A Double-Loaded House

Zoltan Pali, FAIA

by Andrea Dietz

Current Photographs by Cameron Carothers unless otherwise noted

“They just wouldn’t leave.”

In 2010, participants of a Dwell Home Tour overstayed their visit to Beverly Hills’s Caverhill House. Entranced, mesmerized, they lost themselves to what Don Caverhill, the homeowner, describes as the house vortex – the tendency of the property to lull its occupants both into and out of place. The grab of the house is unexpected. It moves with a slow creep, smoldering from a curbside first impression and flash photoop into an afterimage burn. With longer exposure, the hook permeates deeper still, settling bodily in, until, inexplicably, hours are passed and the sale – of attraction and intrigue – is complete.

The sneaky magnetism and sly capture of the Caverhill House is, perhaps, its umbrella characteristic. Its architecture, presented through clear and rational form, is deceptively simple. It dons the appearance of a horizontal bar building – a skewed, linear box frame infilled by a parade of billboardlike baffles. The primary street volume seemingly levitates over its ground staging, visually cantilevered from a pedestal and distanced from its supports through a series of subtle offsets and material shifts. It comes across as an almost graphic, a stark white wedge that jumps off of its scenic page and packs a punch of contrast. This directness, however, is misleading. The clean, photogenic lines mask a complex of experience and intent.

It is through these hidden depths that the power of the Caverhill House’s mysteriously evolving allure is explained. After all, minimalism, a tenet to which the 2008 Studio Pali Fekete architects (SPF:a) design subscribes, is assumed to be straightforward. Here, though, it acts more like shorthand for a lengthy text. Given the precision with which the composition introduces itself, awakening to this nuance is both perplexing and wondrous.

The intricacies of the residence emanate from two sources – its deftly configured physique and the narratives around which it came to be. The house is a series of illusions and allusions. As object, it plays with appreciations of flat and deep, heavy and light, big and small, route and destination. As idea, it is an overlay of metaphors, personalities, and prescriptions.

It sits on an acrobatic site, straddling a ridge that splits Los Angeles into its poles – mountains to the east, water to the west. Through its positioning, its perceived two dimensionality expands as its signature screen façade draws and focuses the rays of the setting sun and its outline structure becomes a channel or lens for its backdrop. The house, herein, is revealed as device, a camera or window for viewing its surrounds. These same features, sliced away from the earth by an open air garage passage, also tease, with their hovering, the precariousness of the hillside. The defiance of gravity is, of course, a foil – for both mass and scale. Beneath the evident airy of the surface levels, the house digs soundly in and down; a single flying story is actually three embedded in a cradling yard. All of these discoveries are builtin, satisfying conceptional ideals for an environment of carefully crafted and cumulative approach, of gradual unveilings.

The origin tale of the Caverhill House also has its reductive and elaborate versions. In stereotypical architectural fashion, it all (sort of) comes back to a doodle on a scrap of paper. “When Zoltan [Pali] slid his sketch across the table towards me, his hands were shaking,” Don Caverhill describes. “He was nervous that I wouldn’t like it.” Instead, Caverhill was so enamored that the drawing became a project hunt. It was convincing enough that everything was measured against it and intuitive enough to posit a development quandary – pitting impulse and purity against process and reality. The leftover envelope, then, not unlike the end product it inspired, is emblematic, a guise for otherwise extensive negotiations and seasonings.

Caverhill has been collecting beautiful spaces all of his life. From his teenage interest in significant buildings as perfect spots with which to beguile first dates, to his longstanding hobby of picture clipping from architecture magazines, to his developer-lender career ambitions to bring creativity to everyday constructions, he has cultivated an eye for design. “I find good details, good interiors all of the time. But, a truly good envelope is rare,” he explains. “When I came across Zoltan’s Stone Canyon house – with its lean muscle and its disappearing foundation, I jumped.” The 2003 SPF:a Oshry House had met Caverhill’s elusive criteria for external harmony; he made immediate arrangements to engage the architect for his own dream home.

Still, it took awhile before Zoltan Pali understood what Caverhill was after. “He took me out for drinks several times before calling me up and announcing: I’ve got a curveball for you,” Pali muses. What Caverhill wanted, though – a place to love and live in – appealed to Pali. “At the time, everyone was building for the market, to flip… I prefer to design for someone.”

Pali founded SPF:a with his wife Judit Fekete in 1990. Though their work is typologically diverse, spanning the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to the Somis Hay Barn, they have garnered the most attention from their residences. Pali prickles a little bit at this designation. “I don’t want to be typecast… I don’t want to repeat myself. I can’t even bring myself to resurrect unused schemes.” Pali sees his stance as a motivator – to always improve and grow. “I have this notion that I’m going to be good one day. The last project is never it. So, maybe it’s the next one.”

The Caverhill House, then, really spins out of the pull-and push dynamic of two perfectionists, a unique architect-client relationship. After courting Pali, Caverhill entrusted the architect with a meticulous list of expectations and limitations for replacing his existing house. The new abode, nuts and bolts, should accommodate four bedrooms – one a guest suite, one a master suite with a double bath and powder room.

Bathrooms and closets must cluster together. The street level is reserved for gathering only; bedrooms are sanctuaries and require up or down stairwell separation from the main floor. Hallways are not allowed. The structure should be both solid, built of steel, and slim, a low impact injection open to its stunning setting. Intimacy, not grandeur, is the atmospheric goal; double-heights are to be treated as climaxes or avoided as cavernous. And, above all else, quality, from faucets to mechanics, is not to be compromised. “I imagined something simultaneously classic and futurist, a Cotswold cottage for 2075,” Caverhill says of his instructions.

Caverhill analogizes the house with abandon. He likens it to the calligraphic stroke of a Japanese symbol – an elegant release that, through the barest means, conveys emotion and soul. He calls it a Swiss watch – a streamlined and fine-tuned tool uncompromising in its aesthetic and its operation. He sees in it a concentration of his life’s defining, if paradoxical, values. With equal conviction, he interchanges his advocacy for the whimsical and the rigorous, the messy and the pristine. Caverhill, also a musician of some renown, reconciles these extremes in a concept akin to the ostinato, or repetitive backbone of a song. If cogent, such a baseline facilitates the funk, is the underpinning of legendary music . . . and, in turn, of a noteworthy existence.

Pali sympathizes with this conflation of principled opposites. Through his early years working for Jerrold Lomax, a former associate of Craig Ellwood and a respected Los Angeles designer in his own right, he was instilled with a stubborn allegiance to the coincident lucidity and poetry of modernist architecture. For him, the containers in which the clumsiness of life plays out, should step away from the mayhem and, instead, act as counterpoints of calm.

Caverhill and Pali’s shared enthusiasms lent them the stamina necessary to get through an irregularly prolonged project timeline. The two began their serious conversations in 2003; the house was finished in 2008. At the initiation, the economy was climbing into peak boom. Contractors enjoyed the luxury of being able to turn down work deemed negligible. The house had to earn, in a radically competitive climate, its constructability merit through scope and involvement. Over the course of the design, approvals, and building processes, item costs would skyrocket, sometimes overnight. The house was caught in the crunch, perpetually readapting to new financial conditions.

The house also encountered its fair share of red tape. It maneuvered a series of city code, height-limit and setback, misinterpretations. The advanced technologies that it incorporates – a climate controlling AirFloor, a comprehensive home automation system, its specialty finishes and fixtures – confounded permitting officials. Tellingly, though, it also slid through its housing association review, a typically wrenching oversight hurdle, with only minor dings against skylights in the roof. Again, the integrity of the Caverhill House stands out – this time, for its resilience.

Caverhill attributes the house’s win-over charm, at least in part, to its balance of honed proportions. He and Pali both lament the current trend in residential oversizing. They diagnose today’s obsession with the grandiose and vacuous as a profound disconnect from the humane. The Caverhill House challenges such ideas of scale, demonstrating dualities of comfort and liberty in the selfsame ingredients. Each zone, because there are no conventional rooms, is an ensemble of anchors that hold and apertures that release. The effect is a sense of eddies and nooks in a landscape.

The plan, a string arrangement of this pocketed, but continuous space, is seamless and uncomplicated. Narrow to the north, wide to south, it is laid out to flow, encouraging easy and conspicuous circulation. The path, always on a mission, diverts its traversers to the eastern view. At entry, it beelines perpendicular to the mass, cutting out to a balcony overlook. Through a slip to the side, it merges dining, cooking, and lounging – interior and exterior – into a long veranda. A balustraded module of stacked stairs, coupled with kitchen disguised as bamboo wardrobe, establishes a sculptural hub and links the main communal floor with the more private levels above and below. Down leads to a quintessentially southern California entertainment patio with fire pit and hot tub. The route, then, is flanked by two minor bedroom suites and terminates in an embrace of chaparral and eucalyptus. Up carries into the main sleeping quarters and the two peak moments of place.

The magic of the Caverhill House is distilled in the far ends of its elevated, suspended volume. Past the blond paneled alcove and frosted prisms of the master bed and baths, the floor spills out to a bookmatched deck. Within the open mouth of a near-impossible ceiling overhang and upturned platform, a pair of contiguous patios lays bare the architectural agenda. The funnel-like porch curates the sweep of Los Angeles, exaggerating the optic impact by distinguishing the planar of the house from the vast and various textures of the valley below.

That vantage, though, is obvious, a full-immersion confrontation with the already given scene. In the other direction, the antechamber to the guest suite or media room is a manipulation and more stealth marvel. It is the vanishing point for the perspectival structure. From its center, space splays out along the 1250-foot corridor through the eastern curtain wall to the Hollywood Hills and the Angeles National Forest and, to the west, past the shade panel slits to the Pacific Ocean. The vista, however, is not necessarily one of the tangible, but rather of time. The fins from the elevation refract the roving beams of the sun, bouncing them off of the oblique angles of the paint-blanched facets into rhythmic patterns on the internal surfaces. Over the course of the day, the juxtaposition of direct and indirect illumination divides the spread of atmosphere into parallel hazes with alternating blue and orange, purple and yellow hues.

“I don’t like to lead with this,” Caverhill says. “But, there’s some sort of special, transportive power in this house . . . It conveys the same sense of peace as a wilderness vacation escape. Except, it’s in Los Angeles, surrounded by four million people.” In the light den, the Caverhill House does take over. It uses Los Angeles, siphoning its improvisations through a primed canvas and extracting its other-worldliness. The house plays the imagery and projections of the city, providing the conductive figure for a riff of call-and-response with the ambient inputs. As color and shadow bend and stretch over geometries and comingle in cadence with the boogie-woogie beats of an overhead sound-system melody, the inanimate comes to life. Nothing is as it first appeared to be; it’s all double-loaded – an enticing front with an embodied surprise for those patient, or delayed, enough to explore.

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