Beyond Buildings


Kappe House: Rediscovering the Nest

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A recent trip to L.A., where we had the pleasure of staying at the modernist aerie overlooking the San Fernando Valley the architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung occupy, made me all the more receptive to the interactive panorama of Ray Kappe’s house the Los Angeles Times has just posted on its website. (Hint: Best viewed in full-screen mode.) It reminded me that Southern California has given us a legacy of spatial exploration unfolding in natural light and a glorious landscape that I do not think has its equivalent anywhere in the world. Kappe’s 1967 house, a cascade of redwood planes held by concrete piers to a sloping site in Pacific Palisdades, is one of the greatest examples of the ability of architecture to open up new spaces in even the mundane activities of everyday life.

Kappe always claimed that he was most influenced by the work of Paul Rudolph when he designed this house, and certainly there is a strong relationship there. It is not only this house’s ability to define, without enclosing, spaces by breaking up the section into myriad places, but also its bravura stretching of those spaces right to the edge of what the structure—in this case, laminate beams vaulting from one concrete pier to another—can achieve.

Kappe House interior. Source: Cube Images.

It is hard not to think of this as a quintessential L.A. house, however. If you take the tour you will almost be able to smell the eucalyptus, for one thing. The house gains its strength as much from its foliage as from its human-made members, and that is what the best architecture always does: work with nature, rather than against it—though this is also a mark of architecture’s tendency to be only for the rich who can afford such sites.

It is also the intrinsic order that gives the house its force. This is the kind of place whose essence is a lattice of intersecting members, a kind of nest that marks space, sheltered and supported by walls and piers that shelter it from that same landscape. It was an approach Rudolph Schindler first developed in his 1923 home in West Hollywood, and that great architects have been perfecting ever since then. Southern California homes do not have to be isolated boxes, so this type, developed out of the bungalow and the Shingle Style home, as well as out of how both Native Americans and the Spanish built here, makes sense.

Kappe House cross-section. Source: Getty Research Institute

Covering over 4,000 square feet over a slope that contains active springs, it appears modest from the outside, but opens up into one continuous space rising from the studio at the bottom, past two levels of living rooms and a dining room to an open kitchen. Bedrooms are tucked under and further into the site. The six U-shaped piers contain bathrooms, stairs, and a fireplace. Kappe tried to keep it to that, as best he could: everything else, from lintels and clerestories to handrail-less stairs, serve just to fill in and define that one act of intersecting vertical structure with horizontal nesting.

I still think that all homes should be like this. I know that is not a very strong theoretical position, but the notion of a home as an intersection of activities, sheltered in the most simple manner, and yet celebrating the intricacies of private and communal life in a manner that makes full use of its site and its wider landscape, seems to me what a house is all about. I would love to live that way, but, according to the L.A. Times, the house Kappe built for a few hundred thousand dollars is now worth between $2.5 and $3 million. Now that’s what I call adding value through architecture. So, I will enjoy the tour, and imagine myself in La-La Land.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.