John Kewell’s Schipper Residence

John Kewell’s Schipper Residence

By Pierluigi Serraino

Architecture comes with a history of its use. This is especially so for a dwelling, where the events, personalities, and choices of its occupants are encrypted in its walls, cumulative scrolls of life unfolding within them. The Schipper Residence is nowhere to be found in history books, but its postwar setting bears the hallmarks of a bold legacy deemed today central in the development of modernity on American soil. It features an open plan without being a glass box; its material palette is decisively modern, yet exposed steel members are visibly absent; it promotes the outdoors sans sacrificing privacy; it is spacious because of efficiency in its layout as opposed to “bigness” in its square footage and massing.

Canadian born John Kewell, the original architect of the Schipper Residence located in Westwood, is far from being a household name. And even experts of the Southern California scene are hard-pressed to link his name to specific projects. His premature departure at age 60 in 1975 might partially explain why – although not exclusively – as he was getting bigger and bigger commissions later in his career and his visibility was on the rise. Yet his academic credentials and professional achievements already earn him entry into the crowd of designers that created the midcentury heritage. Graduated from McGill University of Montreal, Canada, in 1936, Kewell pursued his graduate studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology during the Mies van der Rohe period in 1942. His arrival to Southern California most likely coincided with the massive influx of knowledge workers that formed the military–industrial complex under the urgency of World War II. Following the end of the conflict, Kewell was hired as a chief designer at the Los Angeles branch of the Austin Company and subsequently at the noted architectural firm Stiles and Clements gaining experience in infrastructural projects and large scale schemes. It was in 1947 when he went solo professionally gaining momentum early on with the completion of a shopping center in Pasadena in 1949, barely 34 years of age.

As the workload increased he entered into a short-lived partnership as Kewell, Kocher & Benedict to then head his own company – John Kewell and Associates — by 1952. His was a generalist practice, with project types ranging from the highly publicized warehouse and office building for Chase Brass & Copper Company in Los Angeles to the Katella Park Homes subdivision in Garden Grove to schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District to a number of industrial and research facilities for clients like Hughes Aircraft, Arrowhead, and Borg-Wagner all around Southern California. To his highly successful business he added a few years of teaching as a 4th year design critic at the University of Southern California and held various appointments with the regional and state chapters of the American Institute of Architects over three decades. By all accounts, in his thirty–year career, John Kewell enjoyed meaningful press coverage and garnered numerous design awards for his work, making him a definite contributor to the mid-century modern mythology.

Single family residences were sporadic projects in Kewell’s vast portfolio. In those occasions, however, the design vocabulary remained within the range of the larger modernist vernacular rather than the dogmatic orthodoxy of flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling glass. The Schipper Residence is therefore representative in all respects of a calibrated modernism for the middle class as could be found in many shelter magazines of the post-war age. Sited into the hills of Westwood, just a few minutes from the UCLA campus, this project rests atop a site with a steep slope. Having a pad on that dramatic topography delivered significant logistical advantages to the occupants: it provided a sense of retreat from the street below; it afforded a Westside vista; it brought more natural light to the interiors than it would have gained at a lower elevation where the sidewalk is. From the street level, the residence remains inconspicuous despite its assertive horizontality. What catches the eye when looking at the long elevation facing the street at first are the two extrusions from the main vertical plane where the classic “spider legs,” that is the beam extensions connecting to the vertical posts without transverse structural elements, are prominently featured. It is the signature touch of Rudolph Schindler’s Kings Road masterpiece as well as a consistent design quotation in Case Study House architects Richard Neutra and A.Quincy Jones, all of them venerated figures in the mid-century modern folklore.

While hillside lots typically offered opportunities for structural acrobatics to maximize site use in the architecture of the period, in this case a more restrained approach was adopted. The plan diagram is quasi-classical in land use: a modernist retreat sitting on a hill like an ancient temple. The ascent to the main entry is a lyrical meandering path on a drought-tolerant landscape with minimalist railings. At the arrival landing, a mute concrete podium functioning as a retaining wall provides the new ground plane where the house sits. An open switchback stair to the left leads to the main entry where the transition from public, semipublic, semiprivate, and private is finally complete. This carefully choreographed sequence is original to the vintage design.

The house design started in 1952 and construction was completed in 1954. Despite its hovering position on the street below its character is unimposing and dignified at the same time. The board-and-batten exterior cladding and the ribbon windows are textbook references to the period. The post and beam construction with the low pitched roof, chamfered beam extensions included, seem to have come straight out of an issue of Sunset Magazine during its golden age. Architects such as Buff, Straub & Hensman and designers like Cliff May made of this imagery a standard trope in California architecture at mid-century. And yet for all its familiarity, the house retains its own distinction. It is the choice of a scheme typically found on a flat site inserted on a challenging topography that sets in motion a dynamic and uncommon relationship of the architecture to its surroundings.

The original nucleus of the house was more modest in size: a basic rectangle featuring the essentials: living dining areas with secluded sleeping quarters facing north. Its initial layout was rather conservative in arrangement as a wall separated the vestibule from the living room and the kitchen was fully enclosed. What was distinctive about the interior was the parquet made of two-by-two wood tiles, a very unusual flooring choice for Southern California, while being more frequently seen on the East Coast. Instead of an open plan, the compartmentalization of each function cost a heavy premium to the living experience: a more generous connection with the outdoors. New needs brought change early on in the life cycle of the structure and a studio on the south side was appended to the original footprint. The house acquired in scale and length. And although its perimeter became fragmented, the low continuous line of the roof overhangs extruded over the new part brought architectural unity to the intervention.

A new master bedroom and master bathroom came about in the early 2000s, together with big and small adjustments to all the other areas with the exception of the studio and a storage space, per the owners’ directives. The intent of the executed design brought to light what was only incubation in the original plan: to give brightness to the interior by creating a true open plan. Jeff Allsbrook, a SCI-Arc alumnus then in the early stages as a principal of his own firm, was the architect of the remodel. His approach was as minimalist as it was impactful. He subtracted surfaces from the existing condition to yield the spaciousness the enclosure never had, aggrandizing the architectural experience of living without losing its domesticity. The wall at the entry and that separating the kitchen from the dining area were removed to establish a more fluid circulation and deeper sightlines throughout. But it was the divider between the kitchen and the living room – changed from a vertical plane to a volume fitted to house cabinets and appliances and scaled to match the height of the opposing walls – that broke the separateness of each zone and established a spatial continuum.

Many light touches uniformly contributed to the qualitative improvement of what was there. A light well in the original main bathroom, a side window at the end of a modular built-in closet, the increase in the amount of glazing toward the back, ease of accessibility to the outdoors, wood decking over the concrete tiles on the patio, and many more micro-and-macro episodes created a build-up without recurring to a big move overwhelming the balance of the overall environment. The new master bathroom alone is a disciplined choreography of material alignments with window mullions, and modular design, with its unique fenestration and measured positioning of the vanity as it relates to the bathtub. The spareness of each move is evocative of abstracted elegance as opposed to detached mechanical determinism. It is an updated and possibly more benevolent version of “less is more.”

Most of all, it is the glow emanating from the whiteness of the walls that strikes those who step over the threshold at the entry. In that light, the maculate modularity of the parquet stands out in all its vividness. Every element in space exhibits starkness of contours, whose legibility is as logical as it is poetic. The nakedness of the walls is a subtle reinforcement of the aesthetic stillness permeating this domestic void. In this architectural canvas, every cut out – whether a window, a slider, a skylight – frames a piece of nature where the organic and the geometric merge. While landscape architect Judy Kameon redesigned the lush sustainable garden filled with agaves in the front gracing the sharp incline of the terrain, landscape architects Heather Hendrickson and Katja Perrey reorganized the outdoor areas in the back. Despite the different hands, the open spaces exhibit remarkable unity, where architecture and landscape become an inseparable entity. Through Allsbrook’s thoughtful remodeling and the re-envisioning of the gardens, the new extended and complemented the original demonstrating that a house, like a city, is a living organism, amenable to pick up the changes need to accommodate new generations of users.

For a house so inconspicuous in the legendary array of single family residences in Los Angeles, this property has gathered a unique set of three different owners, sharing a common – and indeed rare – trait: the Arts. And with the current ones, in particular, the house itself has become an inspirational tool for the development of new art. Merle Schipper was the original owner of the residence. A well-known art critic and historian for the Los Angeles Times, she covered and occasionally curated exhibits on abstract art for various magazines. Her critical work was deemed consequential enough to grant her lifework entry in the venerable Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution. Her expertise was abstract art and it is highly likely that her own house was visited by the many artists she reviewed over the years. The second owner was an architect.

But it is with the current owners, East Coast transplants, and themselves a distinguished couple steeped in the Southern California art scene, that the architecture of the house and its surrounding natural environment turned into objects of artistic expression. Jane Weinstock is a filmmaker with a long love affair for architecture. She made the house function as a gallery and as a party location for her first film Easy, issued in 2003. In that footage, both interiors and exteriors of the Schipper Residence appears prominently in a long night scene. And throughout that same movie, architecture is notably featured when the father of the protagonist is an architect heading his own office, in real life the headquarters of noted architect Frederick Fisher, and the protagonist herself plays with the model of Morphosis’ 2-4-6-8 House in Venice.

James Welling, her husband, is a well-known fine arts photographer with a teaching post at UCLA in the art department. In his art as well, architecture features significantly. His highly original visions of one of the most overrepresented buildings in the history of modern architecture, the Glass House by Philip Johnson in New Canaan, Connecticut, demonstrate the centrality that the built environment has in his seductive photographic abstractions. To him, the gardens of the Schipper Residence became a theme for an ongoing artistic exploration where foliage and flowers under the Southern California light are exacted from their surroundings bathed under different coloration erasing organic details.

In 2001, their encounter with the house was as serendipitous as it was inevitable. Deeply knowledgeable of architecture, they resonated with the space at once, despite the name of the architect lacked any recognition among their contemporaries. They bought the house from the second owner, recognized its being part of a charge heritage, and embarked on the remodeling shortly after cognizant of what they had. To have two individuals who have committed their lives to the arts and are passionate about architecture be an integral part of the design process creates a unique synergy between them and the architect. It is this double sensitivity that made the remodeling a considerable improvement of the original, a statistically rare occurrence. By undoing the missed opportunities of what they found, this ad hoc team capitalized on what was there to get to convey fully the architectural message scripted in the siting and layout of the house.

Louis Kahn famously claimed that “architecture is the thoughtful making of space.” This insight is valid whether the project is a monument or a utilitarian building. But when applied to a residence, it is the inhabitants who fully experience the benefits of its depth. In that sense, and in its current state, the Schipper Residence is qualitatively a much stronger architectural statement than it ever was.

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