Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


More than anyone, John Lautner was the great architectural dramatist of his age. His chief partner was geography itself, as Lautner created a series of gravity-defying statement houses in California and beyond. Rather than attempt to tame or temper a site, Lautner worked with nature, anchoring his futuristic sculpted houses to hillsides and cliff tops, as with his Elrod House in Palm Springs, the Arango Residence in Acapulco and also the Garcia House on Mullholland Drive.

Here, Lautner created a mesmerising home for jazz musician Russell Garcia and his wife, Gina, completed in 1962. Garcia is a composer and conductor, who worked with many of the Hollywood film studios, as well as collaborations with Elle Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. The house Lautner designed was pitched up on the Hollywood hills, clinging to the steeply sloping terrain, while drinking in the epic views of Los Angeles.

Rugged steel V-shaped beams anchored the building to the ground at the front, while concrete supports rested on the flatter ground to the rear. The shape of the house was typically bold and vibrant – a vast vaulted roof enclosed the entire building, which is largely on one level, punctured by a semi-transparent core holding the entrance to the rear and a terrace to the front, overlooking the canyon below. A sweeping spiral staircase ascends to a guest suite on a modest second storey at the apex of the arching roofline.

Because the site was so rugged and barren back in the early 1960s, the story goes, Lautner decided to pepper the glass walls of the house front and back with panes of coloured glass to give a friendlier, warmer feeling to the place. But Russ and Gina Garcia still didn't last long in the house. In 1966, at the peak of his fame, the Garcias sold up lock, stock and barrel, bought a boat, and went sailing around the world, becoming philanthropic 'travel teachers' and finally fetching up in New Zealand.

While the house became a floating landmark on Mullholland, winning a bit part in Lethal Weapon Two along the way, it was not always well taken care of. Upheavals in the 1980s meant the loss of many of Lautner's original fixtures and fittings and by the time the last owner, actor and director Vincent 'Buffalo '66' Gallo, sold up the Garcia House needed some healing. New owners John McIlwee, an entertainment business manager, and Bill Damaschke – President of Creative Production at Dreamworks Animation – embarked on a sensitive restoration, balancing the need to update the house for 21st century living with preserving the unique character of the house.

'We feel that the whole thing was tremendous kismet,' says McIlwee, who saw the house advertised in the property pages on the morning of his birthday. 'We have a friend who lives just up the street and we would drive by and knew the house. I remember looking at the house and thinking there's no way we could spend that much money on a house that needed so much work. But in retrospect we can't believe we got the house for the price we did, with all the resurgence of interest in the art and culture of mid-century design.

'People don't look at this as just a house, because you can easily get bigger houses with more square footage and more land. People look at it as a piece of art – a weird jewel box, sitting on stilts, high up above the whole canyon.'

Bill Damaschke came across the work of architects Marmol Radziner in a magazine and realised that they would be perfect for the work needed on the Garcia House. As well as designing original houses for clients like Tom Ford, Ellen de Generes and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the practice has restored a whole series of Modernist classics by Albert Frey, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, including Neutra's Kaufmann House out in Palm Springs.

'When we decided to embark on this we did a lot of homework,' says McIlwee, 'and we looked at a lot of architects. Marmol Radziner were best suited by far. They were so responsive and their attention to detail was meticulous. It had to be custom fixtures, custom furniture, custom everything to make it feel as special and as unique as it is. We realised that it would be a challenge, although we didn't realise quite how much of a challenge.'

While Lautner's structural engineering had largely stood the test of time, with the steel anchors holding up well, other parts of the house had not. The roof was leaking, there was dry rot and nearly every original element of built in furniture had either been removed or ruined.

'Worst of all, the transparency through the centre of the house had been lost to a great extent,' says architect Ron Radziner. 'Working with Bill and John, we were really able to bring that back while still providing some privacy from the street, given that people do stop and look at this house.

'Restoring a house like this is a very subtle balancing act and you want to really make sure that you don't lose the soul of the house. A house like this has integrity and there are some things that you need to revise to make it liveable in 2008, but at the same time you have to make sure that you do that within a context that feels natural and in harmony with the house Lautner created. I have seen some houses altered in a way where they lose that soul and it becomes quite meaningless.'

Marmol Radziner were able to restore elements like the terrazzo floors and the windows, including the stained glass, plus an occasional light fitting and they managed to keep the kitchen sink. Just about everything else had gone in the 1980s or had been trashed under layers of grey paint. Having stripped the house back to the bones and updated all the services, Marmol Radziner began reinterpreting the many bespoke, fitted elements of the house, from the walnut cabinet work and kitchen to the fitted L-shaped sofa in the living room.

'When it came to the master bedroom, we really did reconfigure the space a bit because there hadn't been a master suite and we needed to make it work for Bill and John,' says Radziner. 'But the process was very subtle and no done in a way that would outwardly change the feeling of the house at all. The kitchen is all new, but again very much in the context and feeling of the original.

'We are very fortunate as we do a lot of wonderful restoration work but then we also do new designs as well. I always feel that when we design a house from scratch ourselves, then that's a place where we can express our own personal sense of what architecture is about. But when you are working on a restoration like this, the best thing that can happen is that when you are done people are only thinking about Lautner and the wonderful thing for me is that I get to learn about Lautner's wonderful sense of space, materials and form.'

Having bought the house in 2002, the restoration was completed in 2005, when McIlwee and Damaschke asked interior designer Darren Brown to work on the loose furnishings for the house. Brown blended an eclectic mix of retro and contemporary pieces for a glamorous, updated Studio 54 inspired look to suit the futuristic, Jetsons look of the house itself. Pride of place goes to a Lucite coffee table, once owned by the Lear jet founding family, by Charles Hollis Jones, who also designed the four poster in the master bedroom.

'The house doesn't look good with a lot of clutter,' says Brown. 'And Bill and John didn't want a cold house either. It has a certain warmth to it and then there's the whole indoor, outdoor thing going on with the terrace.'

Now the entire team is reassembling to build a pool alongside the house, inspired by Lautner's original but unbuilt design. For McIlwee and Damaschke, they are also taking time to enjoy the house that the Garcias gave up but has now found enduring love, using the terrace all year round, savouring the views of the city. 'We sit out there with friends, have a glass of wine and talk,' says McIlwee, 'and next thing you know it's two hours later.'

'The Garcia House is one of Lautner's most iconic works,' finishes Radziner. 'Some of that is to do with the simplicity of the expression of the form – the one arched roof that spans the entire living space with that hole through the centre framing the views of the city beyond. It's one of maybe five houses in Los Angeles that really defines the city clearly, that are really known as part of Los Angeles.'

Marmol Radziner –

Darren Brown – www.darrenbrown