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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.”



Details


[



 A
Modern Wishing Well

Most people view roof gutters as an
afterthought, but Josh Schweitzer makes an event out of rain. Instead
of shooing it down a clunky aluminum drain, Schweitzer guides the water
through troughs built into the house and then into a cement collection
box that overflows into the surrounding landscape, creating a rainy-day
fountain. The cascading rain has a peaceful sound as it trickles through
the modern wishing well.



 Fear
of Customs

Don’t be afraid to have furniture custom-made
— it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you might think and sometimes
can cost less than buying new pieces even from Pottery Barn or Crate
& Barrel. Although Schweitzer is an architect, he’s never studied furniture-making,
so like any of us might, he turned to the pros for help. He flipped
through catalogs for ideas and found craftsmen by looking on Web sites
and even in the Yellow Pages. He chose the ones who asked questions
and added their expertise on how to make his ideas better. When he designed
the dining-room chairs that he’s used for the past 10 years, the woodworkers
at the company he used suggested raising the front of the seat by an
inch to make sitting more comfortable. To this day Schweitzer and his
dinner guests thank them. And here’s another tip: If you incorporate
parts of designs that a company already uses (maybe the legs of one
chair combined with the seat of another), the job will be simpler —
and less expensive.



 Boy,
You Turn Me

Schweitzer often looks at the undersides
of fabric and rugs, and pretty much turns everything topsy-turvy to
see if something good happens that the creators didn’t intend. When
looking to upholster his couch, he discovered that chenille, what he
calls “grandma couch fabric,” is actually smooth and rich and lustrously
pearly when you turn it inside out. He chose a champagne-colored fabricspeckled
with silvery spots and a chocolatey brown one that had bronze flecks
— much sexier than grandma’s house.



 Eureka
IKEA

[

You might think it strange to discover
that an architect who has so many designers at his disposal would shop
at IKEA, but the prefab furniture is hard to pick out from the custom
pieces in a lineup. I never would have guessed that Schweitzer’s coffee
table was an assembly-required piece. And while his sleek arm lamps
and dining-room chandeliers look as if they came from some high-end
lighting boutique, they’re really from Schweitzer’s favorite Swedish
retailer.



 Let
It Go

As Schweitzer says, “It’s hard to have
a sense of austere architecture when you have kids. Toys migrate.” But
having a house that looks lived in is not only okay with this architect,
he says it’s all part of life. If you spend your time policing mail
and books and corralling “stuff,” you lose out on enjoying your home
and time with your family. And you lose the humanity of your home. Some
of the most famous architects had messy homes. Eames’ home was rumored
to have been a pigsty.



 Room
for Thought

Space is a luxury, so don’t overfill
a room with furniture just because you can. Having room to walk gives
you room to breathe and think. “I would rather have space, which really
is a luxury, than the fanciest anything,” Schweitzer says matter-of-factly.
“So many people look at a room as just something they have to fill up;
they don’t realize that they want space — they need it — or maybe they
think they can’t afford it.” And if you don’t have a lot of space at
home, Schweitzer says it can be stolen with impunity — all you have
to do is open a window.



 Fight
Narrow Thinking

Schweitzer’s lot is just 54 feet wide,
so building a house with a sense of openness on the narrow space was
a challenge. Most people build their houses in a block pattern, going
as far to the edges as possible. But then, Schweitzer says, “you have
about 3 feet between you and a fence.” Instead, the architect went long
with his design so he could have a little breathing room all around
the home. And instead of placing the hallway in the middle of the house,
with rooms on either side, he shifted all the major rooms to one side
and put the hallway on the other, creating what Schweitzer calls a “single
loaded corridor.” Tucked outside the flow of the home, in a spot where
you might expect to find a small patio, is a family room that can be
separated from the hubbub of the rest of the house with a floor-to-ceiling
sliding wood door. High ceilings and huge windows also help give the
home spaciousness.



 The
Standard

“Be clever,” Schweitzer says when it
comes to saving money. First, know that a good layout will give you
the biggest bang for your buck — that’s why he always looks for ways
to make spaces multipurpose. He also suggests adopting his Alice
in Wonderland
way of looking at things: “Change your perspective.”
Instead of spending a lot of money on pricey door handles, for instance,
elevate them from the usual waist-high position, even up to shoulder
level. “It makes a $10 doorknob from Home Depot special, because it
is unexpected and it forces you to be aware of your environment.” And
if you can only afford standard-issue window frames, place the windows
higher than you might normally so that your view incorporates more of
the sky and opens up your space.



 Light
Fantastic

Schweitzer suggests cove lighting instead
of expensive lighting systems or designer lamps. That means building
niches along a wall or near the ceiling where you can insert long-lasting,
energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs. Normally fluorescent light has a
harsh quality, but tucked in a cove, the indirect illumination softens.
He also likes to rework affordable fixtures. So instead of spending
$400 to $500 on pendant lights, Schweitzer bought a few from IKEA for
$14 and swapped the white wire for black, giving them an instant make-over.

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