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Old September 24th, 2006, 03:43 AM   #1
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Marvel or monster?
The hyper-architectural redos in Mar Vista have some residents scratching their heads and squawking their contempt. The debate is about views, privacy, taste and the right to build a dream home — neighbors be damned.
By Bettijane Levine and Craig Nakano, Times Staff Writers
September 21, 2006

TO some, it's the home of the future: an intriguing two-story jewel box with an atrium delivering sparkling light to glass-walled rooms, ecologically sensitive and built on a challenging urban lot just 25 feet wide.

To neighbors and passersby, however, the house only prompts questions: What is it? Miniature factory? Bomb shelter? Goth barn? Approach the structure on foot, they say, and what at first seems inventive and artfully minimalist begins to feel bigger, bolder, almost confrontational. In the eyes of one neighbor, mean. "It's a nightmare," he says. "A monster."

ADVERTISEMENTYet the American Institute of Architects named it one of the best new single-family residences in the country. And therein lies the debate. Some residents of this Westside district say the recent evolution of the real estate market has spawned a new species: the Mar Vista monster house. Built to maximize square footage on modest lots and often designed in a modern style that's a distinct departure from the post-World War II cottages and ranch homes that have long defined the neighborhood, the new homes of Mar Vista represent broader changes — aesthetic, demographic and cultural. The resulting conflicts have even made their way to film, most recently in writer-director Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money," in which a Westside remodeler symbolizes what Holofcener sees as a growing sense of entitlement.

The mansionization of this formerly modest neighborhood has some locals decrying the changing character of the place they call home. The award-winning jewel box, dubbed the Coconut House by its creators, is just one example of new designs in Mar Vista that pose difficult ethical questions: Do homeowners and architects have a responsibility to build homes that aren't too big or radically different in style? To respect others' views? To be a considerate neighbor?


THE story of the Coconut House begins with its owner, Brenda Bergman, 57. She arrived in L.A. from Ohio, fresh from high school and recently married. The union was brief, but her love for L.A. endured. She found work in the escrow business and saved to buy her first house. In 1976 she discovered Mar Vista, its balmy ocean breezes and its lack of pretentiousness.

No one can seem to agree on precise boundaries, though many define the neighborhood by the ZIP Code 90066. The neighborhood had been developed in the 1940s to offer small, low-cost housing for soldiers returning from war. For the five decades that followed, it was an "adjacent to" neighborhood, as in adjacent to Marina del Rey, Venice and Santa Monica.

In '76, Bergman and a partner could barely afford their 800-square-foot house on a lot that was 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep. About 10 years later, Bergman says, she bought the house outright from her partner.

Her goal was to fix the place up, and she tried. "But whatever I did was like putting a little Band-Aid on a big wound," Bergman says. "The house needed new roof, new plumbing, new everything. It was too small, poorly laid out, too dark."

She saved money from each paycheck. Another decade passed, and she had almost $200,000 put away for remodeling. A Realtor friend recommended architects Cara Lee and Stephan Mundwiler, a Santa Monica-based husband-and-wife team. Both were touched by their first meeting with Bergman.

"She was such a hard-working person, nothing pretentious about her," Lee recalls. "And her motives were so pure. She never once mentioned real estate values or future profits. She just wanted someplace wonderful to live her life."

The architects declined Bergman's request for a remodel, however. So much was wrong with the structure, they felt the cost-effective solution was to tear it down and start anew. They said the project would cost a bundle, perhaps $500,000 or more.

Bergman considered moving to another house in the neighborhood, but prices had already risen, she says. Anything affordable would have required remodeling anyway. So she went back to Lee and Mundwiler, who had prepared two models.

"I knew immediately," Bergman says, "I wanted the house with the atrium."

The plan she chose features a two-story central courtyard that forms the home's core. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels slide and fold, opening all rooms to sun and sea breezes. Whereas homes traditionally have windows on the second floor facing the street, Lee and Mundwiler kept the facade solid, to reduce traffic noise in Bergman's master bedroom. Instead, the atrium delivers fresh air and light to the second floor.

"This project," noted the American Institute of Architects jury, "does a wonderful job of making you feel like you're living outdoors while sitting in your living room."

Bergman isn't alone in her aspirations. Dozens of other homes in the area have been built in a distinctly contemporary style defined by clean lines, minimal embellishment and facades clad in the now-ubiquitous horizontal-slat wood paneling.

"The neighborhood has changed a lot, particularly in the last five years," says architect David Crandall, who has lived in Mar Vista since 1984. "Many of the houses are Spanish — Mediterranean, if you want to call it that. Some look like Motel 6s."

Crandall and his wife wanted to take a different route. They completed construction on their own house less than a year ago, replacing a nondescript 1,200-square-foot house with an industrial-tinged, 2,800-square-foot structure whose corrugated metal façade, he says, reflects the warm glow of sunset.

"Everyone who talked with us had something nice to say," says Crandall, who lived on-site in an Airstream trailer during the year-long construction. "They were very supportive of us. I suspect those who didn't just kept their mouths shut."

Ask relative newcomer Michael Cruz if anyone objects to the four-bedroom, four-bathroom modern house on Palms Boulevard that he bought two years ago, and he says no.

"When I talk with neighbors, many are happy that architectural homes are going up. They see it as a good thing because property values rise," Cruz says, adding that his next-door neighbor even volunteers to watch his dog when Cruz needs to leave town.

ADVERTISEMENTBut walk down the hill and around the corner, and some residents who live behind Cruz's three-story, 4,000-square-foot home have trouble voicing much enthusiasm.

"It is a concern with privacy," says one woman who declined to provide her name. When she and her husband moved in three years ago during summer, trees provided some semblance of privacy. Then winter came, and "poof" — leaves fell, and the three-story home loomed from above.

"You want to be able to be comfortable in your backyard without feeling like someone's always watching you," she says, adding that she has no objections to the style of Cruz's house — only its size. "Sure, everyone wants to take advantage of views, but when you go three stories, it puts a damper on everyone."


NEARBY on Thermo Street, Cathy Walters' single-story ranch house is painted a stately gray and crisply trimmed in black and white — a stark contrast to the house next door, a four-story tower that glows bright pink.

"When a young couple bought it, I thought for sure they would paint it," says Walters, an interior designer. "But it turns out they loved the pink. They call it the Pepto Palace."

She says her neighbors seem nice enough, so she's careful choosing words, though at one point she lets the word "hideous" slip out.

"The only advantage is that I can't see it from my house," she says with a laugh, adding that all her windows facing that neighbor have opaque glass. "I don't have an objection to modern houses. That one is just way out of proportion to the rest of the neighborhood."

Nowhere, however, are the issues of style and scale more evident than at the Coconut House. If Bergman's interior seems to sparkle like a diamond, then the exterior rises like a laser-chiseled chunk of rock. Inky brown-black panels of laminated composite board form a tough exterior. Few windows are visible to the street.

The architects use the metaphor of a coconut — a dark shell masking a luminous interior — but some neighbors liken it to a fortress that turns a cold shoulder to its surroundings, the architectural equivalent of a four-letter expletive hurled at anyone within earshot.

"People are offended by that thing," says a man who identifies himself only as Steve, who grew up next door in the house where his mother still lives. He says the radical design is better suited for the Venice canals, where unconventional architecture is more the norm and neighbors might appreciate experiments with form.

"Do I hate the lady who built it? No. She's not my enemy," he says during an expletive-laden critique of Bergman's house. "I just wish she didn't build this house here."

Style isn't his only complaint. On a cramped street, architects Lee and Mundwiler needed a 6-inch variance from Bergman's neighbors in order to carry out their plan for 1,800 square feet of living space on the 2,500-square-foot lot. The architects didn't anticipate any problems because the footprint of the new home was actually smaller than the existing structure.

Steve and his mother refused to sign off on the easement, however, saying the height and proximity of the addition would cut off their views of the night sky. The dispute went to a Planning Department appeals panel, where both sides made their case. Bergman won. And the two neighbors — friends for more than 30 years — haven't spoken since.

Many of Bergman's neighbors have no objection with the house, though they aren't quite sure how such a large structure was allowed on a small lot, let alone rewarded with a national design award.

Of 115 submissions for the American Institute of Architects' 2006 housing honors, the Coconut House was one of only five single-family homes to be cited. The jury consisted of four architects and an editor from Architectural Record who reviewed photos of designs but did not consider the effect on neighbors.

Jury chairwoman Kerry Dietz was out of town and unavailable for comment, but jury member David Baker, a San Francisco architect, says complaints about the Coconut House's design merely reflect resistance to change.

"There is a tendency in people to kill the things that are different," he says. "If they're not used to it, they tend to think it's wrong. That's like saying everyone should wear the same jumpsuits in the same color, or eat the same type of food, or write the same type of prose. I hate to use the word fascist, but it's scary that people would want homes to all be the same."

Local residential designers point out that much of the old housing stock in Mar Vista is neither historically significant nor architecturally distinctive. For newcomers to the neighborhood, where two-bedroom, one-bath cottages start around $700,000 and a three-bedroom fixer with an ocean view can go on the market for $2 million, maximizing square footage is the smartest way to make use of their investment.

Perhaps no one is more strongly linked to the anti-mansionization movement than architect Sarah Susanka, who has parlayed her 1998 book, "The Not So Big House," into a cottage industry that spreads the gospel of building smaller but smarter.

ADVERTISEMENT"I've worked with a number of clients who entered my office and basically said they wanted a house that was the best on the street," she says. "I had to do a lot of work to convince them that 'bigger' and 'better' are not the same thing."

"Contextualism" is key, she says. If a street is lined with two-story homes with nine-foot ceilings, all it takes is one two-story house with 12-foot ceilings to spoil the harmony. "Suddenly roof lines don't line up, the second-floor windows seem off-kilter," Susanka says. The sense of visual order that might have initially attracted someone to the street has been disrupted.

"Yes, this is America, and yes, your home is your castle, but you have to be aware of your neighborhood and your surroundings," says architect Patrick Sullivan, a retired professor at Cal Poly Pomona and coauthor of "Ethics and the Practice of Architecture."

Professors, he says, urge students to develop a new form. But he believes unconventional modern architecture is best suited to Venice, or perhaps Santa Monica. "If you tried to do that in Claremont, where I live," Sullivan says, "you'd start a war."

Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, goes even further. He says these ethical issues reflect fundamental shifts in culture: a disparity between rich and poor, a disregard for environmental resources and a growing disrespect for limits.

"In times past, even wealthy people usually didn't go over the top. It was considered bad form," he says. "Those kinds of social constraints seem to have disappeared."


HOMEOWNERS and architects alike should focus less on what's legally allowed and more on how a structure will affect the next-door neighbor, the street and the neighborhood as a whole, says Fisher, whose current scholarship focuses on architectural ethics.

"If a patient comes in to see the doctor and says, 'I'm obese and a chain smoker, make me healthy, do surgery,' a proper response is to suggest that the patient deal with the excess of his consumption," Fisher says. "The same is true in architecture: There's an excess of consumption. At some point, the profession, the community and society at large has to say, 'Maybe you can afford to do it, but you need to show restraint, because what you do affects us all.' "

Filmmaker Holofcener sees the supersized homes as a symptom of some Angelenos' sense of entitlement.

"There's nothing wrong with a family wanting more space, but at the expense of another's?" she asks. "It's amazing to me how people can rationalize what they deserve."

If Holofcener's characters represent the selfish, then Tom and Charlene Hall represent the selfless. The couple bought their Stoner Avenue lot, a cul-de-sac perch with 180-degree views that stretched to downtown L.A., in 1946. They have raised children in the house — grandchildren too. They have seen Mar Vista transform from working-class neighborhood to "Brentwood South," Tom says.

Their neighbors recently remodeled a single-story house into a two-story, 5,000-square-foot home that cuts off much of the Halls' view. The couple says the owner of the lot behind their house also is planning a multistory expansion that probably will block another part of their panorama.

"My husband says, 'It's OK. We've had the view for 50 years.' " Charlene says. "I guess we can let someone else have it for a while."

Steve, the Coconut House neighbor, is taking a different approach. Someday, he says, he's going to expand his mother's house too. The new house will be even bigger and bolder than Bergman's, he says. "Then she can get a taste of what that feels like."
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Old September 24th, 2006, 05:00 AM   #2
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Oh yea, I can picture myself living here with my Bonatti Grey supercharged Range Rover parked in my driveway. Now that's what you call, living it up, LA style...... Yay!!!!
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Old September 24th, 2006, 05:36 AM   #3
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There's nothing better than Frank Gehry's house, for sure.

I just don't get what people see in that kind of architecture.
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Old September 24th, 2006, 05:57 PM   #4
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I like alot of what I see lately, especially the modern classics along the Venice Canals. Though I would have to admit that many of these houses do come off as cold and uninviting. This is certainly an "LA thing".
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Old September 25th, 2006, 08:39 AM   #5
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My boss lives in Mar Vista and we carpooled to work last week. I would go drop my car off at his place then we would head off to the other side of the city afterwards. The only problem is that I had to park nearly a block away because the street was full of cars from construction workers cars from all houses in and around his block. It is utterly amazing, the amount of mcmansions in that area and ever more so with the amount currently being built. I really like the feel of the neighborhoods where it is just the 40s era cottages/bungalows minus the huge tuscan villas. it really is too bad since most of the homes that are being rebuilt are just being flipped. Why couldnt the buyers just find a home in a neighborhood that already has giant homes already built and not ruin the integrity of a classic neighborhood?
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Old September 25th, 2006, 09:21 AM   #6
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if your gona spend that much on a spec of land. why not have it your way? after all it works for the king
go silver line go!!!
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Old September 25th, 2006, 09:35 AM   #7
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I believe if the residents in Mar Vista had a problem with these type of modern homes, they would of done the same thing as the residents in Hancock Park. They pass some kind of ordinance to keep home owners from changing the look of the homes in the community. That's why I'm glad in the Westchester area you can do what ever you want to your home (R1) area off course. That's why most older craftman homes are being demolished, to make way for brand new 3,000 plus sq ft of living space homes. Since most lots in the area are around 7,000~8,000 sq ft.
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Old September 25th, 2006, 04:55 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Ferneynism
I believe if the residents in Mar Vista had a problem with these type of modern homes, they would of done the same thing as the residents in Hancock Park. .
This is Mar Vista we're talking about here.
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