A simple garden, a plain white stucco wall, a wooden door. At first glance, the house at the end of a quiet cul de sac in La Jolla doesn’t command much attention; its street view presents a kind of architectural poker face. And while architect Tony Crisafi hails this subtlety as one of the home’s most distinguishing features (“The owners are from Mexico City and prefer the anonymity that comes with living ‘behind the garden wall,’” he explains), he also revels in the way the design unveils every inch of itself, one surprise at a time. “It’s not like a bottle of cheap Champagne that fizzles out as soon as you pop it open,” muses Crisafi.
Pivoting open the tzalam wood entry door—a gorgeous custom-designed sculpture in its own right, featuring a lattice of hand-carved inlaid squares—doesn’t reveal a traditional foyer, but rather a courtyard accentuated by a reflecting pool. This serene space, enclosed on two sides by glass and topped with a ceiling of sky, is the architecture’s first indoor-outdoor gesture. Throughout the sprawling footprint, disappearing walls—of both the glass and pocket-door variety—aren’t simply generous portals through which Southern California’s warm sunlight and fresh ocean air infuse the home. They’re also the apertures that capture views of the pool, garden, distant beach or even other rooms in the house, well-appointed with the homeowners’ vast collection of modern art.
Crisafi incorporated “shifting planes” into the design that provide thrilling elements of surprise—just when the edge of the home is in sight, there’s another level below with more to offer. “In this way, the home unfolds like a good story,” he says. While the living room, for instance, extends its footprint to include an outdoor reflecting pool on the rear terrace, a few steps toward the edge discloses another chapter, another surprise, another tier—a swimming pool. On another tier below that lies a garden. And underneath the massive, all-concrete podium deck that holds it all, an additional unforeseen wonder reveals itself: a cavernous nine-car garage, with nary a supporting vertical post or I-beam in sight. “The entire house sits on it. It spans from front to back,” explains builder Daniel Arenas. “It was easily one of my greatest challenges.”
Interior designer Hilda Espino worked her own surprises into the mix. Rather than countering the boxy, minimalist architecture with, say, overtly curvaceous furniture and lots of soft textures, Espino embraced the right angles and sleek surfaces. Square layouts appear in the living room, where the furniture is centered for coziness rather than banished to the outskirts, and in the dining room, where a generous custom square table can host dinner for a dozen.
Black leather seating in the family room is decidedly modern, and an abstract painting in primary colors by Loli, a popular, mono-monikered Mexican artist, heightens the vibe, as do the stainless-steel appliances and bar stools in the adjacent kitchen. Yet, somehow, in the presence of all these contemporary attributes, warmth prevails.
“The family room is large in scale, but cozy,” says Espino. “It’s open to the pool terrace and the kitchen, which helps a lot,” because, after all, nothing enlivens a space more than a flurry of activity. The wood-and-leather custom drop ceiling, also designed to echo the home’s orthogonal expression, creates even more intimacy.
At the center of it all, one significant sculptural piece that Espino and Crisafi describe, respectively, as “the heart of the home” and “the binding of the book”: an elegant staircase that seems to float between all three floors. At once understated and grand, it’s the only geometry in the house that swerves. When placed in the context of architecture that exhibits all the trademarks of cool minimalism, it’s the biggest surprise of all.