This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Architectural Digest.
You could argue that Don Cooksey saved himself the cost of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting when he bought a property in La Jolla, California, facing a magnificently fissured bluff falling off to the Pacific below. “I’ll never have a collection better than that view,” says the software designer and entrepreneur. “That’s my art. That thing’s alive.”
But the window of opportunity for framing the heroic cliffs—scored with lines of age caused by the erosions of time—resided in a modestly sized, very steep lot, barely holding its own on the side of a precipitous hill opposite. Treacherously difficult, it had been given up for unbuildable by other people who had been equally hypnotized by the view. “Basically, there was little to nothing to stand on,” says Cooksey. The challenge was not how to inflate the house into a stature matching the landscape’s but how to nest the house sensitively and respectfully into the hill so that it could become an amphitheater to the main event. It was the place for a Mesa Verde moment, but in modern materials and forms.
When Cooksey first invited San Diego architectural designer Wallace Cunningham to the site, he showed him a model of a tall, boxlike structure that struggled to perch itself on the center of the property. Cunningham, who works within the Wrightian tradition of organic architecture, retreated to his studio and several weeks later counterproposed just the opposite: a low-profile building that ringed the perimeter of the site, leaving an open courtyard in the middle. Cunningham had replaced the freestanding object with a large, landscaped hole in a glass doughnut. “I gave him a box,” says Cooksey. “He came back with a void.”
“The boxy proposal didn’t capture the spirit of the site,” remembers Cunningham. “The deep canyon, the golden sandstone and the bluff leading into the view all epitomize California. Beyond the bluff, you can see to the infinity of the ocean, and the scheme just didn’t embrace the vastness.”
Sometimes the secret to great design is raw strategy. Cunningham deployed the parts of the building like Napoleon positioning his troops on the battlefield. Cooksey’s program was ambitious for the site, and instead of piling floor atop floor, Cunningham spread the building on all the usable land. The view of the bluffs was to the north, and westward to the sea, so the designer pushed the leading edge of the house as far north as possible into the view, which allowed the southern light to penetrate into a large courtyard and reach the interior edges of the glass doughnut. The geometry left enough open space at the center of the house for the casual outdoor living that Southern California permits and that Cooksey and his wife, Jeanine, wanted.
Don and Jeanine Cooksey worked with architectural designer Wallace Cunningham to conceive a house for their La Jolla, California, land—a lot that was thought to be unbuildable. The structure, which has four bedrooms and six baths and is done in white concrete, stainless steel and glass, straddles a dramatic coastal canyon.
To preserve the neighbors’ views, Cunningham resorted to a second unusual strategy. The local building code allowed him to build a structure 30 feet high, but, counterintuitively, he proposed building it 30 feet down, placing the house within a hollow that he creatéed with high retaining walls. Cunningham was proposing architecture as earthwork. The permitting process alone took several years.
Today, you can’t really see the house for the view as you drive up, and when you swing down a slanted driveway, a little like an off-ramp, you park facing a 180-degree panorama, complete with gulls wheeling, hawks riding the updrafts and paragliders winging by. Only when you exit the car and turn around do you discover the front part of the house, its façades covered in glass that dissolves any sense of mass: The reflections of the sky etherealize the structure. All rooms face the views all the time.
No front door really presents itself, and instead you enter an orbit of circling forms that move you through space. The arc of a pool at the lip of the site leads under an elevated room whose piers and underbelly seem like monolithic marble: The material is actually white cast-in-place concrete polished to a high finish. Beyond lies a wide lawn that acts as a visual courtyard to the house, which curves and angles around the lawn and patio. Here, in an oculus of sunlight, you’re protected from the winds that keep the birds and paragliders aloft. Curves turning against curves generate energy and continue to pull you through the design.
With the watery sheets of glass, the house is so transparent that you almost can’t tell when you’ve stepped through the veil. The circular living room, in a glass drum, stands out from the body of the house toward the view, with a geometry that sweeps the gaze across the bluff toward the ocean. A wide elliptically shaped fireplace, cast in silken concrete, carries the weight of a roof otherwise free of apparent support. The architect seems a magician with a specialty in levitation.
A short flight of stairs terraces up to the dining area, and the glass elevator beyond rises to the level of the master suite, with an exercise wing on a third level at the rear of the courtyard and, on the ocean side, a lounge. Glazed north and south, this room bridges the front of the site. Anyone in the gym at the rear can see through this elevated bridge to the view. “You literally can see under and over the building, and the daylight comes in from multiple directions,” says Cunningham.
“In the moonlight it takes on a whole new dimension in photographic black, gray and white, the concrete glowing,” Cooksey says. “Even storms are fascinating. You’re right in the middle of them. Wally really did grow the house from the land and the panorama.”
“The whole concept of the house was about organizing the view,” says Cunningham. “The house doesn’t offer a series of vignettes but a large sweep. The idea of extending usable spaces everywhere to capture the view, that was really the big thing. Because you’re looking to Japan. You know it’s out there. In 100 years the coast will move in, but even if the house looks and acts like a glass pavilion, the structure and its weight give it a sense of permanence. The glass offers the view, but it’s the concrete that makes it feel timeless.”