When you think of “regionalism” you might think of vernacular architecture emerging in harmony with a specific climate and topography, long before air-conditioning, central heating, and steel-frame construction could produce buildings unrelated to their contexts.
When it comes to Los Angeles, however, the metropolis is young enough that it has barely had time to form a regional style. To the extent that it has, L.A.’s idiom first took the form of Spanish-style missions and homes built to provide protection from the sun: thick walls with deep openings, cool tiled floors, and shaded interior courtyards. But later L.A. birthed another kind of regionalism: Case Study Houses—post-and-beam steel or wood-framed houses immersed in lush landscapes with single-pane glass walls and flowing circulation between inside and out. This typology was not always practical for the weather—it intensified the heat of the day and the cold of the night—but it let occupants feel as if they now lived in harmony with the climate by being plunged right in it. In recent years, Los Angeles architects have been exploring a new brand of modernism that retains the open plan and light structure but uses new technologies and materials (such as more protective glass and solar power) to make houses in the modern idiom more appropriate for this region.
Los Angeles–based architect Jeremy Levine and his wife, Robin, have gone for a different approach: They opted for a hybrid. As Jeremy explains, their home both contrasts and fuses “the heavy mass and carved space of Spanish colonialism with the lightness and open space of the Case Study tradition.”
Jeremy Levine is a large guy with a larger-than-life personality. He is immensely warm and entertaining as he talks a mile a minute about art, physics, and the digital universe. He’s an ideas man who loves to make things. He studied architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), then took a detour into movie-production design for notorious B-movie producer Roger Corman, and after that he found himself in Romania and Bulgaria building fake American streetscapes. Next, he sold a screenplay that was made into a movie; he took up property development, both in Los Angeles and overseas; and he eventually circled back to architecture, designing enviro-conscious homes for onetime entertainment-industry colleagues. Levine had remodeled structures in Eagle Rock, a funky community nestled between mountain ranges northeast of downtown, but was bristling with ideas for the green design strategies he wanted to test on a house of his own.
Together with Robin, also a Hollywood refugee (after her sister developed breast cancer, she quit her job as a production manager for animated movies to create her own natural-products company, Eco-Me), he looked in vain for the right virgin site. But in late 2007, they instead found a “perfect fixer,” a 1940s house on a leafy, sloping street in Eagle Rock. The 1,500-square-foot home was nondescript, with a “low, eight-foot-tall cottage-cheese ceiling” and a “warren of tiny, dark little rooms”—but it did boast a lovely giant cypress at the front of the site and an Australian brush box tree at the back.
Levine wanted to add more space without cutting down the trees and without changing the modest scale of the existing house. He also wanted to create a comfortable home that offered direct contact with the energy and water systems that pumped through it. In sum, he wanted a kind of soulful “machine for living in.”
The first big move was to gut the building and build a post-and-beam frame spanning from outside wall to outside wall. They removed the old roof, recycled its lumber to make a lofty ceiling, and then hung it from the new frame. Levine says this meant that “by taking the load off existing walls, we could carve them sculpturally, making bigger openings and skylights.” The other big move was to build around the trees, creating outdoor decks front and back. Then they planted a third tree, a Robinia, in the center of the house, open to the sky above, creating an internal “pocket courtyard” that functions both as a source of natural light and as a thermal chimney, drawing warm air from the house up and out. Under the new rear deck they carved back into the cellar areas to create two entirely new rooms: an office and what they call the “chill-out” room: a bare, square room with a rock wall and benches at the perimeter, focusing the eye contemplatively on a tree growing up through the middle.
While they added just 500 square feet to the area of the house and a bathroom to the ground-level room count, they managed to dramatically increase the sense of space. Rooms now flow from one to the next. Direct and indirect light and air enter through clerestory windows in the heightened rooms, and sliding doors lead out onto decks and the inner pocket courtyard. The result, says Levine, “made an illusion of bigger space by using little strategies.”
Smart use of space was a constant concern. “In our never-ending quest for efficient living,” Levine explains, sounding at times like he’s channeling his Bauhaus predecessors, “we created a built-in, adjustable desk and shelving systems in the office, and we hung them from threaded rods.” In the living and dining rooms they carved shelves and niches into the thick walls, freeing up the room, and they “harvested the dead space under the house by creating concealed underfloor storage rooms.” Access to these is through a contraption that would have amused satirists of modern living like Jacques Tati or Osbert Lancaster: Using pneumatic car-hood arms and a foot pedal, sections of the floor can be raised one at a time.
Levine applied this same live-wire ingenuity to making the project sustainable. In addition to the passive cooling and the solar panels on the roof, he recycled graywater from baths and sinks to water the ornamental garden and created a storm-water capture system that pumps water into an “evaporative rain window” built into the underside of the rear staircase. The rain window creates a delicate curtain of cooling drips at the entrance to the chillout room. Levine then added more extras: a thermal wall of loosely joined rocks at the base of the house, intended both to store heat and to transmit air, and a dog-poop composting system in the backyard, making the most of output from their dogs, Samson and Lady.
In addition to thinking of the house as a set of systems and devices, however, Levine was preoccupied with capturing some of the essence of the region’s Spanish-style houses. It makes sense, he says, not only for climatic reasons but because he had found on previous projects that his team of builders, most originally from El Salvador (his longtime contractor, Francisco Lopez, died shortly before this article went to press), had a hard time with the details of Southern California’s modernist houses. But “when it came to concrete and stucco, they were masters.” So walls in the Levine house are thick and smoothly stuccoed, and the sinks and baths are made of poured-in-place concrete.
Even though newly Earth-friendly architects do employ passive cooling and heating strategies, the emphasis in current green building design has tended to be on energy-saving gadgetry and showily sustainable, sometimes expensive, materials, rather than on applying the principles of local, vernacular architecture. While Levine himself also embraces the techie side of sustainability, by drawing on lessons learned from houses built before the advent of creature comforts, his house sets an example for an approach that could serve people well—especially during an economic downturn, when simplicity and common sense are more valuable than ever.