Above the Pacific

Architectural Digest France, Sophie Pinet, June 2016

If residences are portraits of their owners, as architectural designer Wallace E. Cunningham suggests, then a house situated on a bluff overlooking the Pacific—its roof appearing to rise effortlessly toward infinity—begins with art.

One of the owners, the wife, is a potter, a shaper of clay. “When you touch clay, the shape of your hands leaves arcs, sometimes spherical, sometimes vertical,” Cunningham says. “Clay is a vessel. This house is a vessel containing lives.”

The potter and her husband, a retired businessman, moved to California from Chicago, bringing with them treasured works by glass artists Dale Chihuly and Harvey Littleton. In a sense, the residence represents the welding of the couple’s two grand passions: the sculptural quality of clay combined with the prismatic, life-embracing character of glass.

From within, the structure seems to float upon the landscape as a nearly continuous glass wall. That sense of drama and mystery, of defying gravity, however, disguises a complex architectural sleight of hand. In contrast with most residences, in which the roof peaks at the center, this one has a roof that fans out in eaglelike swoops, emanating from a circular glassed courtyard in the interior and then rising at the perimeter, taking in Pacific views along the way. Cunningham calls the roof “a great stroke against the sky.”

The house is open and radial in plan. The configuration responds to the coastal landscape, to unobstructed vistas of golden sandstone-colored bluffs hugging the cerulean sea. “My object was to heighten the view, while disguising what we didn’t want to see as beautifully as possible,” he explains. The site is buffeted by ocean winds, so a sheltered respite was needed. The plan thus radiates from the protected courtyard, away from breezes, where the couple often dine. The most significant rooms are arranged along the continuous 20-foot-high wall of glass facing the ocean; the other rooms, including a studio for the wife, are molded beside gemlike pocket gardens—poetic visual vignettes that happen to screen the neighboring houses.

A master of curved and angular geometries, Cunningham conceived the house as a series of forms that play with the California light—one of the state’s major attractions, he notes, particularly for a couple from the Midwest. “As you walk through the house, you’re basically walking toward light, toward a break in the walls,” says Cunningham, once a student in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, who worked with interior designer Pamela Smith, a longtime collaborator. Throughout, striking glass fins project from glass walls or above frameless glass doors—the Cunningham version of flying buttresses.

“This house is absolutely autobiographical,” he observes. “The couple like forms and colors, art and views. They live in a very easy, open manner. The house is a framework for living outside in California.”

The audacious curves of the structure recall the work of John Lautner—one of Cunningham’s architectural heroes, along with Felix Candela and Giovanni Michelucci. In the living area, subtle steel supports resemble cylindrical sculptures. The cantilevered fireplace appears to hold the slope of the roof on its shoulders, like an architectural Atlas, the fire within arising mythically from a bed of glass shards.

The master bedroom may be approached, when privacy is required, by two hidden doors. The space recalls a tokonoma in its simplicity: Glass doors lead to a terrace; the walls are lit through a pointillist series of apertures, “almost like spirit holes in Native American structures,” he says.

Cunningham’s elevation of prosaic spaces underscores his masterful sense of imagination. How not to fall in love with a powder room, for example, when it comes in an astonishing spiral form, the interior half encased in glass, with a ceremonial granite water basin, the other half a garden of black bamboo that opens to the sky?

The same holds true for the garage, with copper doors, quartzite floors and cathedral ceilings, furnished with art and flowers. “Most homeowners enter through their garages, and the space is horribly unattractive,” Cunningham says. “So why not make it a nice space to drive home to?”

Such “why nots,” of course, are what distinguish a great designer from his kindred. Throughout the residence, the spirit of openness and lack of confinement prevails; nearby family members just breeze through. “The catalyst for a residence is always the owners’ personalities,” Cunningham observes philosophically. “Interesting people build interesting houses. It’s about creating a utopia, an enchanted environment. A place where the fantasy and reality of people’s lives can come through.”