Los Angeles, California

lee + mundwiler architects

In Los Angeles, a city known for its dearth of public spaces, architects have expressed the issues of privacy and transparency in the home in often-unusual ways, typically motivated by a perceived break with architectural tradition. The optimistic Case Study architects of the 1950s and 1960s gave us the glass house on the hill, exposed to the entire city. A less optimistic generation of the 1970s and 1980s designed either compounds, hidden behind walls, or faux ruins—houses constructed of common, tough materials that appear outwardly hostile toward the public domain—responses to the city’s worsening urban situation.

Photo © Julius Shulman & Juergen Nogai

Santa Monica–based lee+mundwiler architects responded to this local legacy in a 2005 project, the Coconut House, which neatly explores the conceptual dichotomy of open and closed, public and private domains. “We like to provide privacy, but we didn’t want to overdo it, either,” says Stephan Mundwiler, AIA, who designed the house with his partner Cara Lee. “We had no desire for the client to sit on the street, which led us to design an interior courtyard.”

The two-story, 1,800-square-foot house, dubbed Coconut because of its dark exterior shell and white interior, is located in the densifying coastal neighborhood of Marina del Rey. The residence appears, in Mundwiler’s terms, like a child’s drawing of a house—in section, it’s a simple, 18-foot-wide rectangle topped by a gable and then extruded back 64 feet to the rear of the relatively narrow, 25-by-100-foot site. From the street, a large window for the living room and a narrow second-floor overhang for the side entrance appear as voids, laying waste to any preconceptions of the house as business-as-usual.

The wood-framed house’s inventiveness emerges in its plan, where the architects subtracted a two-story volume between the front living room and the rear kitchen and dining room to form the interior courtyard. This space doubles as an additional dining room, revealingly framed by large, folding glass doors on the first floor and by windows on the second floor.

This transparent gesture allows great natural cross ventilation and uninterrupted views through the house—between rooms and also out to a busy street—but appears rather secluded when looking into the house from the sidewalk. The architects achieved this effect, without sacrificing privacy, in part by enclosing the second-story opening of the courtyard with a scrim of operable louvers. The client can automatically control her views, as well as sunlight and breezes.