from what they describe as the "overinvolved cultural domain" of life in India, gave Pande and Misra the opportunity to realize their ambition more readily in Los Angeles than might have been possible back home. "Both of us have very educated, liberal, and opinionated families. Our freewheeling approach to getting into the property market was easier [when we were] unencumbered by family ties," says Pande. "And the financial gambles we took were best kept between the two of us."
The renovation ended up costing $100,000 ($30,000 more than anticipated), so by the time it came to furnishing the home, IKEA was about the only viable furniture option. Not that Pande and Misra minded. "I'm a maniac about cleaning, and furniture just means more dust," says Misra. There's a beige couch with a couple of bright throw pillows, some light-colored wooden stools, a glass-topped rectangular dining table with four simple wooden chairs, Persian-style rugs scattered here and there, a low-slung bed, and that's about it. "We wanted the place to feel like a yard," says Misra. "The sort of space you can skateboard around."