Venice, Calif., is known for pushing boundaries, but the home that Robert Choeff *98 and Krystyan Keck *98 designed for themselves stands out even in a city with bold works by modern architects like Frank Gehry, the Los Angeles Times wrote last fall.
If the exposed beams and semi-translucent polycarbonate sheathing don’t catch your eye, perhaps the fact that it consists of a modernist block seeming to float above a 1913 cottage will. The building stands in stark contrast to the bungalows, stucco boxes, and brick houses that make up most of the homes on the street.
For Choeff and Keck, who met as graduate students at Princeton’s School of Architecture, the floating design solved a problem common to young couples in urban areas: how to expand living space on a budget. They bought the property for $545,000 and had a budget of $410,000 for the expansion.
With no extra room on the property itself, the only option for the husband-and-wife team was to build up. Without the money to punch through walls or rip off the roof of the 800-square-foot cottage they acquired in 2003, Choeff and Keck decided to build a separate structure on top of it and leave the cottage more or less structurally intact.
The result: a 545-square-foot trapezoid with 10-foot-high ceilings looming above the cottage and supported by four steel columns. The addition is wider and shorter than the cottage. Spearing the two, like a toothpick through olives, is a tower containing a staircase spiraling from the cottage to the addition and finally to a tiny roof deck. Choeff and Keck decided to turn the cottage into bedrooms and make the upstairs addition the living space. It’s entirely open, with a kitchen running into a work area with built-in desks, and then a living room/lounging area with built-in benches and floor-to-ceiling windows.
The cottage was painted charcoal, to blend in with the sheathing on the outside of the addition above. The sheathing itself is translucent — the space felt too claustrophobic otherwise, Choeff discovered while playing around with 3-D models. The result is that, at night, passersby can see directly into the family’s illuminated living area. It’s a fine trade-off, Choeff says, for spectacular views during the day.
Choeff is thoroughly delighted with how the house turned out. “Except for a few unexpected bolts and steel plates and sleeves, the house is exactly what was drawn,” he says. He loves the fact that the inner workings of the house’s construction are visible, and he says it’s gratifying to have the creation “now part of the architecture of the city.”
The idea might have seemed preposterous to others. But both Choeff and Keck had worked for cutting-edge architects like Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Gehry (who designed Princeton’s science library), whose creations defy conventional notions of structure. And, since they live in free-spirited Venice, they didn’t run into problems with city planners, who focus on whether an architectural plan requires variances from zoning requirements (theirs didn’t) rather than on its aesthetic vision.
Choeff and Keck continue to work for other architects, but their dream is to design buildings together through their new firm, the Bureau of Architectural Affairs.
“There’s so much interest in [the house] from anybody who passes by it,” Choeff says. People come up to him when he’s working outside to talk about the house. “It gives me a real feeling of being connected to my fellow human beings in a way I hadn’t had before.”
E.B. Boyd ’89 is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
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