The J.J. Mulvihill House, 1949, and the John T. Lyle Studio, 1986, is the story of two structures by two architect-educators of different generations but like minds. Both designers were deeply concerned with connecting to and working with the genius loci of this hillside site. Each was deeply respectful of historical precedent yet confidently departed from it to create an empathetic dialogue among two buildings and one shared site.
Like an ocean liner poised on a promontory, the J.J. Mulvihill House is a powerful horizontal form against its mountainous backdrop. Its prow of glass, grey-green painted redwood, and red brick sails into space high above its hillside landscape and the the unending carpet known as greater Los Angeles. Designed by master architect Harwell Hamilton Harris (1903 – 1990) in 1949, the 2,000-square-foot, three-level home celebrates Harris’s multivalent approach to architecture. Trained in the fine arts and sculpture, his love of form-making here never loses sight of the logic of interior spaces that flow and connect, with not an inch of wasted space (like Harris’s mentor and early employer Richard Neutra, a concern for storage was not a banal topic fit only for lesser mortals but a very Modern opportunity to adroitly serve a postwar family.) A long covered walkway leads to the front door on the middle level, flanked by the original bamboo grove, a gentle slope of lavender and drought-tolerant arctotheca and, lower down, a large redwood tree that anchors the southwest corner of the lot. The top floor contains two bedrooms and the “winter living room,” according to the recollections of the Lyles, who hosted Harris at a dinner party in 1982 at their new home. He designed the room to feel like the deck of a ship: the glass-walled room, lined with low bookcases around the perimeter, indeed feels expansive. A large ridge beam extends through the house and outside to support an open wood trellis that extends from the gable roof, acting as a shading device.
Mounting the stairs from the entry below, an open-shelf bookcase momentarily frustrates the view of the living room with its brick fireplace, a strategy that Harris intentionally employed to not give everything away at once, to savor the delayed gratification of the extraordinary view. This zig-zagging of elements to slow the body’s procession is a strategy that Neutra and another mentor, Rudolf Schindler, used. The antithesis of Beaux Arts axiality, it is a beloved practice in Japanese landscape design, seen in Kyoto’s aristocratic villas of centuries past.
Directly underneath this high-ceilinged “winter living room,” as Harris called one of two living spaces, the ground floor level contains the “summer living room,” a sheltered but outdoor room open on the east and west to “nature near” and cross breezes. With a concrete floor and its own brick fireplace, the summer living room is a congenial chameleon, whether used as an alternative outdoor office protected in rain or shine, or used to extend entertaining from the adjacent glass-walled dining room.
Tucked into the hillside, the lowest level floor with its private suite of bedroom and ¾ bath opens out to Lyle’s first contribution to the site: interlocking terraces of brick or gravel, concrete planters, steps of railroad ties, stairways, earthen paths, and benches that collectively feel relaxed, as though they have always been there, but of course is a highly designed composition. A stone-clad lily pond is healthy with koi. (Bears sometimes wander down to the San Gabriel foothill communities, but apparently may have yet to learn to fish: according to Mrs. Lyle, they’ve never actually caught any of the koi that fascinate them.)
Paths are intended to recall a river running down the hill, and also to recall nearby Eaton Canyon with its native plants and topography. The whole design is the award-winning “regenerative garden” designed by master landscape architect John T. Lyle (1934 – 1998.) It demonstrates how to create a low-maintenance garden with native materials and edible plants such as citrus trees, all part of Lyle’ work as a professor of environmental and landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Below these dynamic yet quiet spaces, the landscape suddenly changes into the shady riparian woodland centered around a gnarled old Engelmann oak, the third of the three different landscape that co-exist on this .38-acre parcel. The oak is located next to Lyle’s other contribution to the site: the studio/office/guest suite, here demonstrating regenerative building. In deference to the Harris building above, the studio is located to the side of the site. Lyle oriented the windows to face south into the oak woodland, rather than up to the potentially looming house, and used an elongated, red-stained concrete terrace to bridge hillside and building.
Given the studio’s sharp roof angles and apparently random custom windows of all shapes and sizes, at first glance the studio is a far cry from to Harris’s calm, boxy volume above. Just inside the wood-framed glass walls on the ground floor, gravel and concrete sections store the sun’s heat for winter. Alternatively, unwanted heat can be released though a slatted area in the floor above that houses the guest bedroom and ¾ bath suite. Air can continue to rise up the light-filled shaft and escape through an operable rhombus-shaped window at the top of the shaft, while below, a tightly wound, bright red spiral staircase leads down to the small but comfortable office whose double-stacked glass doors lead to the woodland.
Both buildings are good examples of how the past can inform the present without dictating it. The Mulvihill House is among a group of postwar houses that Harris designed that claim the rustic refinements of California architects Bernard Maybeck and Charles and Henry Greene and builder Louis B. Easton, characterized by natural redwood siding, low hipped or gable roofs, groups of windows, brick and stone … but is nonetheless Modern. Like Harris, Lyle used vertically oriented redwood board and the older architect’s famous three-foot module for many windows, a scale that feels less monumental, more “human” than the conventional four-foot module that is based on common American building materials. But to be successful, the architect must venture beyond her or his predecessors.
In a far-ranging 1959 interview intended to reveal the inner psychology of leading architects, conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, Harris described himself as a shy, even timid person. The man who found joy as a sculptor and in the fine arts came to architecture only because he recognized sculpture in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House, and thereby the opportunity for self-expression. The second building to impress Harris was the astonishing Jardinette Apartments, 1928, a building still considered one of the most severe expressions of the International Style. Designed by Neutra in partnership with Schindler, it was Neutra who persuaded the tentative Harris to forego architecture school and to come work for him at Schindler’s renowned 1922 Kings Road House. And Harris was reportedly well-loved by his clients because of his low-key, gentle demeanor. The 1959 interviewer writes that “Harris is one architect that I would hire to design my house He seems to be very honest, conscientious, and extremely interested in working with the client to get the right design.” Still waters ran deep: by contrast, Harris consistently spoke of architecture thrilling, strongly emotional, stimulating. The presence of Lyle and Harris are still here, still conversing about the adventure of architecture through building and site. Genius loci, plus some.