Wayne Ho and his husband, Karl, have two children, Daniel (aged seven), and Isabel (aged five), along with two lively dogs. Five years ago, dreaming about the ideal space in which to house everyone, the couple came across a steep, deserted lot above a busy section of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
There were reasons aplenty why it had gone untouched: The lot had a 45 degree slope, narrow access to the street, and any type of construction would need to conform to strict building codes. The couple took a gamble and bought it.
Fans of John Lautner, the renowned California architect with a penchant for building houses on demanding sites, the couple looked into him online and discovered the author of John Lautner, Architect, Frank Escher, was a partner in the architecture firm Escher GuneWardena. Taking another deep breath, the couple invited the firm's two principals over to their problematic site.
Upon arrival, the architects were informed they would have to pull themselves up the site's cliffside by rope. Eventually both couples—Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena are partners both professionally and personally—reached a plateau. Here they were greeted by the remains of an abandoned, rusting water tank that, like the site itself, once belonged to Los Angeles County.
But the architects turned around, and there was a view stretching over the west side to the ocean. For most Angelenos such a vista is the Holy Grail. At that moment, Escher and GuneWardena knew they had to take the challenge offered to them: They would design this family a house as unique as the site.
After years of delays—satisfying the requirements of an array of building codes took time, and construction itself was tricky—Wayne and Karl and their extended family are in the home the architects designed for them. Yes, it is unusual—a four story pentagon—but they are delighted.
According to Ho, its atypical form conforms to how his family lives. The living quarters, on the middle levels of the 2,380-square-foot house, offer everyone privacy. "They're like a cabin in a ship," he says. The sense of seclusion they offer is in happy contrast to the openness of the glass pavilion on the top floor. Here, floor-to-ceiling windows are interrupted only by slim steel columns, which are embedded in the concrete floor and support the roof. The pavilion lends itself to open living and eating areas ideal for all the small bodies and animals running around. If that's not enough, three glass doors open to allow them to run outside to where the former water tank site is a much-used playground and garden. All of this with a view of Los Angeles that is without parallel.
Arriving at such an unusual plan for a multi-level house inserted into a cliff face did not come easily. Escher and GuneWardena played around with several ideas, including siting the house on the plateau. Another option—the eventual solution—reserved the flat area around the tank for the garden and carved out a good part of the hillside below to make room for a house. "There was a lot of discussion," Ho remembers, "but when Karl and I saw the pentagon shape we loved it."
Excavating a cliffside is a challenge, especially since the building code insists on additional, giant retaining walls to protect houses like Wayne and Karl's from crumbling or waterlogged cliff sides.
Escher and GuneWardena's brilliant idea was to combine the cliff-facing sides of the house with the retaining walls and make them one. And, where you needed windows and glass, put those spaces above the cliff face—i.e. next to the plateau—where such walls would not be required.
Normally, retaining walls are thick and, given how much steel reinforcing is necessary, expensive. To arrive at a more cost-effective and elegant solution, the architects turned to one of the most famous structural engineers in Los Angeles: Andrew Nasser. (Now 80, he still puts in a full day at his Pasadena office.)
Nasser worked out how to give the cliff-facing walls sufficient structural integrity, yet work with the rest of the house. "They are as strong as the cliff was because they are not self-standing like normal retaining walls and gain added strength by being an integral part of the pentagon," Nasser said. He was further instrumental in pushing the design through the city. (Nasser's argument that a pentagon was intrinsically stronger than a cube, however, had to be discarded as building officials would only consider plans for a four-sided structure.)
Weighing additional code restrictions, such as how far from the lot line, the street, and an excavated cliff side you could build, Escher and GuneWardena determined that they'd need to cut an oddly shaped, 25-foot-high indentation into the cliffside. "It was the shape of this cut that ended up suggesting the shape of the house: the eventual pentagram," said Escher.
GuneWardena, "it is not a perfect pentagram," GuneWardena acknowledged, "but to the naked eye it looks very close."
Because the northeastern side of the house had to function as a retaining wall, it had to be concrete. The rest of the house would have to be the same. Luckily, they turned out to love the look and feel of raw concrete.
The house's pentagonal form, however, presented many challenges. Especially after Escher Gunewardena determined that the lower rooms, hallways and staircases should conform to rectangular norms.
Another battle in this Rubik's cube of a design challenge was how to offset the feeling of enclosure on the lower floors and the openness of the pavilion above. The solution was to highlight these extremes by allowing bursts of light to illuminate the top and bottom of the staircase that wends its way up the house. It is this interior light that beckons you whether you are going up or down.
Soon, this staircase will not be the only way to get up and down. A small elevator is being installed to zip them, or elderly guests, immediately up from the 700-square-foot garage to the pavilion floor above. And, of course, the spectacular view of the city it affords. "I assure you," Ho notes, "it'll be a lot better than that rope."