January 19, 2020The foreword to the new book Site: Marmol Radziner in the Landscape (Princeton Architectural Press) wasn’t written by a designer or even a critic. Instead, California architects Leo Marmol and Ron Radziner asked a novelist, Mona Simpson, to comment on their work. One of Simpson’s strengths is that she tells the truth. Here, that means debunking an idea that has been key to Southern California residential architecture at least since the early postwar Case Study Houses sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine. In Los Angeles, nighttime temperatures drop “all at once,” Simpson writes. Consequently, “most of the indoor-outdoor life promised by modernists is experienced indoors, through glass.” Her idea of living with nature on a chilly evening? “A tangle of sycamores under a crescent moon . . . seen from a warm living room in a comfortable chair.”
Simpson, who has been a friend of Radziner’s for years, tells of being in one of his houses during a thunderstorm. Watching the weather through the living room’s triple-height wall of glass was, she recalls, “like being outside in all the wild beauty without any of the real discomfort.”
In other words, in Simpson’s view, modernist houses are really terrariums in reverse: glass containers with nature kept outside. Mies van der Rohe, one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, would almost certainly agree. If for Le Corbusier houses were “machines for living in,” Mies saw them as machines for viewing. But his experiments with floor-to-ceiling glass, as in the Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois, were only partially successful; it took new materials that came along after Mies’s time to make these reverse terrariums comfortable to live in.
Now, Marmol and Radziner create comfortable glass houses in a wide variety of settings. Site is organized into four sections that are based not on the structures themselves but on their surroundings: canyon, desert, urban and woodland. Although many of the book’s 200-plus photos (by 20 different photographers) are of interiors, barely one is without a view of nature; many, in fact, show more trees than furniture.
Marmol, the firm’s managing partner, and Radziner, the partner in charge of design, are known for their sensitive renovations of houses by California’s mid-century greats, including Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler. But where those architects, missionaries of the International Style, were interested in proving that a certain kind of structure was suitable for every site, Marmol and Radziner create houses that vary dramatically according to location. In a Q&A included in the book, Marmol remarks, “The negative potential of ignoring site is unimaginable.” Radziner concurs. “I think we’d have a slightly better chance of ignoring the client [or] the budget,” he says, noting that “ultimately, the beauty of a building depends on architecture and site being in harmony.”
One way the architects achieve this harmony is by using materials that complement their settings, such as sand-colored stucco in the desert and, often, wood in woodlands. This extends beyond the exterior sheathing. In Marmol Radziner houses, “Counters in bathrooms and kitchens seem to be made out of the stones outside,” Simpson writes, going on to note that such gestures make the houses, although sometimes large and always carefully thought-out, “seem as modest as nature.”
The firm’s houses are often made of dark materials, since, the architects point out, every landscape incorporates shadows. One of the best examples is Radziner’s own residence, in Los Angeles’s rural Mandeville Canyon. In deciding to use nearly black brick for the exterior — and for many of the interior — walls the architects say they “considered how vivid nature looks when viewed from the entrance of a dark cave.”
The house was also designed to respond to the existing flora. In plan, it wends its way around a stand of sycamores that took root long before it was constructed. Again, Simpson is spot-on: “You get the feeling these architects find the trees they want and built around them.” Sometimes, though, Marmol and Radziner add vegetation, as for a house occupying a swath of sparse desert terrain in Scottsdale, where they used mesquite and palo verde trees as privacy screens.
The settings of the structures in the book’s “urban” section aren’t especially urban (it would be interesting to see Marmol Radziner do a New York townhouse). Even a house in Amsterdam, the only project in the book outside the western U.S., is on a spacious, wooded site. In these suburban settings, the architects avoid building walls around the residences, to avoid diminishing the feeling of community. When a client demands a wall, Marmol says in the Q&A, “we often pull it back to allow for an adequate landscape buffer between that wall and the street.”
One of the architects’ finest urban houses is on a (wall-less) quarter-acre lot in Venice, California. Marmol and Radziner placed the structure away from the street and surrounded it with vegetation. The kitchen and breakfast room are sunken, so that, from inside, the landscape is experienced at eye level. To avoid overpowering the older, single-story houses on the block, the architects set the second floor back from the first (which has lushly planted roofs); it’s as if the neighborhood got a small multilevel park along with a new dwelling.
Among Marmol Radziner’s great achievements is making houses that are prefabricated yet fully responsive to their sites. (Flipping through the book, you’d have a hard time guessing which of the 19 structures are prefab.) Their experiments with factory-built houses began in 2005, with a weekend house for Marmol’s family in Desert Hot Springs. A series of metal boxes, some enclosed and others open to the elements, are positioned almost like picture frames. A few years later, the architects built a much larger — 12,000-square-foot — prefab house in Las Vegas for casino mogul Jim Murren. In that case, the 37 steel-framed elements weren’t just lowered into an existing landscape — the site was sculpted to make room for a sunken, and thus shaded, basketball court, a pool and other amenities for Murren’s young family.
Not all the firm’s prefabs are in the desert. One is on 160 acres in Northern California’s wooded Mendocino County. There, the client’s desire to leave the ground undisturbed made building the house remotely and in pieces, and then delivering it by truck, a smart strategy. A modest 2,200 square feet, it is as simple as Mies’s Farnsworth House, except that its glass walls slide open to create connections to the outdoors that even Simpson would approve of. Otherwise, there are no flourishes to detract from the rolling hills, dotted with oak trees, and the jagged mountains in the distance. “The quality of the site,” Marmol and Radziner write in the book, “informed the clarity of our architecture.”
To paraphrase Joyce Kilmer, “I think that I shall never see a house as lovely as a tree.” Marmol and Radziner make lovely houses, but they know real beauty when they see it.
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