Interactive floor plan: Vault House by Johnston Marklee, California
Along prime stretches of the Southern California coast, beachfront homes jostle against one another, shoulder to shoulder on deep, narrow lots, spanning from street to sand. Typically, such houses have prized Pacific Ocean views at one end, but rooms huddled in the shadows at the other. Eager to break the mould, Steven and Jerri Nagelberg, an entrepreneurial physician and his wife, challenged Los Angeles-based architects Johnston Marklee to come up with a radically different solution for their coastal home in California, about a 90-minute drive north of Los Angeles.
The resulting home is a smooth, pure-white rectangular block, cut through with arches, vaults and curving skylights that open up oblique and overlapping views. The ocean is visible from every room in the house - however far back and sometimes in an unexpected way - but the grand panorama of sand, waves and surfers practically inhabits the living room. Special permits allowed the owners to build six metres closer to the surf than any of the neighbours, making the views all the more striking and unencumbered.
Though the building looks like monolithic cast concrete, it’s actually synthetic stucco over a wood-frame construction - wood was chosen over cast concrete because of cost, weight and seismic considerations. A key architectural strategy was to insert a courtyard into its centre. This sheltered patio, doubling as an entry court, opens the way for layered transparency and allows sunlight to penetrate deep inside.
With its vaulted underbelly, the house appears to perch lightly on the sand. But it’s a lightness secured by massive underground pylons, designed to withstand high waves, wind and erosion. Coastal regulations stipulated that the main living areas hover two metres above the sand to allow any tsunamis to wash beneath them. However the parking garage, at the building’s opposite end, had to sit directly on the ground, over walls engineered to collapse under huge-wave pressure. The resulting asymmetries inspired a shifting play of interior levels around the court.
Accentuated by light, shadow and those oblique views, the house’s sculptural forms evoke the arched sequences of a de Chirico painting, rendered upbeat and luminous.