Two recently completed beach houses show how differently the same firm achieved a similar goal on the same stretch of coast. The first is a layered white cubist volume rising from a manicured lawn: a signature Richard Meier & Partners Architects work that recalls the Villa Savoye in its purist geometry. It was jointly created by Richard Meier and Michael Palladino, his West Coast design partner, as a summer home for a philanthropist-art collector. The second comprises a pair of linear blocks, entirely screened by teak slats and shutters, rising from an expanse of sand and beach grasses that emulates the original landscape. Palladino was inspired by the Southern California Coast vernacular to design this shady retreat for an entrepreneur who likes to entertain. Beyond the differences of character and materials, the two houses have a comparable spatial organization.
Each recreates in miniature the feeling of remoteness and natural beauty that Malibu enjoyed in the 1930s. Then, it was virgin territory where one could buy an inexpensive plot of land between the new Pacific Coast Highway and the shore, and build a weekend getaway, less than an hour’s drive from LA. Thousands did so, and the coastal strip was quickly transformed into a wall of ramshackle bungalows blocking public access to the beach and views of the ocean. More recently, the shore and foothills have been infected with the Mediterranean virus: a rash of retro villas obliterating the land. Beyond the blight are tawny mountains, the expanse of the ocean, and light of Aegean clarity.
Distinctive and appropriate architecture is rare in Malibu, which makes the two Richard Meier houses (and their earlier Ackerberg residence) especially noteworthy. The art collector bought a double lot to achieve a sense of openness and to set off a modestly scaled block of around 500 square meters. The program called for a lofty living room with walls for art, two similar suites (for the owners at ground level and guests upstairs), and an upper-level library-office. By building up to the eastern lot line the architects opened the house to light and views on three sides: south to the ocean, west to the lawn, and north to the mountains.
It is set back from the highway behind two garages with guest bedrooms above, flanking a forecourt that is enclosed with a three-meter fence of translucent laminated glass to cut traffic noise. From the highway, the house is concealed behind glazed grids and a taut skin of white enameled panels. A gate in the wall opens into an outdoor room with a path to the front door and an expanse of lawn flowing off between pristine white blocks. It’s a decompression zone that marks the boundary between frenzy and calm, and the first step on an axial route that divides the sleeping areas to the east from the public and working areas to the west.
A Calder mobile slowly turns within the six-meter-high living room with its south wall of glass and a screen wall with narrow openings at top and sides that blocks the westerly sun. A central gash in the wall frames a narrow strip of green, white and blue, linking art and nature. The dining area and kitchen are tucked beneath the library, which seems to hover within the void, and is wrapped with a ribbon of white stucco.
This piano curve, which Meier adapted from Le Corbusier and often uses as a leitmotif, complements the orthogonal geometry of the house, outside and in, infusing its sharp angles with sensuality. The intimacy of the interiors is heightened by the subtle, monochromatic furnishings of interior designer Rose Tarlow, who has included vintage chairs by Wagner and Mies as points of reference to classic modernism.
The brilliance of the natural light posed a challenge that these architects mastered with ease. A projecting canopy containing 25cm louvers admit a few bars of sunlight to the outer edge of the living room in summer but shield the art. To calculate the sun’s position at different times of day through the year once required days of observation on site, but the information can now be secured instantaneously from a computerized data base. Gray glass skylights filter 83 per cent of the solar rays, and blinds need to be drawn on the west-facing windows only at sunset. Blocking and filtering are calibrated to ensure that the light levels are always within the comfort zone, while enhancing the impact of the art works and especially the Calder.
Maintaining a white house at the beach is a harder task. To combat the corrosion of salt air, the architects have employed aluminum panels with a baked enamel finish, marine-grade stainless steel for railings and fittings, and stucco that can be repainted.
In contrast, the entrepreneur declared that he didn’t want to be painting his house every weekend, and asked the architect if he could use a different palette - exactly as the Getty had, for aesthetic reasons, twenty years earlier. Palladino responded enthusiastically to this invitation, selecting poured concrete, teak from renewable sources, and bronze for their weathering properties. The spinal concrete shear wall drops below the deck and reappears as a low wall at the south edge of the site, rooting the house in the landscape. The horizontal emphasis of the teak slats and shutters reduces the apparent bulk of the residence and detached guesthouse, which together enclose 700 square meters, and extend across three lots.
They have the quality of fine cabinetry and, though the owner expressed a wish for a casual, low-maintenance beach bungalow, he is oiling the wood twice a year to keep it pristine.
A concrete wall topped with wood louvers conceals an expansive yard that is bracketed by garages. The approach to the house has a processional quality: a boardwalk over the sand, flanked by a water channel and the concrete wall. The channel and a lap pool that borders the guesthouse like a moat lead your eyes to the ocean. Pamela Burton designed the drought-resistant landscape of trees and grasses. The house is shaded by projecting floor and roof planes, and by shutters that can be closed to form a seamless grille, or rotated, folded, and moved to one end.
Glass doors open to a deck that is as wide as the expansive living room, and to a library and two bedrooms on the upper floor. In summer the shutters can be closed for security and to filter the light, while leaving the windows open to ocean breezes and the roar of the surf.