It’s the kind of house that dreams are made of: A modern La Jolla dwelling nestles into a canyon, its grounds meshing effortlessly into the surrounding landscape. From the contemporary home’s terraces and balconies and along the pathways that wind around the property, glimpses of the homeowners’ impressive sculpture collection appear. “Our client’s father, the original owner of the property, had been a very active sculpture collector, and she wanted to celebrate that,” says architectural designer Fred Gemmell, whom the owners tapped to replace a Spanish-style home that originally stood on the site.
Before construction could begin though, builder Ryan Hill had to contend with an unusual factor, given the region’s arid climate—water. To pump out a storm drain that ran underneath the property, Hill drilled dozens of caissons deep into the earth. “We had to send a remote GPS through the drain to map it,” he recalls, noting that, in water-starved Southern California, the precious resource has been diverted to an underground cistern where it can be used for irrigation.
In fact, the presence—or absence—of water figures prominently into the home’s design. A dry creek bed runs parallel to the approach to the house, where a 50-foot- long gallery space connects a one-story structure that includes the main living areas, master bedroom and bath to a two-story structure with four more bedrooms. The gallery tapers from one end to another, subtly following the contours of the V-shaped property. “There’s almost a forced perspective in that hallway, so it feels even longer and more dramatic than it really is,” says architect Lauren Williams, who, with designers Holly Howell and Nico Gemmell, are part of Fred Gemmell’s team at Matrix Design Studio. Interspersed among large-scale paintings are frameless glass panels that slide into the wall, providing unobstructed access to the other pool area on the other side of the house. “You can literally weave in and out as you walk through,” Nico Gemmell says. “When our clients entertain, they open it all up.”
To reinforce connections between inside and outdoors, the team used porcelain for the interior and exterior walls and floors. A custom dining table made with a slab of Indonesian suar wood and designed by Fred Gemmell straddles the envelope of the building, with part remaining inside and part underneath a covered outdoor patio—it also can be broken down into three separate sections to serve more intimate occasions. Outside, a swimming pool runs parallel to the terraced steps that cascade down the natural topography of the property. “By the time you swim to the end, it’s 10 feet off the ground with a vanishing edge on all three sides,” Fred Gemmell says, noting that the pool feeds the spa on the second level and a children’s wading pool at the bottom. “It’s a really fun, very sculptural element of the house.”
Elsewhere, the concrete yields to a more organic environment, with oaks and other native plants, created by landscape architect Theresa Clark. “It wasn’t just horizontal planes to design gardens for but nearly vertical ones as well,” Clark says, pointing to bamboo installed in raised trapezoidal planters along the lower- floor guest room hallway—just one of several distinct zones that she created throughout the property. A decomposed granite pathway leading up the hill to the gazebo, for example, runs underneath a large boulder held by two iron beams. “It’s held up semi- precariously, so it gives someone pause,” she says. “I like choreographed moments that allow you to stop and consider before moving forward.”
The house, too, is full of such moments thanks to a subtle palette of wood tones with stone accents that were selected so that the focus remains on the exterior. “There’s sort of a tone-on-tone aspect,” Fred Gemmell says. “The idea was to have the architecture serve as the background for their art and the landscape.” Custom cabinetry with bleached-koa veneers are paired with
dramatic black-and-white-patterned stone—a mix of granite and metallic sandstone—that has been used throughout the home. “It all marries together,” Howell says. “It’s one look, and you feel it all the way through.”
Indeed, the owners and design team are thrilled with the results of their close collaboration. “We want our clients to feel like they have created a space that has meaning to them and offers solutions to the way that they want to live,” Fred Gemmell says. And according to Nico Gemmell, the new home conforms to both the landscape and their clients’ character. “This house really feels like an ode to the wife’s love for her family,” she says, “and that makes us feel like we’ve done a successful project.”