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Young architect's dream

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More than 50 years ago, student architect Thornton Ladd explored new design directions for his hilltop studio. His original vision is just as valid today

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A residence that has a significant architectural history poses its own challenges when it comes to remodelling. The house may be in need of extensive repairs and attention, but there is an onus on architects to keep the fundamental design ideas intact.

Such was the case with this hilltop studio, designed by student architect Thornton Ladd in 1953. Sited near the family home, the studio would have been considered quite radical when first built, says architect Ron Radziner.

"Pasadena (in California) is a fairly conservative architectural community," says Radziner.

"While it was coming to terms with the work of Lloyd Wright and Green and Green, Ladd's design would have been somewhat controversial."

The most significant design elements of the original building were the use of large, sliding steel windows on all sides, a cantilevered catwalk that encircled the structure, and the use of canvas screens, which could be moved along the edge of the catwalk to provide shade and privacy.


"At that time the architect was also pushing the boundaries in terms of technology," says Radziner. "For example, the design and construction of flat roofs were not perfected, hence the dry rot that was found in the original maple ceilings."

Radziner says the current owners wanted to restore and upgrade the derelict studio to create a guesthouse.

"While it was important to improve the standard of finish and create a more luxurious space, it was also essential that the refurbishment remained pure to the original design concepts," he says.

For this reason, similar materials have been used to replace rotting wood and rusted steel beams.

Radziner says the entire studio was taken apart and put back together in its original form, and a new basement bedroom and bathroom added.

Large, sliding glass doors once again encase the house like a glass box. The fabric screens on the outside of the catwalk have been replaced with motorised, translucent glass screens that still provide shade and privacy as needed, says Radziner.

"These screens enhance the layering effect of the facade," he says. "They can be used to create openings that focus attention on a particular aspect of the view. When you have a very clean-lined, modern house, allowing the trees to come right up to the windows adds an organic feel. Looking through this veil of landscaping to the view beyond is also very peaceful and enhances the sense of retreat."

Creating a Japanese aesthetic also helps give the house a zen-like quality. Furnishings are kept to a minimum, and Japanese mats cover both the floor and the wall of the new bedroom. Edged in black fabric, they mimic the shape of the exposed steel frames around the house.

Maple floors and ceilings in the living areas, similar to the original linings, add visual warmth to the interior and counter the more austere look of a cast concrete wall.

"This was another very modern element of the original house," says Radziner. "It's a material we have repeated in the new kitchen, with a newconcrete wall and countertops. We have also added a cast-concrete wall to the bathroom."

Other additions to the former studio include a cedar deck that is cantilevered over the hillside, and a vertical window at the end of the kitchen.

"It's a feature I think Ladd would have incorporated back then, had he been able to," says Radziner.

In keeping with the simple lines evident throughout the house, the new bathroom features a freestanding, square Port Orford wooden bathtub. This sits on a cedar floor, with boards laid like decking, designed to drain the water.

First published date: 23 January 2006

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Credit List

Architect Ron Radziner, AIA, Marmol Radziner and Associates (Los Angeles, CA)
Kitchen designer and manufacturer, builder Marmol Radziner and Associates
Structural engineer KPFF Consulting Engineers
Window and door joinery Custom fabricated by Marmol Radziner and Associates
Kitchen countertops Concrete
Cabinetry Maple
Taps Dornbracht Tara Classic
Oven, cooktop, ventilation and dishwasher Gaggenau
Bathtub Standard Hinoki tub
Flooring, walls and ceilings, living room Maple, custom fabricated by Marmol Radziner and Associates
Second living area Acrylic cement topping slab with high-gloss sealer
Flooring, walls and ceiling, bedroom Cedar, custom fabricated by Marmol Radziner and Associates