Burns House

Santa Monica Canyon, California

In 1973, Lee Burns reached out to Charles Moore’s studio in New Haven, Connecticut and asked if he would be willing to design his house in Los Angeles.

Burns considered The Sea Ranch Condominium One (Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, Whitaker; 1965) one of the most inspiring architecture projects of his time. So he was thrilled when Moore accepted a commission to design him a house.

After studying three potential sites, Moore felt 230 Amalfi would offer the best chances for architectural drama, even though its steep terrain and limited size would present significant challenges to accommodate all that Burns outlined, including a chamber spacious enough for his acclaimed Baroque pipe organ. 

Moore organized the house across the top of the site’s slope, with the steepest part kept open for a garden. Seen from across Santa Monica Canyon, the Burns House aspires to be a compact village, whose flat facades and shed roofs are suggestive of an Italian hill town.

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A private alley shared by neighbors leads to the main entrance on the back side. Upon arrival, one finds a tiny “plaza” meant to stir memories of far grander Spanish Revival ones popular in southern California. Heavy timber gates open into a forecourt, shaded from the sun by lush wisteria. Antique doors from Mexico, with carvings of St. George slaying a dragon, lead into an equally small foyer. 

 

But with one abrupt turn, a soaring double-height, light-filled room expands into full view, dominated by a monumental organ at the far end of the space. The acclaimed Jürgen Ahrend of Leer, Germany designed and built this impressive instrument for the house. Its ranges of lead pipes are set in timber cases that rise above the room like a cathedral facade, set upon a timber dais. Off to the side, an ornate 19th-century trumpet balcony that once stood in a Mexican church provides a vantage point for those nimble enough to climb its ladder.When the room’s massive sliding doors are closed, thick plaster walls and hard tile floors temper reverberations, creating an acoustically ideal chamber for rehearsal and performance.

From the music room, we can see how the rest of the the Burns House is divided into vertical slices, as though three narrow canyons have been compressed together. The slice on the right steps down into the living area and hearth, while the slice on the left faces the courtyard. But the slice in the middle—the most dramatic of the three—is a narrow staircase that races up three levels. A “cliff dwelling” of bookcases populate the staircase canyon’s walls, whose upper shelves are reached only in the imagination, with openings cut through the canyon walls so sunshine from a myriad of windows and skylights illuminate the spaces at different times of the day and season.

The living room is an unorthodox space, resulting from a collision of geometries. As the staircase above cuts through on diagonals, its first landing acts as a bridge, supported by a conspiracy of beams and rafters. (During the design phase, a structural engineer advised that a steel I-beam would be required. So Moore simply “cut” the ceiling rafters in half, and then added mirrors to they seem to magically connect through the I-beam!) In the far corner a small table suggests a dining room, which can be expanded into the courtyard’s fresh air by simply opening sets of glass doors. A kitchen doubles as a pathway to a small patio and kitchen garden, which are shared by an adjoining guest bedroom and bathroom whose main feature is a giant tub in a double height space.

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As one begins the steep climb up the great staircase—an abstraction, Charles Moore explained, of the famous stone stair in England’s Wells Cathedral monastery—one is drawn into a startling array of fiendishly clever spatial experiences. This is a house that rewards your attention, full of Moore’s architectural “winks and nods”. 

The master bedroom is small, with low-ceilings to direct views out over the canyon, with glimpses of the Pacific through trees. Next is as an ensemble of spaces for bathing and dressing. Since we are within the “middle canyon” and Burns insisted on morning light for his lavatory, Moore designed an interior window so the sun can “leap frog” into the space.  Next, a sliding pocket door is not the closet one expects, but a tiny sleeping chamber for naps, a space that turns out to be a loft for the guest room below.  A ladder lowered by pulleys, ropes, and weights provides the means of descent or ascent. 

At the far end of the bedroom suite, a flash of radiant orange tiles draws one into one of the most thrilling showers of all time. A full two stories high, brightened by raking light from giant windows above, the shower has all the feeling of stepping into a lava chute of an exotic Mexican jungle volcano, albeit one made luxurious and cool by water.

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The central staircase continues up to a study, the lofty summit of the house, with walls of books to be scaled by Japanese bamboo ladders. Windows provide sweeping views of the Pacific horizon and swing open on hinges to let it canyon breezes, but no mosquitoes, since they seem unable to fly this high. (A barn fan at the very top of the study draws air up from the first floor, ventilating the entire house.) A door leads to an exterior staircase so we can descend the other side of the mountain we just climbed, all the way down to the pool for afternoon dips.

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Outside, the swimming pool is cruciform in shape, whose tapered sides exaggerate the perspective, making it seem a pool worthy of synchronized swims of Hollywood’s Golden Era.  With the turn of a garden valve, a concealed polyvinyl chloride tube that’s been punctured with a row of holes makes for an inexpensive cascade to stir the water’s surface into a frenzy of ripples. A staircase between the main house and a little building for the pool equipment and organ blower, leads to a “mirador”, an elevated patio for enjoying drinks and the sunset.

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Moore asked Tina Beebe, who was writing her Yale thesis about architecture and color (with guidance by Joseph Albers), to propose the paint scheme for the stucco carapace. With careful study and experimentation, mixing gallons of paint on site, Beebe layered shades of pinks, oranges, ochers, magentas, roses, golds, umbers, and yellows. As the sun moves across the sky, all of the painted planes, subject to shifts of light, shade, and shadow, seems to change color as a chameleon does. But this chameleon’s instinct is not to camouflage itself in the landscape, but to create a setting—exotic and quixotic—against the green canyon and blue skies.

Upon completion, the Burns House was published internationally in the architectural press, and has since been featured in many surveys of 20th-century architecture. Today, it is considered one of the key residential projects in American architecture, a landmark of Los Angeles and California, emblematic of a vibrant cultural era.

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