Architecture in Los Angeles both exposes itself to an exterior world in flux and retreats to accommodate a human need for privacy, calm and a sense of protection. In this complex, expanded field, Architecture can be an inductive accumulation or assembly of component parts yet struggle to configure itself as an ideal object - Architecture, that is, as the singular icon. These are some of the dichotomies informing the intelligent, elegant work of LA-based Michael Maltzan. His buildings both relate to the outside world and instigate interior landscapes or microcosms.
Through scenography and editing, two Hollywood tools-of-the-trade, the Pittman Dowell Residence demonstrates such play or interplay of dualities in a unique setting. On a south-facing slope in La Crescenta north of Los Angeles, Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell, both painters, have lived for several years in the Serulnic Residence, a characteristic flat-roofed, mid-century construction by the great Richard Neutra of silver-painted posts and sliding glass walls, a domestic pavilion marked by lightness and transparency.
Pittman and Dowell’s new house sits lower on the generous hillside property. It can be spied from below, from the verdant suburban lawns of La Crescenta, as a monolithic white projectile open, via a terrace in antis, to the south. From the terrace of the Neutra house, a grassy ledge marked by a great Stone Pine, the new house presents itself as opaque and non-rectilinear. Its roof is literally a fifth façade, a polygonal disk of grey slate aggregate edged in the flat white parapets of the surrounding walls and incised with two skinny triangular voids. To one side, a carport canopy floats out from the retaining wall like a splayed Suprematist square.
Up close, each of the new pavilion’s seven exterior walls is unique: one entirely opaque rectangle; the protecting terrace; a ribbon window at chest height (a small homage to The International Style); a wall split by one elongated mirrored door; a frameless clerestory window looking back up toward the Serulnic house; a curiously curved window/skylight flush with the parapet; and the entry façade with a broader mirror glass door and a smaller elliptical aperture. Exterior surfaces are slightly rough whereas walls slicing through the building mass are smooth to the touch.
This is a design enamored with geometric play and invention. The light-filled interior feels much larger than expected. It’s a single contiguous space flowing and turning and slipping off to one side so that this private interior realm becomes a kind of ludic domestic circuit. Designated areas orbit about a slightly raised patio and are supplied with specific glimpses of the exterior world. The patio occupies the incisions into the roof seen from above; its slightly elevated floor permits a better view across and through the living area and allows, reciprocally, the sleeping area feel nested.
The New Carver Apartments address a very different context, a very different program, and a very different budget. Providing essential accommodation for homeless individuals in Downtown Los Angeles, this new structure also exhibits Maltzan’s manipulation of space. His juggling of open and closed forms creates a legible whole tuned to the kinetic reality of the adjacent raised freeway. Like the Pittman Dowell pavilion, the New Carver Apartments gravitate about a patio. Here the patio floor is extruded upward as a stepped, open-air theater. The volume extends up through six stories, overlooked by walkways and wrapped in radiating, cellular apartments.
Each one-room apartment is a tailored if basic dwelling, a case of contemporary existenz minimum tethered to dramatic communal space. This vertical court is sheltered from noise, sun, and unwarranted social interference. In plan, the rooms rotate about the central rotunda, splaying outward, as do many natural organisms, toward daylight. Internally, the rotunda is draped in ribbon-like metal tubes that instigate a virtual vortex ascending to the sky. Apartments have orthodox rectilinear windows to the exterior. Only special rooms, such as the recreation lounge at freeway level, have larger openings communing panoramically with the city.
If two other recently completed Maltzan projects - the vast Leona Drive Residence and the bucolic Playa Vista Park - utilize changes in level to create surprisingly complex topographies, the Pittman Dowell Residence and the New Carver Apartments manipulate their plans to instigate movement and exploration of their respective worlds. Whether designing for two or for a hundred inhabitants, this strategy allows for internal economy and for the creation of surprise and a certain resultant energy. Complexity in plan is somewhat belied by the reserved exterior expression; yet each multifaceted carapace gives its project a distinct presence in context.
Both carapaces are almost uniformly white, inside and out. Occasionally a dramatic solid color is introduced, like the vibrant yellow used for exterior niches and for entire communal rooms at the New Carver Apartments. Maltzan also uses light, funneling light downward thanks to the metallic vines screening the New Carver patio Downtown or sifting light through the porous white mesh of the Pittman Dowell belvedere. Furthermore, views may be choreographed, or staged, as with the curious oval window for Pittman and Dowell, a cylindrical erosion penetrating the pavilion to connect - almost anamorphically - the blue-tiled bathroom to the great Stone Pine above.
Maltzan’s work is about habitation in this often chaotic world, habitation that is never static or sedentary but mobile. Even when his buildings are monolithic and have distinct sculptural presence, they typically have multifarious aspects, moments or incidents, so that they are never anonymous. Irrespective of budget, he introduces diagonal vectors (a ramp, a canopy, a canted wall, linear light fixtures) that entice the building user or visitor onwards. Maltzan’s architecture facilitates human experience, for Angelenos of radically different socio-economic backgrounds. Thus this always elegant work has surprisingly political implications.
In the early days of modernism, Adolf Loos famously differentiated the public or civic façade of a building from the private, family life behind. A century ago in Vienna, such facades were most likely experienced on foot or from a streetcar. High Modernists such as Neutra - a key Vienna/LA connection - dissembled that relationship, universalizing the flow of space between inside and out and incorporating the automobile. In these two radically different commissions, Michael Maltzan achieves a synthesis that provides shelter as well as multiple possibilities for visual interaction with the ever-changing outside world. They are simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal. The public and the private inflect each other.