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Cheviot Hills, in west Los Angeles, looks like so many old neighborhoods in the city: perfectly manicured lawns, wide sidewalks, and comfortable upper- middle-class houses in a wide array of architectural styles, including Tudor Revival, Mediterranean Revival, and modern Craftsman. But then there’s Thom Mayne’s house—a modernist box of metal and glass surrounded by greenery and fronted by a pool, largely invisible from the street. It’s the most personal expression to date from the iconoclastic architect, who built the house for himself and his wife of 37 years, Blythe Alison-Mayne.
Mayne, a tall and gangly 74-year-old, is almost incapable of doing unprovocative work. He won architecture’s highest honor, the Pritzker Prize, in 2005, and his L.A.-based firm, Morphosis, is known for designing thoughtfully muscular buildings like Manhattan’s 41 Cooper Square, which houses Cooper Union’s humanities and engineering schools and has a sloping, riven metal façade, and the Bloomberg Center at Cornell Tech, on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, which is topped by a dramatic canopy full of solar panels. His upcoming projects span the globe, from a research building in Seoul to the U.S. embassy in Beirut.
“Most people who see our work don’t think domestic architecture,” says Mayne. “Building a home puts you in a completely different mindset: from the macro level to intimate detail.” Case in point: His living room cantilevers over the pool and has a partially see-through floor that reveals the water below. The glass walls fronting the pool open completely, so guests can dive right in from the living room. “And people do,” says Alison-Mayne, who was a financial manager at her husband’s firm for years. The house is Mayne’s first domestic project in a quarter-century, and was completed late last year on a site that used to hold the home of the sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury. Mayne says the house was explicitly influenced by the Case Study Houses (1945–66), modern icons with the California vibe of spare lines and indoor-outdoor living, but this wasn’t going to be an academic exercise. “When we started, we said, ‘This is not Thom Mayne. This is not Morphosis. This is our house,’ ” the architect says.
Partly clad in metal with large, semi-perforated circle shapes—imagine hole-punched hanging chads—the home is one complex puzzle. The main house is only 1,400 square feet above grade, but an adjacent guest one adds another 800. It feels bigger perhaps because the houses’ parts overlap and bleed into each other—the architectural equivalent of a jazz musician on a riff. While the design stresses privacy in some ways, there are a lot of open elements that aren’t conventional. Mayne wanted to prove something, too. “Thinking of the group I’m compared with, the Coop Himmelb(l)aus, the Frank Gehrys, the Zaha Hadids”—he means the Big Architectural Statement types—“I wanted to instead make architecture secondary to the landscape. It should just about disappear.” He adds, “It’s the thing I’m most happy about. It proves I can do something softer.”
Softer, maybe, but not safe. “Everything’s off by a degree and a half,” says Mayne, standing in the main-floor hallway and gesturing at the slightly-off angle of the white walls. “It gives you a dynamism.” Luckily Morphosis had a shop to fabricate all the custom parts. The living room has a skinny vertical section cut out of one wall, facing the entrance, the better to see who’s coming to the door, says Alison-Mayne with a smile. The main staircase has a portion that seems impassable to all but tiny children, since another volume juts into its space; you have to walk around that volume, but as you do, you discover two new vistas: up to the left, an office, and up to the right, the loftlike master bedroom.
Perhaps the most striking feature is the dining area’s faceted ceiling, made of intricately fitted panels, which curves up to form the back of the headboard in the master bedroom, whose half-walls overlook the first floor. It’s a twist on the old modern architecture adage, “Form follows function.”
Instead of building up, Mayne dug down—construction crews excavated some 450 truckloads of dirt. But he only built on one-fifth the allowable volume. By starting low, he was able to play with levels (the house has eight elevation points) and insulate from prying eyes. The perimeter hedge includes what Mayne calls “a 007 moment”: The driveway gate is part of the green wall, so a portion moves aside when it opens. Thanks to the design, the normally private couple can spend a lot of time outside. Mayne wanted to emphasize that the outdoor entertaining space was part of the house, so he extended a beam out from the structure and then down toward the far side of the pool, but there’s a gap midway before continuing to the ground. “That’s a language I’ve been working with my whole career,” says Mayne. “Fragments, the unfinished, works in progress.”
That kind of unconventional, disruptive thinking has marked his CV since founding Morphosis in 1972. Mayne spent much of his early career as an uncompromising, largely academic architect—he was a founding faculty member at the L.A. architecture school SCI-Arc—and his firm faced many lean years. But in the 1990s, with projects like the brilliantly fragmented Diamond Ranch High School in 2000, his work started to get noticed, and today Morphosis is one of the most sought-after architecture shops.
But it was the small, 1930s bungalow in Santa Monica where the Maynes raised their two sons—not his previous signature projects—that inspired the size and feel of this hideaway. Their former home was famously quirky: The shower, for example, was in the middle of the living room. The stall was opaque, but “it was challenging to figure out privacy,” says Alison-Mayne.
And when their adult sons, now both well over six feet tall, came to visit, it became clear that the family had long outgrown the house. “One of my sons said to me, ‘You know you’re married to an architect, right?’ ” Hence the new house and its “hotel wing,” a completely separate space with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small living room. No guest is encouraged to stay too long, by design: “The closets are so small you can’t move in,” she adds.
But guests can certainly feel at home in this very open-plan living space. “It goes back to the way we live: constant communication,” Alison-Mayne says. “There’s no man cave, no place where people go to escape.” She does, however, like to retreat to her “epically sexy” bedroom-bathroom area that opens to the outdoors. The bed looks across the tops of palm trees to the shower. Next to the tub is a curved bench that Mayne sits on to chat with her when she has her nightly bath. The angles all ensure that the couple can’t be seen from the street or elsewhere in the house.
Because he is a perfectionist, Mayne is still “struggling with everything that’s wrong” with the house, he says with a sheepish smile. He knows Chez Mayne is tailored for his family, but it’s also on-brand for Morphosis. “As the world gets thinner and simpler,” he says, “I’m interested in architecture’s role in countering that.”