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Hillside Haven: Lexton/MacCarthy Residence by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects

Silver Lake, California: Grounded in the tradition of mid-20th Century modernism (and grounded by stringent building codes) a new house seems to "float" effortlessly above the canyons of Los Angeles.

by Kristen Richards
May 2, 2002

Classic stucco-and-red-tile Spanish-Mediterranean estates for movie stars and studio moguls started dotting the hills around Los Angeles from the very beginning of the Hollywood film industry. The Silver Lake area was particularly favored because it was so close to the Hollywood studios. Beginning in the 1930’s through the 1960’s, the sloping sites offered California modernists like Wright, Schindler, Neutra, Lautner, and others, the opportunity to invent new forms, transforming the hillside house into a contemporary building type. (Local realtors point out that there are more architecturally significant homes per square mile – both traditional and contemporary – in Silver Lake than in other area of Los Angeles.)


Continuing in the contemporary tradition, a steeply sloping lot for the Lexton/MacCarthy residence in Silver Lake presented Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects the same timeless challenges and no easy solutions. In addition to the geographical conditions, the 1994 Northridge earthquake put rather severe building codes into play. In an interview with the New York Times earlier this year, Lorcan O’Herlihy said: "There's no greater challenge than a hillside. It's a dangerous place to build."


The program called for a 2,000-square-foot house with a carport; the site’s sharp hillside presented wonderful west facing views of Los Angeles. To O’Herlihy, everything suggested “a formal strategy of abstract geometrical forms conceived as a play of positive and negative volumes – straight dislocation.” He proposed creating a new vocabulary for wood structures that would meet strict building codes and still maintain the striking “lightness” of earlier modernist houses.


Retaining walls, excavation, and site grading are typically a major portion of the construction cost for hillside houses. The building pad elevation and siting were considered to minimize the heights of retaining walls and amount of grading. O’Herlihy made the code-required foundations and supporting trusses part of the architecture rather than elements to be buried and/or hidden.


The house is wrapped horizontally in 1-by-6-inch pine siding that “floats" away from the structure on 2-by-2-inch vertical spacers; the second floor siding is stained blue. This visually establishes a horizontal layer on the primary floor and vertical volume on the second floor. “The formal simplicity allows for a greater focus on materials, proportions, and details,” says O’Herlihy. “The abstract geometric forms stripped of superfluous detailing reinforces the modernist reticence, but is mediated through the use of wood surfaces that ‘play’ with the California light.”


Given the limited square footage, the primary floor is primarily a flexible open plan that includes living and dining room areas, a kitchen, guest bedroom, and bathroom (and separate studios for the professional couple). The living room fenestration on the west wall is recessed, and dining area windows are framed with glu-laminated beams; both treatments reinforce the vertical lines of the house. The second floor, dedicated to the master bedroom suite, seems to “float” above one section of the first floor. The carport “breaks away” from the house with its path traced by a connecting stairway.


A research component of the project identified Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses as a point of departure. In this case, O’Herlihy’s solution blurs the criteria that a building should reveal its construction at first glance, and instead allows the skin to wrap the structure with glass, concrete, and wood.


Lorcan O’Herlihy’s explorations in residential design were recently featured in “The New American House 3,” and “Lorcan O’Herlihy” (Contemporary World Architects series).



Client: Kevin MacCarthy, Lauren Lexton

Architect: Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects

Design Team: Lorcan O'Herlihy (Principal in Charge), Michael Poirier (Project Manager), Danika Baldwin, Ricardo Diaz (Project Team)

Structural Engineer: Paul Franceschi

General Contractor: Ben Harrison, Adam Savage

Photography: Douglas Hill


Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects was founded in 1989. O’Herlihy has taught extensively over the last decade including the Architectural Association, where he was Unit Master and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), where he was a graduate studio instructor.


Previously, O’Herlihy worked at I.M.Pei and Partners on the Louvre Museum in Paris and as an associate at Steven Holl Architects, where he was responsible for several projects including the award winning Hybrid building in Seaside, Florida, which received a National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.


Currently on the boards are a number of commercial and residential projects in the U.S. and Europe. The firms’ work has been recognized internationally with a number of awards, exhibitions, and publications, and has appeared in Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record, Abitare, Architectural Review, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.


Also featured on ANN:


Habitat 825 by Lorcan O'Herlihy Architects
West Hollywood, California: An apartment building draws inspiration from its neighbor - Schindler's Kings Road House.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Douglas Hill)
The west elevation of the Lexton/MacCarthy Residence in Silver Lake.

(Douglas Hill)
The house in the dusk.

(Douglas Hill)
View from the roof terrace

(Douglas Hill)
The door leading to an outdoor garden.

(Douglas Hill)
Exterior pine siding "floats" away from the structure on 2-by-2-inch spacers.

(Douglas Hill)
Detail of the corner windows.

(Douglas Hill)
Detail of the windows.

(Douglas Hill)
Detail of pine siding.

(Douglas Hill)
The dining room.

(Douglas Hill)
The living room.

(Douglas Hill)
View of the stairway.

(Douglas Hill)
The master bedroom.

(Douglas Hill)
One of two home-office studios.

Site plan

West elevation

First floor plan

Second floor plan

© 2004