///////Project Info

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CLIENT: David and Lisa Brill

SITE: Half-acre lot in gated community, sloping gently to south but bisected laterally by steep drop-off, rendering half of the site unbuildable

PROGRAM: Single-family residence: three-bedroom, three-bath, “swing” room, laundry, three-car garage, large multi-node living area that includes kitchen, dining, den/media/guest room, music area, and traditional living room

SIZE: 4,000 sq. ft.


COMPLETION: Winter 1998 (design)

NOTES: Structural steel frame with type V infill on drilled concrete piers, custom steel sash, stairs, and sunshades, aluminum sliding-glass and solid door/partition system; needs HVAC

PROJECT TEXT: This project is located on the uppermost slope at the end of a cul-de-sac at the outermost edge of the Sea Pointe Estates enclave. The Sea Pointe Estates development is itself perched on the heavily terraformed ridge against which San Clemente backs from the sea. A major, ongoing concern of the development is the geological condition of this artificial landscape, and the Owners’ Association Design Review Board and the City of San Clemente pay close attention to subsurface design and hydrologic considerations. The site is a typical suburban lot, except it enjoys sweeping views of San Clemente and the ocean beyond. The lot measures 80 by 153 feet, but only the upper, front half is available for construction. The rear half falls off steeply along a diagonal roughly bisecting the lot running north-south; the “natural” downslope is planted in hydrologically responsible native scrub.

The Design Review Board inclines aesthetically toward the Mediterranean pocket-mansion “style,” which is almost universally reflected in the constructed designs. The irony of the development’s predominate Mediterraneanism is echoed by the artificiality of its land-use and grading design; the particular Mediterraneanism practiced at this development is imported whole from flatland golf course developments in Florida, and adheres like a veneer to the hilly landscape.

The willfulness of the design of this project criticizes the context of the development at every level—land usage, design, politics, family life—yet recognizes that it must get along. The design negotiates a position between assimilation to the flatpad gated community—requiring a thin, stucco veneer sort of attitude, and allegiance to the underlying natural reality, which encourages elemental configurations of steel, glass, and concrete.

Within this context, the ridgeline running diagonally through the site creates a powerful datum, dividing the accessible coating of habitation from the inaccessible, the artificial flatpad from the “natural” slope, and teasing the owner with its seeming denial of buildable area. The clients wished to organize their occupation of the site around the spectacular view to the south, diagonally across the site, but also to enjoy full usage of their entire lot. Accordingly, the house runs longitudinally along the northern edge, allowing the entire yard to bask in the sun and enjoy the view, and then launches into space, reaching all the way out from the conventionally accessible portion of the lot to the rear yard setback, where it hovers over the “wildness.”

Within the walled enclave/gated community—a recent collective-sized expression of the isolationist dynamics of the modern nuclear family—the design lurks as a family-sized expression of the more democratic, inclusive dynamics of the polis. The new politics of the suburban nuclear family dictates a more diffuse decision-making responsibility and a greater degree of empowerment for even the youngest members. The house is organized to emphasize and make visible the political nature of the familial interaction by forcing the individual to control the amount of interaction desired in negotiation with the others. The two issues go hand in hand—a certain degree of privacy is traded for a larger role in the control of the family’s space.

The upper-level “living area” is the polis—one continuous space that may be divided up into conventional rooms as desired—the political, space-making dimensions of that desire are thus featured. The privacy of the lower-level sleeping area is tuned by sliding panels that permit a range of openness, from doorless solitude to wall-less free space.

Though it follows the letter of the architectural guidelines, this scheme was emphatically rejected by the Homeowners Association Design Review Board, which suggested we go back to the drawing board and “get serious.” Two of the members lived in pre-guideline California Tudor and three owned Mediterranean or Spanish-style houses. One was a licensed architect.

Part of the Mystery of the Suburb is the original notion of the “individual frontier,” which is the American survival of the common law idea that a person’s home is his castle. In the suburb each lot is a universe unto itself, each must discover or establish its own sense of the laws it will obey there. The sun, the view, and gravity are balanced here against the neighbors as the universal forces determining the design; all will remain to effect the continuing life within.