Barton Myers flew supersonic fighters for the US Air Force before launching his practice, but, as an architect, his feet are firmly on the ground. His first mentor was Louis Kahn, and his respect for the classic tradition is demonstrated in a succession of award-winning theaters that were inspired by the opera houses of Italy. The horseshoe plan is given a fresh spin and movable sections allow it to be reconfigured to serve different needs. That fusion of past and present enriches the varied output of a modernist who shares the pioneers’ dream of rational building and of designs that can be easily replicated. Over the past decade, Myers has explored those ideals in a series of steel houses: a concept he first employed in 1970 while practicing in Toronto. Myers insists that every house he designs be prototypical, spatially interesting, and express the spirit of the era in which it is built. All three conditions are plainly evident in the live-work space he built for himself and his wife, Victoria, at the head of a canyon in Montecito, about 130 km north-west of Los Angeles. As the name suggests, the wooded hills and benign climate evoke the Italian Riviera. The prevailing style of building is “Mediterranean” - pale-toned stucco and red roof tiles. The Myers had been living in such a house in the Hollywood Hills, and wanted to make a fresh start. To conserve the beauty of the landscape and save its trees, Myers decided to put his studio near the top of the steep slope, a guesthouse and garage below, and the main house on a level pad between. Each looks out to the distant blur of the ocean and at night to illuminated oil rigs glittering like fireflies in the Santa Barbara Channel. Inspiration came from many sources. “I began thinking about early Wright houses, Schindler’s studio-house in West Hollywood, the Barcelona Pavilion of Mies van der Rohe - simple arrangements of walls enclosing living spaces and gardens,” Myers recalls. That was one source of ideas; another was Monticello, the house Thomas Jefferson built for himself on a Virginia hilltop, which was inspired by the villas of Palladio and gave its name to this place in California. “The Palladian villas have magnificent proportions and they stay cool and airy in the height of summer,” says Myers. Another important source was the house and studio that Charles and Ray Eames built for themselves on an oceanfront meadow in 1949. Myers specified a steel post and beam structure for some of the same reasons as the Eameses: it allowed him to enclose large volumes without a significant increase in cost, it gave him flexibility in the way the pieces came together as well as precision in the execution, and it allowed the frame to be erected quickly in a remote location. And he speculated that this singular house might serve as a prototype for high-density affordable housing. Lofty steel-framed pavilions have roll-up sectional glass doors opening onto terraces, and roll-down steel shutters to provide security when the owners are away, to protect from brush fires, and screen the sun. As an added safeguard and to insulate the interiors from the heat of summer, each flat roof serves as a shallow pool, containing water that is re-circulated from uphill storage tanks. Nature conditions the air, and a lap pool runs along the edge of the guesthouse roof. “I didn’t want to use any wood, but my contractor was reluctant to use steel studs with a heavy load of water on the roof in an earthquake zone,” Myers explains. “You get better seismic action out of wood and the connections are better. However, we decided to create a hybrid, employing a steel frame for the studio and the living areas of the two houses, and a wood frame clad in stucco for the low bedroom wings to the rear. Both structures worked equally well in supporting the water and we took full advantage of manufactured components that can be flexibly configured on site. The studio is two-thirds the width and the same height as the main house, and uses the same hardware. I wanted it to be as repetitive and efficient as possible, and that held the cost down to a minimum.” The poetry is in the details and the way the buildings mirror and absorb the landscape. Shutter containers play the role of lintels, and the chains and industrial lamps cast shadows across the soft-toned stucco of the side wings. Simplicity pays off in the interiors. The great luxury is height, which brings 360-degree views and well-balanced light through clerestory windows that frame the hills and trees behind the house. A cantilevered canopy over the south front shuts out the midday sun in summer, but allows it to warm the interior in winter. There is no need for drapes or blinds, for the sides of the canyon form a natural enclosure, and the nearest house is far below. Master and guest bedrooms occupy low wings beside and behind the living area, and are separated by bath and service rooms. These are linked by a corridor that runs behind double-sided book stacks. Unpretentious furnishings and area rugs are scattered across polished concrete floors. As in the Eames House, hard surfaces and sharp angles are softened by the play of light and reflections of greenery. Water spouts from the roof of the guesthouse, creating a soothing murmur. Trees and boulders flank the three pavilions, tying them to the earth. The hillside plantings - grapes, olives, and oranges - are all fruit-bearing, except for the Cyanotis, which blooms white in spring like dogwood. A fence of prickly pear (which contains water) serves as protection against fires. A terrace of decomposed granite mediates between the house and the landscape. Rock cores brought up when caissons were drilled are broken and grouped like fallen Greek columns. The rooftop pool reflects the trees, and the windows reflect light. Both dematerialize the house and point up the beauty of the live oaks and boulders. The house was built at a competitive price, and its boldly exposed, galvanized structure requires little maintenance. It’s as functional as a factory, but its siting and grand proportions evoke classical temples, and it puts a fresh spin on the California tradition of airy porticoes jutting forward from adobe masses. Here, the entire living space becomes the portico, with its welcome shade and constant breezes, and the bedrooms and service core with their solid rear walls suggest an adobe. It is an example of what Richard Neutra called “a machine in the garden,” and the silvery metal plays off the drought-resistant plantings. The Montecito Residence is a short drive from Myers’ own, but the site is radically different. The 340 sq m residence is spit into two parallel wings for living and sleeping, framed by majestic oak trees and large sandstone boulders. Nature and the Japanese-style courtyards landscaped by Rios Clementi Hale Studios soften a structure that is more rigorous and precise than its predecessors. Earlier houses are composites of wood-framed stucco and steel post and beam; the Montecito Residence is all-steel, but for the radiant heated concrete floors. As project architect Thomas Schneider explains, it employs a thicker steel roof deck (11 vs 9 cm) than was used previously, and this allows a 6 m span between columns, eliminating an intermediate beam. The roll-up doors are mechanized and retract into the space that’s framed by the peripheral I beam. A wide clerestory frames a view of the hills on the inner side of the living room, and the other side opens completely to a terrace that is shaded by the three-meter cantilever of the roof deck. Brush fires are an ever-present threat in the canyons, and Myers turned his roofs into a shallow pools to extinguish flying embers and cool the interior. The Montecito Residence is less vulnerable, and here the roof has a shallow pitch to shed rain, and is covered by white, heat-deflecting Sarnafil, a flexible and durable pvc membrane. The thin section of the two wings eliminates the need for air conditioning; cross ventilation keeps the interiors cool on the hottest days. Insulated metal panels, solar collectors and photovoltaic panels further reduce energy consumption. These improvements demonstrate the adaptability of the architect’s concept, and the input of engineer Norman Epstein, a veteran of steel construction who worked on Craig Ellwood’s Case Study houses and his Miesian bridge block for Art Center in Pasadena. If Myers’ own house recalls Greek temples in its only eminence, the 400 sq m House in West Los Angeles is urban and enclosed, walled off from the West Los Angeles street. The structure and materials are essentially similar, but the effect is quite different. “An elegant warehouse” is how the architect describes it. Like Jean Prouvé, and the architects of LA’s postwar Case Study Houses, Myers aims to use as little steel as possible, relying on its inherent strength to create long-span spaces that are handsomely proportioned and resistant to earthquakes. As in the architect’s house, the façade of the double-height living area is composed of glass garage doors that roll up to eliminate the divide between indoors and out, but here they open onto a courtyard. In the benign climate of southern California, as in the Mediterranean littoral, the doors can be left open for much of the day from spring through autumn. To achieve privacy on the corner site, Myers and project architect Thomas Schneider grouped the house, game room, detached guest room and garden around the courtyard. In doing so he was inspired by the house-studio that Rudolph Schindler built for himself and another couple in 1922 in what is now West Hollywood. That radical combination of indoor and outdoor rooms, tilt-up concrete slabs and redwood roofs, is a cherished masterpiece of fresh thinking. Tall hedges enclose its expansive site; here, landscape designer Katherine Glascock compressed the plantings to either side and planted trees to shade the paved courtyard with its lap pool and wall sculpture. Within the lofty great room, a screen wall divides the kitchen from the living and dining areas, and a clerestory to the north balances the natural lighting. Radiant heating is embedded in the polished concrete floor. To the rear, a skylit corridor lined with closets gives access to two small bedrooms and the master-suite at the east end. Like the late Pierre Koenig, Myers has become an outspoken advocate for his favorite material. “Within 40 years of Paxton’s Crystal Palace - prefabricated for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 - steel had revolutionized building technology, but housing lagged behind,” he asserts. “Steel is green - we use locally-sourced beams and panels that are 75 per cent recycled, the frame is quickly erected and is cost-competitive with traditional construction.” Sadly the logic of his arguments makes little impression on commercial builders, most of whom who are committed to 19th-century construction techniques, or a public that is mired in nostalgia for an idealized past.
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