Three Masters of Modern
Architects Anders Lasater, Christopher Brandon and Annette Wiley's impact in shaping the look of Southern California.
Playing with Light, Space and Geology
Driven to grasp the deepest secrets of architectural design, Anders Lasater turned to his other creative passion: music. The boyish-looking amateur drummer and bass guitarist, a fan of Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin who once considered making a career of heavy-metal rock, found irresistible parallels between the rhythmic forms and converging elements of a building and the tonal patterns of a song.
While earning a master’s degree in architecture at UCLA, Lasater became consumed with translating one art form to another. He took the spatial profile of an old cathedral, carved it into cross-sections – digitally slicing the structure “like a loaf of bread” – and plotted the series of fluctuating dimensions as notes on a musical staff.
Once he had tweaked the resulting score, changing and re-arranging notes to enhance the quality of the music, Lasater translated the notes back into spatial coordinates to see how the shape of the cathedral would change.
“In some ways my studies in graduate school were a complete failure,” concedes Lasater, 45, whose think-beyond-the-box intellectual bent has turned the architect into one of Orange County’s most admired design visionaries. Seated now under the vaulted ceiling of his office in Laguna Beach, where abstract art, a propped-up electric guitar and a miniature model house all compete for a visitor’s attention, Lasater chuckles at himself. The flaw in his thinking, he says, was that architecture – i.e., a building – exists in space all at once, whereas music moves in a linear way through time. Stroll any direction and you can still marvel over Versailles, but you would never play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony backward.
“But failures are good things, because you learn from your failures,” Lasater says. “In failing, you learn many, many lessons.”
What came out of his 3D-shapes-to-music dabblings, aside from a few academic papers, was a more intuitive knowledge of his craft. The onetime Fountain Valley schoolboy, who spent his summers body surfing in Huntington Beach, established Anders Lasater Architects 10 years ago and is still probing the fundamental nature of light, proportion, open space and building materials – and how they interact with the human psyche.
Every project is a puzzle. Lasater, a modernist, is known for subtle touches and clean lines in homes that exploit panoramic ocean views. The canted lots of the rugged coastal hills, where geology and height limits impose severe constraints on construction, often complicate the design challenges.
Patterns cast by light through a window are important to him; he wants to know the track of the sun across the sky and how it relates to the orientation of the house – not just today, but through all the seasons.
“Light is incredibly important,” Lasater says. “At the end of a hallway, we might use a skylight to bring down a shaft of light so you know there’s space for you at the end of that hallway.” The effect works on the subconscious and helps to guide you through the home. Lasater talks of layering one subtle experience on top of another, rather than striving for a single big-wow moment.
“He’s got a great intellect,” says Santa Monica-based architect Michael Folonis, who was an instructor of Lasater’s during his undergraduate days at Cal Poly Pomona and has followed his career since. “I think he’s at the threshold of some major notoriety.”
One of Lasater’s latest creations is a custom home in San Clemente with a fortress-like lower floor – the walls, 3 feet thick, are punctured by a single immense window – and a glassed-in upper story supporting not just one but two distinct roofs. Standing at a broad staircase, where two solid walls join another formed entirely of glass, Lasater, a detail guy, describes the light fixture he envisions there. It will resemble a jellyfish, with dangling, tentacle-like cables and round globes, containing tiny lights that can be raised or lowered as needed.
Such care for every detail has won him the gratitude of John Neal, a neurosurgeon who commissioned the four-bedroom house along with his wife, lawyer Dara Luangpraseut. Neal calls the home, curved to follow the contour of the street below, “a beautifully integrated design that fits the lot perfectly. Anders basically looked at the site, talked about what we were looking for, and came back to us with an amazing concept.
“He’s a visionary,” Neal says. “He’s very responsive and he’s just a fun guy to hang out with, fun to talk to.”
Anders Lasater Architects
15 to 20 projects a year
Known for: Modernist designs featuring clean lines, exposed concrete and extensive use of glass and light.
Notable projects: Two-story, four-bedroom modern home in San Clemente featuring polished concrete floors, a glass-enclosed upper level and dual roof lines; commercial remodel of the Avenue of the Arts Wyndham Hotel and restaurant; custom remodel of Selanne Steak Tavern, a steakhouse owned by former Anaheim Ducks hockey great Teemu Selanne, in a historic Laguna Beach cottage that formerly housed French 75 Bistro and Champagne Bar; remodel and expansion of midcentury modern home in Monarch Bay section of Dana Point.
Design philosophy: Strive for an elegant resolution of the client’s needs and the constraints presented by the building site. Avoid flashy or trendy in favor of what’s truly essential – elements that work in harmony to create a timeless feel. It’s all about creating subtle and pleasant experiences for the people who are using the building.
Favorite building in OC: The Lovell Beach House, above, completed in 1926 and designed by Rudolph Schindler in Newport Beach. Architects from around the world study the masterpiece created for wealthy health and fitness guru Philip M. Lovell. “It is one of our most important pieces of modern architecture. It’s one of these buildings that you wouldn’t expect to be in Orange County, and yet here it is.”
Favorite building anywhere: The Pantheon in Rome. Initially built around the time of Christ, the building features classic Corinthian columns and a coffered dome created with one of the empire’s great inventions, poured concrete. “As a technical feat, it was remarkable,” Lasater says. “As a thing of beauty, it’s equally remarkable because it’s a perfectly proportioned sphere. That building encapsulates all of the ideas that I find interesting in good architecture, and it was done 2,000 years ago.”
Architect of greatest influence: Michael Folonis, one of his instructors at Cal Poly Pomona, who now runs his own firm in Santa Monica. What he taught was important, Lasater says, but his style of instruction gave the lessons even greater weight. “He didn’t teach me so much as he allowed me to find the answers myself.”
Mixing Tradition with Flights of Fancy
Paige Hill’s lace and ostrich-feather stiletto boots, a Tom Ford creation that set her back $2,800, are not the sort of accoutrement to jam unseen into a closet. Nor are her various Christian Louboutins. In total, Hill has close to 100 pairs of shoes, all of them sufficiently fashionable to display with pride.
Which is why her architect, Christopher Brandon, designed the shoe wall – a 17-foot-high feature of the home that Hill and her husband, Mike, had built near Newport Bay in Corona del Mar. Filled with shelves and cubby holes and accessible by a library ladder, the shoe wall, a centerpiece of Brandon’s ultra-modern design of angled walls, glass and structural steel, is the second such wall that Brandon has helped to conceive for the Hills and a given when they commissioned their new home.
“He said, ‘Where’s the shoe wall going?’” Hill recalls with a laugh.
Like the 40-foot-high water wall that Brandon incorporated into a five-bedroom, six-bath home in Newport Beach’s tony Cliffhaven neighborhood, the shoe wall is an eye-grabbing demonstration of the architect’s versatility. The 37-year-old Brandon, who founded his firm, Brandon Architects, in 2009 in Costa Mesa, has drawn considerable attention for his wild flights of fancy, and yet he has spent much of his professional time designing traditional homes: Cape Cods, colonials, Mediterraneans, even farmhouse and plantation designs with a modern twist.
A typical signature project, combining elements of contrasting worlds, is a plantation home he designed in the gated Newport Harbor community of Bay Shores, featuring the familiar southern façade with a long second-story balcony while offering an open interior suited to a modern lifestyle. Large doors give way to a private courtyard. An immense skylight, 17 feet long, lets the sun spill across the staircase.
“A lot of people loved that house,” Brandon says. “It was a traditional house, but it had some more-contemporary features to it.”
Tall and lean, with a well-scrubbed complexion and pleasant, business-like manner, Brandon grew up in the tiny town of La Grande, Ore., where he liked art as well as math and science. He lives in Costa Mesa with his wife, Kaley, and 2-year-old son, Gavin, with another child on the way.
One of Brandon’s first jobs after earning his degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was with an Orange County architect who specialized in traditional styles – an 18-month gig that broadened Brandon’s range. However, it ended traumatically when authorities raided his boss’s office and the senior architect was jailed for forging documents that enabled his clients to exceed height limits, a story that made the local news and left Brandon on his own. He opened his own shop in 2009 as the economy struggled to emerge from recession.
A man named Mike Murray, a veteran American Airlines pilot who also owns a big-screen TV business, Murray Home Theater, took a chance on Brandon when he was largely unproven. Murray asked him to create the finest home in Cliffhaven, a mansion that would include the 40-foot water wall plus other innovative elements, such as a bridge joining the two main wings.
Murray, who sold the house in 2011 for $4.1 million, then the highest sale price in the neighborhood, says he gambled on Brandon after a mutual friend referred the architect.
“I just had a feeling with Chris,” Murray says. “It just felt right – his character and the way he carries himself.” Not only did the architect design an extraordinary home, Murray adds, “but on a personal note, he’s just a noble, fantastic, ethical, honest, gregarious individual. I can’t say enough good about him on a personal side.”
With six full-time employees, Brandon does about 20 projects a year. He is again working with the Hills on an ultra-modern glass home in Vail, Col., that will be known as the “Levitating Cube.”
“We’re taking our show on the road,” she says.
15 to 20 projects a year
Known for: Versatility. His custom designs range from moderns to soft contemporaries and traditional Cape Cods, Mediterraneans, colonials and modern farmhouse and plantation homes.
Notable projects: Five-bedroom soft contemporary home with limestone floors, a theater and a bridge connecting two residential wings that sold for $4.1 million in 2011, then a record for the Cliffhaven section of Newport Beach; a single-story home set around a sunken courtyard with ocean views that sold for nearly $9 million, the first soft contemporary designed for Spinnaker Development builders at Irvine Terrace in Newport Beach; a modern, multilevel home in Corona del Mar with 17-foot-high “shoe wall,” for displaying fancy footwear, and rooftop deck; warehouse in Costa Mesa transformed into hip commercial space, complete with hydraulic auto lift, to house a collector’s prized assortment of early American muscle cars.
Design philosophy: A house should be a reflection of the family that lives there, not a reflection of the architect. “I look to the client and the site for inspiration. Each project is a blank slate.”
Favorite building in OC: The Lovell Beach House, designed by renowned architect Rudolph Schindler. Located on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, the house employed innovative concrete forms to lift the living area high above the street and take advantage of ocean views and breezes. It is considered a landmark of modern design and “was really avant-garde at the time,” Brandon says.
Favorite building anywhere: The Guggenheim Museum in New York City, above, the round, multi-layered art museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1959. “It raises the hairs on the back of your neck,” says Brandon, who first toured it while in college. “It just blew my mind.”
Architect of greatest influence: Renzo Piano, the Pritzker Prize-winning designer of major museum spaces and office towers, including The New York Times building in Manhattan and Europe’s tallest skyscraper, The Shard, in London. “I like the way he blends architecture and engineering,” Brandon says.
Infusing Style with Sensibility
Bloodlines have been as important as sight lines in defining Annette Wiley’s architectural vision. Her father, Webster Wiley, who taught himself to build homes by studying a how-to book, became a noted pioneer of the midcentury modern movement espoused by the likes of Richard Neutra, Cliff May and Rudolph Schindler. Webster developed more than 1,000 homes in La Crescenta and La Cañada, often bringing his young daughter to the job sites.
“He was very creative, talented – a total entrepreneur,” she says, choking up at the memory of her father, who died in July 2014 at age 91.
His influence – his love for clean lines and the use of glass and natural light that was so distinctive of the midcentury movement – is strikingly evident in the modernist work that has elevated Annette Wiley to a place as one of Orange County’s top architects. Besides creating award-winning homes, she has designed a long list of commercial projects and public facilities, including portions of the low-slung Orange County Art Museum in Newport Beach and the glass-fronted, stately Ocean Institute learning complex in Dana Point (with her former partner, Jay Bauer).
Incorporated into virtually all of those projects is an eco-friendly sensibility that distinguishes Wiley from many of her peers. She owes that mainly to the influence of her daughter, Alicia, who was a teenager when she started preaching about the environment.
“She embraced it,” Wiley says of her daughter’s environmental awareness. “She became a vegetarian. We had to turn the lights off. We couldn’t use paper napkins.”
Inspired by her daughter’s passion, the divorced mother infused her projects with the same ethic, making sure they were both energy-efficient and sustainable. She made a point of orienting her homes to take the best advantage of sunlight and air currents, and of using certified reclaimed wood or fast-growing bamboo. Before using mahogany or redwood, she wants proof that it was farmed to be renewable and not chopped from old-growth forests.
“You can show chain of command, chain of custody,” Wiley says. “I certainly spend a lot of time making sure we’re responsible stewards of the environment. I think that’s really important and it’s a given for everything I do.”
A trim woman with a ready smile, Wiley maintains a professional reserve. When asked her age, she replies, “I can’t tell you that,” and laughs. “Sorry. I’m not giving it up.” Her client Ken Perkins, the owner of an action-sports consulting firm, describes her as a willing listener.
Perkins and his wife, Sachi, interviewed several architects before selecting Wiley last year to design a home on a particularly challenging lot – a sloping, pie-shaped parcel atop a seaside bluff in Corona del Mar.
Wiley set her ego aside and voiced the right aesthetic values for the project, Perkins says. She also anticipated the possible objections of nearby homeowners in a neighborhood where environmental sensitivities are acute. Her scheme – which awaits final regulatory approvals – calls for a casual, beach cottage feel and features an ocean-view deck that becomes, thanks to a sliding wall, an extension of the kitchen for easy outdoor dining.
“Annette has been absolutely fantastic to work with,” Perkins says. “She has come through on 100 percent of everything she talked about trying to do.”
Wiley, whose firm, Wiley Architects, employs a small cadre of regular collaborators, works from one of her own creations – a modern home that she renovated in Newport Beach. Design touches include extra-thick walls, strategically placed skylights, a 14-foot-high living room ceiling, breakfast nook and hearth clad in ebony-stained European ash. Every bedroom has a garden view – “really important,” she says – and she never needs to turn on the lights in the daytime. Naturally cooled by sea breezes, the home has no air-conditioning.
Would aficionados of architecture recognize an Annette Wiley home? She is quick to answer, “I hope not,” while explaining that the design is always about what the client wants; her part of it becomes all but invisible. “I would really hope you couldn’t tell.”
12 to 15 projects a year
Known for: Modern designs emphasizing wood, exposed concrete, the interplay of textures and sustainability – “doing the right thing for the
environment” by stressing energy efficiency and the
use of recycled materials.
Notable projects: Tri-level, custom modern home tracing the contours of the coastal bluff in the Shore Cliffs section of Newport Beach; modern, glass-fronted compound of the Ocean Institute scientific learning center in Dana Point, co-designed with former partner Jay Bauer; the renovated interior and courtyard of the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, also with Bauer.
Design philosophy: Each design seeks to solve a client’s problem in a creative, enlightened way. “I certainly spend a lot of time making sure we’re responsible stewards of the environment. I think that’s really important and it’s a given for everything I do.”
Favorite building in OC: The Price Residence, a woodsy, highly stylized beach house in Corona del Mar commissioned by Joe and Etsuko Price in the 1980s and designed by Albuquerque-based architect Bart Prince. With its roof evoking a mushroom cap and its curvaceous forms rising above a custom swimming pool, the home is “the most uniquely original, organic and beautiful architectural masterpiece in Orange County,” Wiley says.
Favorite building anywhere: Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, below. The silvery, interconnected cubist forms of Frank Gehry’s signature design instantly became iconic when the structure was unveiled in 2003.
Architect of greatest influence: Charles D. Kratka, celebrated mainly for his interior designs, conceived the look of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the corporate headquarters of Times Mirror Co. when the glassy, ultra-modern office space was fused to the media company’s concrete art deco newspaper plant in downtown Los Angeles in the 1970s. A product of the famous Ray and Charles Eames design studio, Kratka, who died in 2007, also was an artist whose mosaics covered the tunnel walls at Los Angeles International Airport. “I worked for him when I first started,” Wiley says. “He was a great mentor.”