The Ultimate Sea Change

May 2007

What began as a bland ranch house is reborn as a distinctly modern dwelling. On a crowded stretch of Malibu coast, the new architecture gives owners their most coveted possessions: views and the illusion of privacy.

Solitude may not be the first word that comes to mind for visitors arriving at the front door of Gerald and Merle Measer’s newly renovated home in Malibu.
Dwellings on this shoreline block seem to elbow one another for a coveted ocean view. Houses to the left and right stand only 5 feet away from the stucco walls of the Measers’ home. Across the street, houses and condominiums stand on higher ground, peering over their rood like sports fans at a stadium looking over the heads of people in front.

When visitors enter the front door, however, the sensation of crowding disappears and is replaced by the view – the transporting image of sea and sun that makes people move to Malibu and endure fires, floods and landslides just to stay there. For a moment, visitors can fantasize that they live in splendid isolation and that the seafront, visible through a panoramic wall of windows, belongs to them alone.

“I wanted that ‘front-door wow,’” says Gerald, a retired investment banker.

He and his wife turned a run-of-the-mill ranch into a striking example of Modernism without adding new space. “Officially it’s remodel, but in reality it’s an entirely new home,” he says of the before-and-after contrast in the appearance of the weekend ranch-style home the couple has owned for 16 years, and where they live, alternating with a home in Westwood.

The Measer residence is an artful example of how to achieve the illusion of privacy in a tightly packed neighborhood by using architecture to frame carefully chosen views. The house, designed by West L.A.-based architect Jeffrey M. Kalban, is also a lesson in the way to create a sense of transparency – and continuous space – throughout the house, by opening views between rooms that formerly has no visual connection.

The couple was a comparatively easygoing client, by home remodel standards, with only a few must-dos for the architect. Merle summarizes their design requirements for the 14-month remodel: “Our goals were to maximize the ocean view, incorporate the art collection in a minimal and exciting architecture and to keep the house within its existing footprint.”

Staying within the existing footprint was another way of saying avoid any hassles with the city of Malibu or the California Coastal Commission, two of the most stringent land-use regulators in the state.

“The client’s feeling was that any request for a variance would tie them up in regulatory matters for years and would not be worth it,” Kalban says.
His solution was to introduce a radical change into the front façade – replacing a conventional set of pitched roofs with a mysterious-looking rotunda. In Merle’s summation, the architect “entirely changed the façade from a ranch house to a geometric combination of strong shapes, united inside and out with curved walls and the repetition of color.”

Much of the new house is organized around two imaginery circles in the floor plan. Those circles, according to Kalban, gave him greater flexibility to create new spaces while simplifying the way people circulate through the house. With the circles, he said, “you can create your own opportunities.”

The curved walls, particularly in the front façade, have much to do with the organization of the 2,280-square-foot house. The front walls enclose a second-story patio, perched above the garage. The curve continues inside, where it bulges into the kitchen, as if to remind the residents of the other major spaces in the house. (Behind the kitchen is a newly opened space for a coat closet.)

The new façade also allowed the architect to achieve a subtle and cunning effect at the front door. He was able to create a small entrance court in the space opened by the circle. The original straight-edged façade did not allow any room for an entrance courtyard, depriving the house of what architects call the “entrance sequence,” or a passage through a series of openings or spaces that gives a ritual importance, and perhaps an enhance sense of privacy, to entering a home.

The circular entry also allowed the architect to locate the door at a slight angle to the rest of the house. That angle gives visitors the best first glimpse of the ocean view and contributes much to fulfilling Gerald’s mandate for a front-door wow. Before the remodel, a visitor’s first view was of a dark kitchen.
The new transparency, according to Kalban, is a marked change from the earlier ranch-style structure, which seemed to act as a wall that obscured the view until visitors were inside the house.

Where once three floor-to-ceiling columns divided the ocean-facing wall into four windows, there is now a single steel column and the rest of the wall is glass. To create a sense of a 180-degree view, Kalban removed a narrow portion of the adjoining wall at each end and replaced it with glass.

Elsewhere in the house, all unnecessary obstacles to clear sightlines of the ocean were removed. In the bedrooms, the architect kept the sightlines free by streamlining the profile of the walls. Newly designed closets feature doors that lie perfectly flat along the closet walls and are almost undetectable as doors when not in use.
The kitchen downstairs also benefited from a larger view, be relocating the pantry shelves to the non-ocean side of the house. Now the kitchen has its own unique view – a sliver of blue sea between the house and the neighboring one – with a large window above the sink that also introduces plentiful natural light into the room.

With the aim of making the waves visible from all points of the house, the architect took the unusual step of creating internal windows between different rooms. The Measers’ bedroom now has an indoor window that opens that room to the big-view living room. The second-story guest bedroom also has an ocean-facing window. When the door of that bedroom is open, a third bedroom behind it can also share the view. Even from the outdoor patio atop the garage, on the opposite end of the house form the window wall, the ocean view can be seen.

The internal windows posed an obvious problem for privacy, however, because the Measers did not want conventional shades. Kalban’s solution was a high-tech glass he first saw at a Prada showroom. A double-paned window filled with gas in its hollow center, the window is transparent when electrified but is otherwise opaque.

These windows create an effect the architect calls “the layering of space,” or the perception of the house as a sandwich of different rooms, some darker and some lighter. This “allows space to flow freely among the different rooms,” he says. As a result, “the house does not feel as small as it really is.”

Color is also an element in the design. “We have used color in a very painterly fashion, to keep your eye moving around the space,” Kalban says. It’s a way of expressing the program of the house – that is, the arrangement of different rooms and hallways through geometry and color.

The front entrance is set off by the deep red of the front door and stainless steel panels that continue inside, emphasizing the send of continuity between interior and exterior. In the living room, the fireplace is a similar deep red.

A game of color-coding with blue and tan also is at play in other parts of the house.

The furniture and interior surfaces were chosen by architect Dorothy Kersman Measer, a daughter-in-law of the Measers and principal of DK Design House in Venice. She chose fabrics in muted and natural colors to evoke sand and seaweed, she says, so as not to compete with the view and artworks.

“The purpose was to keep the furniture in the background, and let the art really flourish, as well as the ocean view,” she says.
Above the fireplace is a black-and-white piece by Swiss painter Philippe Decrauzat; and an action-painting style canvas on the same wall is by American artist Wesley Kimler. Hawaiian artist Barry Ching created the free-standing wooden sculpture nearby, and Ron Davis made the wall-mounted sculpture with twig-like elements.

Although architects and building contractors are often antagonists, Kalban and contractor Edward Odlum were close collaborators, with the builder, a veteran in the delicate art of home building in Malibu, suggesting many details in the project. One of Odlum’s suggestions was to lay the wooden planking of the ocean-front balcony in a “friction-set” method that avoided nails and screws, which can rust or corrode in the salt air.
Odlum was also willing to recycle material recovered from the demolition of portions of the previous house, included some redwood timbers, from which the contractor built the new front door. Recycling fell in line with the Measers’ goal to use “green” materials whenever possible. (The wood on the balcony is Ipe, a sustainably farmed rain-forest product.)

In perhaps the most flamboyant touch, the architect created a second-floor study for Merle. The circular study shoots beyond the walls, intruding into the two-story space of the living room like a giant teacup floating in the air.

The cantilevered desk “creates a lot of dynamics” in both the master bedroom, from which the desk projects, as well as the living room directly beneath it. The round outline of the “crow’s-nest” – Kalban’s nickname for the floating desk – is an intriguing, mysterious object. Visible upon entering the house, the floating desk adds a further allure to the living room, emphasizing the room’s role as destination point for visitors, if the ocean view has not drawn them already.

Merle says the term crow’s nest is apt. “It almost feels like I’m on a ship, typing on my laptop right on the water,” she says.
An absorbing view can have its drawbacks, however.

“The ocean view is so mesmerizing sometimes that it is impossible to write there,” she says. Although the ocean was inspirational at some moments, “it was problematic many times, and I would have to go to another room to write, where I wasn’t so distracted by the ocean.”

Happily, she finished a novel four weeks ago. With the book now in the hand of a New York literary agent, Merle can return to her crow’s nest and the hypnotic motion of the waves.

- Morris Newman

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