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Pittman Dowell Residence by Michael Maltzan Architecture, Los Angeles, USA

The impressive geometry of Maltzan’s heptagonal house conceals a spiraling succession of complex internal spaces. Photography by Iwan Baan

On the northern edge of LA, a long straight avenue collides with the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. From afar, you glimpse an angled white wall halfway up the slope, and a big stone pine tree above that. The wall is part of a seven-sided house that Michael Maltzan designed for Lari Pittman and his partner Roy Dowell, two artists who formerly lived in the 1952 Richard Neutra house at the foot of the tree. They cherished that transparent cube with its sweeping view over the valley, but wanted to explore a new way of living in a house that felt enclosed, dynamic, and layered.

Inspired by the multi-level site and the willingness of his clients to take a wild ride, Maltzan created a house that fragments the orthogonal geometries of the Neutra building and turns them inside out. He likens it to a mathematical game, in which a platonic figure is dissected and the shards recombined in a more complex shape.

His first plan was circular, the second hexagonal, but the symmetry of both gave them a static quality. He took his cue from the driveway, which spirals up the hillside, to continue that clockwise movement through a house of irregular angles in which each room opens onto the next and an inner, glass-walled courtyard.

The architectural promenade feels cinematic: a succession of discrete yet open spaces, shifting perspectives, and multiple reflections.

From the garden that surrounds the Neutra you look down on the new house, its inner walls extruded through the roof to form an eighth facade. The sides appear impervious, with only a single ribbon window, mirrored disc, and inset door breaking the expanse of white stucco set at the edge of the flat pad, jutting into space at one corner. Step inside and you are drawn forward to a wall of glass in the living room that frames a panoramic view to the south. Move on to the raised dining area and kitchen, and the view is compressed and reversed, with two inner walls set at a sharp angle to frame the stone pine. You pass through a library, which looks back to a mountain ridge, and a wedge-plan bedroom. Finally, you walk into the open bathroom, where a voluptuous cluster of tiled cylinders enclose a soaking tub, shower, and loo.

‘The house started as an abstract idea but it had to be livable and engage you physically,’ says Maltzan. ‘That’s why I work in three dimensions, modeling each stage of the design to understand the scale and relationship of the spaces.’ Each room feels comfortable in itself but there’s always a surprise around the next corner to draw you forward, and the varied angles impart a lively rhythm to your movements.

Simple materials are impeccably detailed. Broad oak floorboards are aligned in the same direction throughout the house. A tapered canopy of steel lattice shades the south-facing window and casts a pattern of shadows across the floor. Closets are integrated within the walls and the bathroom is a masterpiece of hand-installed tiles, its rounded forms echoed in the oval skylight.

Maltzan recently completed a house for media mogul Michael Ovitz and the New Carver Apartments for the homeless of downtown LA. Both exemplify the same level of craft and invention as this residence.

It’s a rare talent who can accommodate radical shifts of scale and budget with such confidence and then move on to design a museum or school. And yet the architect is candid about the doubts he felt designing a companion to the Neutra. ‘If you are going to be an alter ego, you have to have the ego to assume the role,’ he confesses. ‘I was terrified by the prospect of building in close proximity to that iconic presence.’ He overcame his fears and realised a work of clarity and complexity in which to relax and be stimulated.

Architect Michael Maltzan Architecture, Los Angeles, USA
Project team Michael Maltzan, Tim Williams, Steven Hsun Lee, Hiroshi Tokumaru, Will Carson, David Freeland, Nadine Quimbach, Christopher Norman, Yan Wang, Tal Schori, Stacie Escario
Structural engineer BW Smith

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