A Sculptural House on the Coast Affirms the Serenity of Sky and Sea

The best architects are prestidigitators, and their most important sleight of hand—the biggest, whitest bunny they can pull from the hat—is to expand space and make a small lot feel big.

California is in a good position to know infinity because for some 800 miles of coastline, it bumps up to the Pacific. But as the land pushes up against the ocean, its expansive western space contracts in a sudden spasm of downsizing. To divvy valuable beachfront into as many properties as possible, municipalities have traditionally sliced land into narrow parcels that, ironically, assume the proportions of inner-city lots. Creating the illusion of space is the onus that falls on the shoulders of architects and designers who must apply their every trick to establishing a sense of vastness at the beach.

A large loftlike space under a rising roof sends the eye up the coast and out to the horizon, delivering the five senses to infinity.

“The first thing we did when my clients bought the property was to climb onto the roof of the run-down single-story house that was there and see what we could see,” explains San Diego-based architectural designer Wallace E. Cunningham.

“The lot sloped from the street up to a crest overlooking the ocean, and the view was everything,” he remembers from that exploratory visit. “To get that view corridor, we designed the house upside down, with all the principal rooms—the kitchen, the living and dining areas and the master bedroom—on the highest level, with the three guest rooms and the gym below and the garage below that. The footprint was what was left once we subtracted the required setbacks from the bluff over the beach and from the street.”

The site, then, dictated the placement of the house. Cunningham also took direction from his clients, whose wish list, ambitious for the buildable size of the lot, included four bedrooms for their three children and their respective families. In short, the house had to be many things—loft, gallery, guesthouse, home office and gym—and had to incorporate covered and uncovered outdoor space.

On this quiet street in a beach suburb of San Diego, a stand of bamboo now veils what seems to be a concrete sculpture crossing the site. With no hints of conventional domesticity, like sloping, shingled roofs or shutters, the abstract structure acts like a question mark best answered by opening the front gate. There, a brushed-stainless-steel panel pivots into an outdoor vestibule leading mysteriously onto a semicircular ramp. Water spills over the surfaces of a curved wall covered in black mosaic tiles, and the ramp continues up to the level of a crescent-shaped, black-bottomed pool. A round, concrete terrace, like a landing pad, fills the hollow of the crescent and spins out beneath the top story of the house—which bridges the terrace—and leads the eye to the sky and the ocean beyond. Outdoor space carves out the body of the house, making the solid form porous.

Cunningham is the rare architectural magician who’ll reveal his tricks.

But Cunningham is greedy: One spatial climax is not enough, and so he continues his path. Like the Propylaea up to the Acropolis in Athens, the ramp switches directions, and in another ring around the pool, the beckoning ramp leads to a second terrace, on the top floor—and to the delayed answer to the question raised outside at the front door. Beyond a plate-glass wall, a large loftlike space under a rising roof sends the eye up the coast and out to the horizon, delivering the five senses to the sea, sky and infinity. “It’s like living on the prow of a ship,” says the husband, a seasoned developer not easily given to metaphors.

“What I like is that you can’t just walk into the house—instead you take a path up around the courtyard, and you immediately forget the environment outside,” says the wife. “This is a funky little neighborhood, but once you’re in the gate, you’re in the calm—it’s so peaceful. There are days when I walk into the living room and forget that there’s another world. I feel like the last person on earth. It’s very calming inside, like living in a work of art.”

The guest rooms, office and gym are grouped on either side of the terrace on the middle level. The husband and wife, however, spend most of their time on the top floor, whose interior was organized as an open loft with an attached wing for the master bedroom and bath. The formal living room in their previous home was never used, and here the couple wanted one big, merged space where people could gather in the kitchen and wander outside to the upper terrace. “After 50 years of marriage, it’s finally like having a front porch,” she says.

“We wanted something very pure, pristine and avantgarde,” she continues. “I love contemporary art, but I also like to juxtapose my old Asian art with the contemporary.”

“There was no question about whom we were designing for,” says Cunningham. “It’s easier when the client is clearly identifiable.”

“I thought the house was going to be monumental and overwhelming from the street, and I was concerned that the pristine shapes would be cold,” says the wife. “But the spaces inside are intimate. I was surprised by the visual warmth.”

Pamela Smith, a San Diego designer who has collaborated on many projects with Cunningham, created the interiors. “I asked Pam to harmonize between the sea and the house,” says the husband. Smith, who is trained as an artist, mixed hints of blue, blue gray and celadon into the throw pillows, “to bring the ocean in,” she says, noting she pushed the grays toward warm tones. “We have a lot of gray days on our coast, so we had to bring out the warmth.” Smith also cultivated textures to make the interiors more tactile: “When you’re looking out the western windows, there’s nothing close—you’re living in the sky. That was another reason to make the surfaces textural.” Smith kept sofas low, hovering off the floor, to maintain the flow. As the architecture defers to the view, the furniture defers to the architecture.

Cunningham is the rare architectural magician who’ll reveal his tricks about elasticizing space. “With the ramp, it takes longer to go a short distance, and that strategy gives it more of an estate feeling: You see the destination but don’t get there by the shortest route.” He notes that the upper ramp and a spiral staircase inside the house, under a skylight, both lead to the sky: “You’re rising into the light. And the reflections in the pool give a sense that the house is not a solid thing.” And yet, the house masks the neighborhood. “You don’t realize you’re on a common street grid. The house turns you around.”

“It’s not cookie-cutter,” the wife says. “That’s why we chose Wally: He doesn’t repeat himself. We decided to trust him, without imposing too many restrictions. We loved the design from the first model.”

“Having been in commercial real estate development, where the dollar is all-important, I decided at one point to get out of the way,” confirms the husband. “Here, the concept was all-important, so my main function was not to interfere and mess up the design. And I’m happy I did so.” He pauses, adding: “The best thing about the house is that our grandchildren now think we’re very cool.”