Architect Tom Marble's recent book, After the City, This (is how we live), portrays Los Angeles as a place where salivating developers race to build homes that are "outside nature, devoid of culture, that intentionally turn their back on history, community, authenticity, even intimacy..." But the book—which is slyly written in LA's native tongue: as a Hollywood script—has roots in Marble's own reality: After spending three years as a director of architecture for one of those conflicted development behemoths, Marble started his own polar-opposite practice. And he vowed that no such malaise would be found in his own home, which he built in 2005 in collaboration with his wife, the artist Pae White—a glowing box high atop a golden hill.
"Things like approaching a site and paying attention to its context, rather than manufacturing one; or having a variety of indoor-outdoor relationships; or inviting Modernism into the home," says Marble as he gives a tour of the cube-like Casa Cuadrada one June-gloomy Friday just as he's about to return to Venice, Italy, for the Biennale, where White is exhibiting works. "When we were designing the house, all of those things were so important—and should be to anybody creating a place worth caring about. I felt incredibly lucky to have had that realization when I did. And then to have the opportunity to build what we wanted? Priceless."
But first, they had to decide where to build what they wanted. When the couple decided to relocate from their native Pasadena, they were actually priced out of their first choices: the seemingly-bohemian Silver Lake and Echo Park neighborhoods. So they shifted their search to the arroyo between LA and Pasadena, finally locating an empty lot on a grassy Montecito Heights ridge, with expansive views of—depending which window you look through—Mount Washington, Hollywood, Lincoln Heights, Orange County, downtown LA, the San Gabriel Mountains and beyond. The lot was also unique in that it abutted Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, and was studded with some of the walnut trees that make up one of the largest natural groves in the state.
In part, the ethereal, slow-reveal of the site is what makes approaching the house feel like a chapter ripped from Alice in Wonderland. Walking between two of White's tangled-wire birdcage sculptures on a crunchy gravel path, the silver spray of olive trees give way to a fragrant front porch, which is actually a citrus orchard. With "walls" of bulky lemons and limes weighing down their branches, appropriate accents like a lime green sundial and chartreuse wrought iron chair perch atop round concrete panels sprinkled with citrus-tinted glass, which hopscotch to a lemonade-shade door. Elegant black light fixtures on the doorstep (salvaged from a defunct Pasadena restaurant, Monty's) give the feeling that you're about to step into the lobby of a Regency-style hotel. But as those doors swing open, you're practically right back outside again, facing lanky ginko trees fluttering in a sand-lined courtyard, with a herd of Sunbrella-covered ottomans.
In addition to drawing light and greenspace into the core of the house, the courtyard had a practical purpose: providing the family cat a haven from coyotes, (although it now it functions as the cat's litter box as well, laughs Marble). But the courtyard also enables most of the sustainability features, providing both the warming rays of the sun and cross-ventilating breezes. During the day, the availability of natural light makes flipping a switch unnecessary. And a rather ingenious move on Marble's part included dividing the outlying living spaces into two L-shapes, public and private, which are each on their own heating systems. Since they spend most of their time in the private zone, they can power down the public areas to conserve energy.
While Marble handled such details as the contractor and architect, White played the role of client and creative director. "I created the spaces in the box," he says. "Then Pae created all the colors and textures." It's a study in playful complexity: there are ornately wallpapered walls (lemons and pomegranates to echo the bounty outdoors), folk art sharing shelves with Nymphenburg china, ancient antiques recovered in glam contemporary satins, menageries of spiders and birds picking their way across tabletops. An entire guest room is decorated in the merged heirlooms from Marble and White's grandmothers, including a wall-mounted wood and metal wash basin, and a rather disturbing portrait of President William McKinley. "We're the kind of people who believe it's not right to whitewash your history and have a purely modern house," says Marble. "We like to keep these odd things from our past because they're part of who we are."
Also infusing the home with personality are dozens of White's own delightful contributions. Their bedspread is a piece of custom tapestry with a crumpled aluminum foil pattern that was a test-print for the curtains in the Oslo Opera House. White also designed the delicate headboard of their bed, which was CNC-milled out of birch, giving the form a trippy psychedelic texture as it burrows in and out the growth rings. Above the dining room table are three of White's chandeliers, echoing traditional crystal forms but made from terra-cotta and monofilament. In the powder room, wallpaper was swapped for an original site-specific work: White used a technique of trailing and blowing paint to create deep black veins in the red walls. (In the studio space, the converted garage and two-story addition to the cube sheathed in corrugated metal, I also spot one of the shimmery starburst elements of the installation that will soon grace the courtyard of the W Hollywood.) In addition to White's own work, the pieces of friends, contemporaries and legends like Jorge Pardo, Hella Jongerius and Sister Corita Kent populate the rooms.
Besides the economic benefits of having an artist in-house, when it came to keeping other costs down, perhaps Marble learned something from those developers after all: "It cost less than $150 per square feet to build," he says proudly, thanks to the house's wood frame and nothing-fancy fixtures. They splurged on 10-foot ceilings but resourcefully discovered local vendors like North Hollywood-based Stone Mart, where they snatched up remnants like a stunning deep blue granite in their bathroom which complements the shower's Heath Ceramic tiles. Of course, it also helped to have friends like Mark Rios of Rios Clementi Hale Studios, where Marble once worked, who traded his landscape design services for White's artwork. Landscape designer Ivette Soler rounded out the design with additional native species.
And perhaps as an homage to his former life, Marble even used stucco, that evil yet efficient paste smeared on every ticky-tacky housing development. But here it's imbued with the same whimsical elegance, thanks to the eye of the artist-in-residence: The barely perceptible vertical striping of a white-taupe-white pattern surrounding the cube is a look White extrapolated from the circus-like termite tenting ubiquitous around town.
Casa Cuadrada is one of many homes featured on the East Side home tour, June 27 at Dwell on Design. On June 28, the tour heads to the West Side. To register for the tours or for the rest of Dwell on Design visit dwellondesign.com
Photos by Joshua White