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CLIENT: Witheld

SITE: On a steeply sloping hillside ‘stair’ lot

PROGRAM: Studio home for two plus one

SIZE: 1,100 ft2

COST: Witheld


NOTES: Wood framing on WF and TS steel frame, cast-in-place concrete basement and foundations

PROJECT TEXT: Like many cities, LA was originally platted and gridded without regard for the topography. And LA’s topography is misleadingly hilly—in fact, LA has one of the steepest grades from highest to lowest points of any city in the world. In some areas the grid has produced streets that go straight up a hill or off a cliff, through the air across valleys, and lots that are themselves sloping too steeply to build or inaccessible by these fictive roads. To cope with some of these conditions the LA planners instituted a system of “stair streets” that provide steeper, pedestrian-only access to lots otherwise orphaned by this meeting of grid and terrain. The present lot is one such, reached by stairs from a small cul-de-sac of old bungalows in a wrinkle south of the Silver Lake Reservoir.

The bi-part design of this small spec house has been shaped by the extreme steepness of the site and the presence of landslide tendencies below the ground. The steepness has resulted in a lack of car access, but has also removed the attendant need for driveway or garage; the geological fragility has led to a small, narrow footprint running along the fall line of the site. The planning department rules say that the lack of parking limits the size of the allowable construction to far less than typical for a lot of this size, so the usual side-, front- and backyard setbacks do not limit the design or layout. This layout floats diagonally across the lot. Together the size limitations and steepness have produced an island of architecture in a sea of space too steep to occupy and too slippery to terraform for occupation. Since for these reasons there is little usable outdoor space, the design brings the topography inside, with a terraced interior that climbs up the hill, doubled within the hovering turret.

The form of this turret itself is created by lofting between three light-gathering apertures arranged on the hillside and directed at the primary views. This produces a form which follows the hillside, appearing to hover just above the surface, and obscures any sense of the interior layout or floor levels. It also leads to interesting geometric/optical effects, similar to axonometric projections, that further complicate the normative reading of floor levels that so often determines the shape and character of hillside dwellings. The turret hosts the main living spaces of the house that terrace up the interior, as well as a sleeping loft/bedroom between the roof poché (terraced at right angles to the spaces below) and the eye of the uppermost aperture. The concrete base, let into the hillside, houses the main bedroom space, bathroom and an internal micro-courtyard. Connecting the two is a steel stair that winds back and forth between the entry level and lowest two terraces and basement.

The effect is a combination treehouse and cave, the two archetypal forms of human habitation. These types of environments precede the invention of programmatically defined areas, artificially divided up by walls, and support the activities of the dwellers more fluidly, flexibly. This character is particularly evident in the upper, turret section, where the entire space is open and all of the surfaces have become habitable, or at least useful, blurring the distinction between floors, walls and ceilings. The space is defined “naturally,” by the terraced levels, adjacency to fixtures or appliances, and proximity to the light and views through the apertures, rather than by walls and doors.