October 1, 2012

Poolside Manner: David Martin’s LA Poolhouse

It’s no secret that architecture is a profession of delayed gratification for both practitioner and client. In this case, however, delayed gratification was still in the equation, but architect and client were one and the same. David Martin, third-generation principal of AC Martin Partners, waited nearly a decade to complete his lap pool and pool house. That was after he spent six years designing and building the main house, which he completed in 2001. The 5,000-square-foot residence sits in a piazza like setting on 2.5 wooded acres in Rustic Canyon, a beach-adjacent enclave of Los Angeles. But the pool and the little house, which doubles as a design studio, were included in the overall scheme from day one.

“If you want a piazza, you need a village around it,” Martin starts off. References to the European archetype come easily to him, since he spent four months abroad surveying community spaces when he was a recent graduate on a traveling fellowship from Columbia University. Martin also acknowledges a link to Peter Zumthor’s Hotel Therme Vals in the Swiss Alps, having made the pilgrimage several times. “The lesson there was all about the glamour of swimming and the shower,” he recalls.

But the real genesis came from his wife. A swimmer, Mary Klaus Martin had been on the Olympic track when she was young. She ultimately became an All American triathlete, completing more than 20 national and international events. “The 25-yard pool was a serious requirement,” her husband notes.

Siting the pool house, Martin had to work around an immense palm tree, almost dead center, and mature eucalyptus trees. “It wanted to be simple,” the architect says of the single-story structure’s linear composition. “The main element is the concrete,” referring to the material used for the facades and retaining walls. Nothing is entirely straightforward, though, when a building is situated at the edge of a steep hill. Before those walls could go up, caissons had to go down—some 20 feet—to support the pool and the back of the house, which extends over the drop.

Then, there’s the sense of layering. Martin achieves it through honest, strong materials, ones that nod to those used in the main house, so that the two structures espouse different but complementary aesthetics. The roof of the 400-square-foot studio/pool house is zinc. A series of wide glass pivot doors puncture the poured-concrete front facade, which extends past the studio to form a freestanding beam-and column screen like a streamlined Stonehenge. Behind it, a translucent cube of etched-glass panels encloses a shower. The lap pool, which seems cantilevered out over the hillside, starts here; at its other end is Martin’s homage to Luis Barragn: a stainless-steel scupper with water spilling over to a small concrete trough below.

The shower cube evokes water imagery of its own. A study in precision, its glass panels float in a support system of steel blades and spacers, all bolted to a stainless-steel framework. The play of opaque and transparent continues on the interior, which is outfitted with probably the tidiest washbasin and shower fittings you’ve ever seen. Clear glass panels forming the barely there roof provide the least possible barrier to the open sky, while the sturdy limestone floor slabs are reminiscent of a holistic spa.

Those slabs spill over to the studio’s interior, which reveals the couple’s penchant for classic mid-century furnishings and contemporary art. For the sitting area, Klaus Martin assembled a Le Corbusier sofa, an Eileen Gray chair and abstract rug, and a folding table by Andree Putman.

Behind them, a Mariano Fortuny lamp is practically one with an 8-foot-square Roy Lichtenstein mixed media, a work obtained almost by default. David Martin relates the story: “It was bought in the 1960’s for the executive floor of a bank. They hated it. Then it was moved to the employees’ cafeteria. They hated it. So the art consultant called and asked me to make an offer. I did, and it wasn’t much.” No such serendipity with the Billy Al Bengston acrylic on paper, however: The couple bought it to hang over the Douglas-fir credenza and wet bar just days prior to our shoot.

It all adds up to people spending lots of hours here. Of course Martin does; it’s where, when not at the office, he can add to his prolific outpouring of project sketches—including ones for an amphitheater he has planned for his property—as well as watercolors done for his own pleasure. It’s also turned out to be a venue for crits and meetings for the AC Martin design teams—a welcome alternative to the firm’s high-rise headquarters in downtown L.A. Project drawings are taped to the wall and staffers gather around a generous Douglas-fir table to discuss them. No word on whether they take a dip in the pool, too.

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