A stylistic hodgepodge of a house on a desirable stretch of Malibu beach had little in the way of aesthetics to offer architect Richard Manion’s clients, who were on the hunt for a weekend retreat. The expansive footprint and existing pool, however, proved irresistible, so the couple turned to Manion to help them create a minimalist getaway.
In contrast to their more traditional New England-style residence in Los Angeles, also designed by Manion, “We all wanted to explore a contemporary vocabulary from the start that would be clean, warm and inviting,” he says. The challenges along the way were numerous, including a steeply sloping and skinny lot, height limitations to protect neighbors’ beach views, a footprint dictated by the existing house, and a public beach-access path that ran down the side of the property—not to mention aging plumbing systems near the water that had to be replaced and moved closer to the street.
To begin the project, Manion and his team gutted everything. The guiding principle thereafter was “the idea of a very pure, modern shape with the interest being in the geometry,” he notes. The L-shaped plan wraps around the pool and spa, with the views from the living room and master bedroom above focusing on a peninsula in the distance. The approach plays well to what he aimed to achieve: an elegant yet opaque mass at the street level that hides its surprises. “We wanted the front of the house to be very monumental, very solid and very dense,” says the architect. The solid walls screen a neighbor to one side, and landscape architect Mark Beall installed a ficus hedge on the other side that conceals the property from the public beach path. “In the back, we wanted it to be the opposite—as much glass as possible to take in the views,” adds Manion. The nearly all-steel framing allowed the architect to create entire walls of glass that nonetheless meet strict earthquake codes. The resulting glass doors lift and stack along each end of every façade, offering access to the outdoors, erasing boundaries between inside and out.
Manion’s introduction to the interior starts off as more enclosed and secretive, not revealing the knockout view yet to come. It begins with a breathtaking atrium in the foyer, where a skylight sends light spilling down a curving staircase. “The staircase kind of floats in that three-story cavity and just attaches where necessary,” says builder Rick Holz. From there, Manion conceived the house as a progression from one moment to the next, where nothing is revealed all at once. “A lot of what we discussed was how things unfold as you walk through the house,” says the wife. “It’s all about how you experience the home in different ways.” A hallway from the foyer, for example, leads to the prize: a split-level living, dining and family room with limestone floors that continue out to a beachside terrace through glass walls, some topping nearly 10 feet and almost disappearing when pulled back. “We spend almost all of our time there with all the doors open,” the wife says.
The warm, creamy stucco on the home’s exterior seamlessly flows inside with plaster colored to match, so none of the walls were painted. “It has this great modernistic simplicity, but it’s not cold like a museum—it’s warm and soft,” Manion says. Against this backdrop, furnishings by such 20th-century masters as Charlotte Perriand, Jean Prouvé, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret fill the home. They look utterly of the moment within Manion’s starkly modern context. And although the walls and floors evoke the color of sand, the rest of the palette takes its cues from the landscape. As the wife puts it, “I like the juxtaposition of the beach setting against our contemporary home and furnishings.”
Beall made sure the exterior landscape spoke the same modern, elegantly spare language as the rest of the home. There was little he could plant in the ground because of the pool and terrace in back and the plumbing infrastructure underneath the driveway in front, so instead he devised a series of highly sculptural living vignettes in pots by Belgium-based Atelier Vierkant. Beall explored a variety of options before he came up with the right plants that were both shapely and sturdy amid the salty ocean breeze. “Keeping the modern theme going with these beautiful pots and textural plants was the direction we wanted to go,” says Beall.
Manion credits all the site’s challenges—in addition to the lengthy permitting process and coastal storms that interrupted construction more than once—for bringing out the best in all the members of the design team. “It was a very unusual opportunity for us,” he says. “But we were all so excited by what we were able to make of it.”