Work in Progress 

One architect’s never-ending search for the well-lived home and life . . . in which Josh Schweitzer explains why you should tear down your house

Thursday, Sep 15 2005
Photos by Anne Fishbein

A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.

R. Buckminster Fuller

It is the greatest mistake to think that man is always one and the same. A man is never the same for long. He is continually changing. He seldom remains the same even for half an hour.

—George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff

“You can’t miss it. It’s the only house on the street that looks like it isn’t there,” says the voice on the phone.

This is the first clue.

Then, out of the corner of your eye, driving past the parade of beige houses, all perfectly aligned along sidewalks evenly stitched with date palms, you spot a flash of blue, a smear of sky. And though you’ve just passed it, you really can’t miss it. The absence of the house is alarming, a glitch in the Matrix. Now you are sure that what you are about to see will challenge your definition of home; it will force you to see things in a new way. This house will demand it.

To read Linda Immediato's accompanying story on Habitat for Humanity and its efforts to house people after Katrina, click here.
As you approach the driveway, a path unexpectedly materializes. And should you choose to follow this path, though there is no clear indication you should, it will deliver you to a wooden slatted gate guarded by a heavy-duty metal call box that would take Ocean’s 11 to crack. But the gate opens without explosives or code-hacking device, finally revealing the covert abode and its creator.

Architect Josh Schweitzer, with his shock of chlorine-tinged white hair and matching soul patch, resembles a hip L.A. Mad Hatter, minus the hat. Circular plastic glasses, so emblematic of his profession, dangle willy-nilly from his paint-spotted gray T-shirt.

I trail him past a small building (a former carport turned artist’s studio), a glimmering pool and a jungle in infancy. Birds of paradise, only 4 feet high now (they will eventually grow to 20), punctuate the landscape here and there, like green exclamation marks on the mud. There is not a blade of grass in eyeshot; it’s wall-to-wall dirt. As we hop from cement rectangle to cement rectangle, or the occasional planks of wood that act as makeshift footbridges, Schweitzer says apologetically, “This will all be filled in with grass; we just haven’t gotten around to getting the sod yet.”

Then, rising from the primordial soil, is The House, designed for his family from the ground up. There was a small 900-square-foot cottage on the property, which he promptly ordered scraped off the land. This came as no surprise to friends who sought Schweitzer’s counsel for their new homes and were met by his swift verdict: “Tear it down.” Off with your house. One family friend said she had waited to invite Schweitzer over until she got her new home “just right” in hopes it would escape his mental bulldozer. And when he was finally allowed to visit, she asked him hesitantly, “So... what do you think?” He paused, shook his head and dashed her hopes against the walls with two words — “tear down.” He’s not trying to be cruel; it’s just that Schweitzer thinks that most houses are built wrong. The living spaces are placed in the front, facing the street, and the bedrooms in the back, facing the yard, dividing the house into very separate inside and outside spaces, which usually can’t be experienced at the same time.

“It’s like everyone has an idea of what a house should be, or what they’ve had in the past,” he says, “and they just follow it without really thinking about it.”

Of course, Schweitzer knows most people can’t afford to erase their house and start over. “I have to come up with some kind of plan,” he says. “Typically, I just turn the house inside out.” This might include moving around a few inner walls to get the shared living spaces — the living room, kitchen and dining room — together and oriented toward the outside. “Moving walls is easy,” Schweitzer announces breezily. At least it’s usually less expensive than demolition and rebuilding. And Schweitzer knows better than most how hard it is to create a home out of a lifetime’s worth of good ideas.

“Designing this house was a painful process,” he winces, closing the curtains on his upstaging green-blue eyes. Of all the buildings he designed — including the West Hollywood reform synagogue Congregation Kol Ami; the late CITY café, both Border Grills and Ciudad (restaurants his wife, Mary-Sue Milliken, created with partner Susan Feniger); Campanile restaurant, in a building built originally for Charlie Chaplin and his child-bride Lita Grey; his former shared getaway called “The Monument” in Joshua Tree Park; along with several offices and celebrity homes — building his new house was the toughest because, he says, “I had all the time in the world.” There were no deadlines and the possibilities were endless. He’d start drawing and change it midway, mid-line. He built more than 40 different scaled models — every day a new house.

Charles Keeler, artist and staunch supporter of architect Bernard Maybeck and the Simple Home movement, once said that “of all architecture, the designing of the home brings the artist into closest touch with the life of man.” A home is a shelter, an incubator for children and, for the architect who lives there, an extension of himself. What does Schweitzer want to say about himself and about the life of man? Let’s go with him and check his reflection in the looking glass.

 The jungle in infancy
From the outside, the Schweitzers’ house looks hewn from a single block of stone, monolithic and immovable. There is a sense of permanence and grounding, important qualities for a family. The granite look is actually just unfinished brown stucco, a favorite of Schweitzer’s — and a puzzlement to some of the tradesmen he works with. When he refuses to put those last few coats on, many contractors look at him like he’s crazy, the Mad Hatter.

“When we take these screens off, it’s gonna have these rocks that drag and scar — and pebbles,” he says, mimicking the contractors’ concern. He tells them, “Yeah, but I like that.” He likes how the stucco will stain from the rain. He likes that the color will fade and, yes, that moss might grow on it. The cement wall that hides the house has already started to weep its lye.

“It’s starting to breathe life,” Schweitzer says, wringing his hands with the zest of Howard Hughes alone with a bar of soap, then uttering a statement that would have made the germ-phobic industrialist shudder: “If it grows moldy it will be even better.”

Not only does Schweitzer want his house to age, he intentionally built it to grow old gracefully. All homes age, but most of us fight it: We repaint every few years, sanding and smoothing out chips. Our nip-tuck society is reflected in where we live, but aging is an inevitability that Schweitzer actually looks forward to and accepts as “part of the process.”

Slicing the single-story house open like a polished geode are 12-foot windows and doors that remain open all day, allowing in a balmy cross breeze that gives the feeling of being perpetually on vacation. As a kid growing up in Ohio and Kentucky, Schweitzer fantasized about living in a “tropical kind of place” with ocean breezes and palm trees.

“If it was up to me,” he confesses as we enter an open area that encompasses the dining room, kitchen and living room, “I’d live in a place that had a floor and ceiling and no walls.”

Realizing that even temperate Southern California has a seasonal need for walls, Schweitzer did the next best thing — he made them out of glass. “See all those palm trees out there?” he asks, pointing past the giant window-walls to the tops of the six or seven trees that line the street beyond. “We only have one in our yard, but they’re all ours now.” This is a Japanese concept of borrowed landscape that is foreign to all of us curtain-closers. The Japanese may live in confined areas, but they often create shared spaces — if you live near a mountain, you have only to open your window and look at it to own it.

“That’s why building on the mountains is forbidden in Japan,” Schweitzer says. “The view cannot be marred even for a billion-dollar home, since it belongs to everyone.”

This idea is another reason Schweitzer put his pool in the front yard and built his house toward the back of the lot — and another example of how people can go wrong when building a house.

“I don’t understand why everyone on this block, where some of them have these amazingly huge lots, didn’t stagger the houses, building some in the back, some in the front. Instead they lined them up in the middle, all in a row, so when they look out their side windows, it’s like, BAM, your neighbors are right on top of you.”

 Schweitzer and Milliken
she's not the only one who cooks.
Now look at the view from Schweitzer’s house. It’s surrounded by his neighbors’ back yards, and when he looks out his windows, he shares their flowering trees and open sky.

And now that he’s on the subject, Schweitzer gets a little upset. “I don’t understand this guy,” he says as hedirects his pointer finger, like a PowerPoint presenter. “He never comes out of his house. We live in this unbelievable place and people just don’t live outside. They don’t go outside. They stay inside and turn on their air conditioning when we have this breeze that comes from the beach and cools everything down!” He’s genuinely bewildered. “I mean, this is as hot as it gets. If you can’t take that?!”

After Schweitzer’s “you can’t handle the truth” Nicholson meltdown, you suddenly see what is being demanded of you. The R. Buckminster Fuller idea about there being no up and down comes to mind — except with Schweitzer, it’s in and out. Southern Californians may have a reputation for indoor-outdoor living, but too many of us need a shove out the door.

“That’s what was great about the other place,” Schweitzer dreamily recollects, “it really forced us to go outside. It was like a little village.”

He sounds like he’s talking about an unrequited love. The paramour in question, the former Aloha Swim School on Washington Boulevard, was remade by Schweitzer into a living compound and inhabited by his family for 20 years. Each room was actually a separate structure set around an Olympic-sized pool. The locker rooms were transformed into the living room, kitchen and dining room where friends and family gathered. Sheltered by tropical landscaping, the garage shed on the other side of the pool became the master bedroom, and separate “houses” were built for his sons as they came into the world. For most kids, a bad dream means a trip down a hallway to Mom and Dad — for his oldest son, Declan, it meant a Where the Wild Things Are adventure down an outdoor path under a blanket of darkness. “At 2 a.m. Declan’s door would open, then close, and then we’d hear the sound of his feet padding against the cement floors, growing closer before the knock at our door,” Schweitzer remembers. “It never phased him, it’s just what he had to do to get to Mom and Dad.”

The problem was that the house was a fortress, with tall fences surrounding the forest in fantasyland that the kids loved when they were younger but isolated them as they got older. Living far from friends made planning play dates a logistical nightmare.

“The kids were walled in,” Schweitzer says. “There was no place to go.” If it weren’t for that, they probably would have stayed forever. Even the parts that sounded bad, like having to grab an umbrella on rainy days to traverse the outdoor staircase from the bedroom to the kitchen, take on a sweet nostalgia. Schweitzer remembers how Declan, 3 or 4 at the time, was shocked to discover that other people didn’t live the way he did when he visited a friend for the first time. “Wow, your house is so weird,” he’d said, “you have stairs inside your house.”

Schweitzer had initially wanted to build separate structures for the new house, but the building departmentwouldn’t let him. They were afraid that the narrow 54-by-300-foot property would get subdivided into tiny rental units. But even with this limitation, Schweitzer didn’t give up his ideas. So in the new home, there is no in and out; it is one living space. A hallway runs through the middle of the 3,200-square-foot house, acting as a pebble-spotted cement runway for the kids, who freely jump out of the front-yard pool and run through the house dripping wet (something that would cause a coronary in many wood-floored houses), to the small backyard garden on the other side.

For the house itself he was limited only by his wife’s hand in designing the kitchen (both inside and, coming soon, outside as well). The kids also had a say in designing their rooms — mainly the cry was for sleeping lofts. So Kieran’s room can hold almost every action figure imaginable and an upright piano, because his drawers are built into the steps that lead to his lofted bed, which is surrounded by books. Declan has a desk in his “downstairs” space and a really cool IKEA carpet that looks like spliced cable wire. But when it came to closets and drawers, Declan wanted “flexibility,” so Schweitzer didn’t design built-ins.

In this sense, the son is much like the father.

To Schweitzer, a house and its rooms should be ever-changing. A person is an evolving being, and a home should mirror that concept. The solid mustard-colored wall of the living room, for instance, changed shape many times during the course of construction. In its currentincarnation it is recessed, giving the impression of a giant fireplace worthy of Hearst Castle, except there is no fireplace, just an empty boxfilled with shadow — a shadowplace. A mantle above it holds artwork, some of Schweitzer’s own paintings. Soffits pour through the house like cubistic drips. “It comes from my restaurant work,” he says. “The floor had to be free for movement, but up here,” he motions to the ceiling, “is all a playground to me.”

Things changed by the minute during construction, too. Schweitzer would work on designs up to the moment the nail went in. “I’d ask the contractor, ‘Whatcha guys working on today?’ If he said, ‘The living room soffits,’ I’d quickly go to my studio and bang out a few new drawings, changing it as they were building.” A very merry unbirthday to them. But he insists, “They didn’t give a shit, as long as it didn’t affect time or money.”

The problem is his mind won’t stop, evidenced by the eyeglasses, glassware and even jewelry he’s designed, in addition to chairs, tables, lamps, waiters’ uniforms and more. “I love the process, the infinite variables.”

What he hates is shopping — he’d rather do anything than shop. As a result, the rooms are sparely decorated with objects Schweitzer either made or inherited from earlier jobs, including chairs he designed for Border Grill and a dining-room table rejected from Diane Keaton’s home (it was originally mauve, now it’s a pale yellow). The family room, with a solid, sliding wood door, boasts a reproduction Bucky Fuller globe, an illuminated reminder of the out and in. And in the living room is a fixture from CITY café, a sculpture-esque light standing more than 10 feet tall that looks like a red TV with giant yellow legs, a functional souvenir of his and Milliken’s early days. You’d think it was tailored for the very spot where it stands, but when it was dragged out of storage, Schweitzer and Milliken scratched their heads and said, “How about here?” It still has the same bulb from 10 years ago.

To further illustrate his hatred of shopping, Schweitzer tells the tale of the foam-core light shade he had to make in desperation before a photo shoot because neither he nor his wife, another shopaphobe, ever bothered to buy a real shade. The faux one ended up hanging over their dining-room table for 10 years until it finally fell apart from old age — walls he can change in an instant, but don’t ask him to buy a new couch.

The only store Schweitzer can abide is IKEA. “It’s one-stop shopping, with kind of disposable furniture, but it still looks good and is cheap enough that it’s OK if it falls apart. We’ll buy, like, this coffee table for example, and say, ‘Oh, we’ll just use it for a few weeks until we get a new one,’ then wind up having it for a few years.” He laughs at himself as he places his condensation-coated water glass on it, sans coaster. He looks again to a Japanese philosophy of architecture, which involves never quite finishing a room. “The rooms are simple and austere because if they got any more done there would be this finality of it. In the whole process, there’s a life of the thing, the idea that it can change and evolve. Nothing is fixed. Furniture comes in and out, but when [a home] is done... it would be dead.”

The evolution of the space and the evolution of the man can’t be separated. When Schweitzer gave up his architecture firm four years ago to pursue painting, some looked at it as a midlife crisis. But Schweitzer felt that he was ready for a new phase; he was ready to change into something else. Now he’s a stay-at-home dad who bakes pies, makes sausage from scratch and escapes to the pod he created for himself, the artist’s studio we passed on the way in — the old carport area. This is where he can freely explore his fascination with process and discovery, which he describes as threads that reveal themselves. He’ll pull one here, see where it goes, only to have another show. He surveys the piles and piles of painted boxes glued together like, well, rooms in a house — some painted white, some red, some marked by something that looks like a roasted coffee bean. Most of the work lying about was for his first show, called “Smoothbox,” at the gallery Glü.

“It’s, well, you know... ” Schweitzer is trying find a polite word to describe his art, but he quickly gives up. “Uh ... they’re pussies, really. It just kept coming out. I played with the yoni shape; I played with a Styrofoam/wood-block thing.” He picks up a piece of framed art, which, if you held it up to a mirror, would declare, “I LOVE YOUR PUSSY.” He grins somewhat sheepishly. He likes “the way the paint seeps through the tape on the boxes, and uses the fact that it was crushed by the UPS guy. The boxes begin to have a life, too, just like his house.

“If I don’t like it, I paint over it or throw it away. Some I go, ‘Yep, that’s done.’ Some take a year — I just let them sit there. But I don’t want to keep painting pussies forever and ever and ever. I just need to figure out what thread I’m going to pull next.”

So we’ve been asked to tear down our home, to live inside and out, to put our back yards in the front, to open our curtains and steal our neighbors’ views — to redefine what a home is. But right now, with his old fantasy swim-compound sold and redecorated to the point where he barely recognizes it anymore, Schweitzer takes a look around his new home, his latest work in progress, and says with satisfaction, “I do like not having to put on a jacket to get a cup of coffee now.”


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