February 1, 2010

For Art’s Sake: An Encino House Gets An Airy Modern Addition

Encino has pockets of mid-century houses. But this San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles is generally lacking in cutting-edge design of a more recent vintage.

A car ride up curving Sapphire Drive dispels that impression. Dramatically bridging the 1960’s and today is a glass-and-steel gallery added to an Edward H. Fickett—designed ranch house. This addition is the work of Xten Architecture, the husband-wife firm of Austin Kelly and Monika Häfelfinger.

The house’s owners are Fred Reisz, a lawyer and an early member of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and his wife, Julie, who have two children. The couple started out with a clear picture of their needs. First, a home office and a family room. Second, space for a growing collection of art by such names as Robert Mapplethorpe, Uta Barth, and Hiroshi Sugito—the 3,000-square-foot main house was full-up. What the Reiszes did not have was an priori image or, for that matter, an idea about an architect. Instead, they went about selecting a firm the same way they approach collecting: Friendship with the artist comes first, the purchase later. “We met through neighbors we’d done an addition for,” Kelly says.

Client encouragement and open-mindedness get much of the credit for the project’s dramatic form. A simple art barn was definitely out. Kelly recalls the Reiszes saying, “Show us everything you’re thinking. Unedited. Do what you think is best.” Part of what Xten does best is to explore design’s potential. He and Häfelfinger showed up at the first presentation with different options. . .30 of them. The architects then spread out foam-core models on the dining table in a manner replicating what the Reiszes do with paintings under consideration.

During that very meeting, the foursome determined on a 1,500-square-foot volume that was both distinct from and referential to the T shape of the main house—a trapezoid that juts out from the junction between the base and the top of the T. “Fred and Julie realized that going up would be the solution for their project,” Häfelfinger says. “Lifting most of the structure 14 feet off the ground minimized the footprint besides providing space underneath for a carport and a surface for video projections.” (She’s referring particularly to a video installation by her sister Kathryn Häfelfinger. The Reiszes purchased it soon after the addition was complete.) Freeing the ground plane also gave the family a new play area and art-party setting.

Differences between the main house and the addition are expressed not only through geometry but also through materials. The woodsy warmth of the ranch, with its exposed Douglas fir beams and its board-and-batten redwood siding, stands in marked contrast to the coolness of the addition, which combines steel moment frames and concrete shear walls with factory-built steel trusses assembled on-site in one day’s time. Huge glass panels, coated with a nano-ceramic film to protect the artwork, appear to float free. They’re supported only by the top and bottom of the framework; no bolts, screws, or cables are visible either. “The focus,” Kelly notes, “should be on the views—the eucalyptus trees and the mountains—and inside on the art.”

Literal connection between the two structures comes via a stair hall, where the ebonized wooden flooring of the main house transitions into an espresso-brown quartz composite. A few steps in, the staircase itself reinterprets the addition’s construction on a micro level, with steel-plate treads and a white powder-coated perforated steel balustrade. “The welding of the balustrade and treads is like a truss,” Kelly explains. “It’s one structural piece, with no bolts or channels.” At the top of the stair are the office and family room. (Only a bathroom and a laundry room are below.)

Furnishings presented a challenge. Try standing up to a 7-by-8-foot, pink-and-blue oil on canvas, the introductory artwork at the foot of the stair. Or the orange-and-yellow diamond-shape acrylic in the family room. Or, for that matter, the totemlike contemporary sculpture given pride of place in the office. Here, the Reiszes contributed an oak desk from the personal collection of photographer Herb Ritts; Häfelfinger and Kelly added Arne Jacobsen’s executive swivel chairs. In the family room, the architects could do no wrong by mixing European pieces with contributions by three notable Californians: Charles and Ray Eames and Frank Gehry.

Photography by Art Gray.


Jae Rodriguez; Scott Utterstrom; Kevin Wineinger; Claudia Paraschiv: Xten Architecture. Axial Engineering Group: Structural Engineer. Marina Woodcraft: Woodwork. MAK Construction: General Contractor.

Recent Projects