Modern Zen Architect Luis de Moraes sought harmony through design at the western tip of Rancho Palos Verdes
Photos by Walkthrough Productions
Architecture is often said to be an old man’s profession. The skills required take decades to hone. Luis de Moraes, AIA architect and principal founder of Envirotechno, is not an old man, and he has defied time with his design of the “Modern Zen” residence situated at the tip of Vista Del Mar.
“I designed the home to be part of the natural terrain and the orientation of the house is parallel to its topography,” de Moraes said. “Every room in the house has an ocean view.”
The kitchen illustrates this design concept. It’s elevated, overlooking the family room seating area, and faces a massive glass retractable door that opens out to the ocean.
“You feel like here that you are on top of the world,” de Moraes said. “Each room offers an opportunity and invitation for you to stay and linger.”
The architect’s intention was to create warmth through the use of natural materials yet maintain a sense of spaciousness. One of the dual kitchen islands is made of industrial steel and the other is made from granite. Both sit parallel to each other at a bar top height, thus the home’s residents or guests sit high at the counter when preparing food or eating and enjoy unobstructed scenery. An infinity pool and outdoor kitchen are within view and are accessible through yet another massive glass retractable door that rushes in cool breezes and accentuates the indoor/outdoor experience. When the glass doors are opened, one is virtually in a comfortable family room setting outdoors. The travertine flooring is carried through seamlessly from the inside kitchen and family room areas to the pool and outdoor kitchen areas, giving the impression of it being one capacious open-air space.
When designing this home, de Moraes envisioned the structure melding with the surrounding environment, raising from the ground like a natural monolith. This massive structure of towering glass, wrapped in travertine and topped with painted metal, is an architectural feat reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, “The Fountainhead” in which the protagonist, Howard Roark, follows his practice of modern architecture despite the pervasive traditionalist views of the establishment. In Palos Verdes, tradition is reflected by the pervasiveness of Spanish and ranch style architecture. Modern Zen is a clear departure.
Upon entrance into this 6,838 sq. ft. home, one is met with high expansive ceilings with an entrancing two-story foyer and a tongue-and-groove exposed wood beam ceiling. Floating blocks of limestone in the main entry staircase were specially engineered by a steel stair fabricator. According to de Moraes, these blocks of stone were exceedingly heavy; the steel components that house each step were custom made and structurally masterminded by skilled artisans.
The lighting scheme was a likewise methodical and purposeful exercise in conserving energy. Skylights are positioned strategically so that no electricity is required to illuminate the home during the day. At night, low profile lighting is peppered throughout; trimless LED cans provide ambient lighting, rather than the spotlight effect that recessed lighting normally imparts. The Neocon award-winning “Ameba” entry lighting fixture is aptly named, as its shape can change, adding or subtracting appendages, a statement piece that levitates graciously upon entrance into the foyer. To the immediate right is an office designed with grass cloth walls and a wood coffered ceiling interspersed with the same grasscloth fabric. A fireplace is in the center of the room, emanating warmth and a lingering sense of invitation to sit down and stay awhile. The architect said he wanted to create an space for entertaining that combined “the serene warmth of woods with other natural elements from the outdoors.”
A standing seam metal roof and weight bearing beams make possible the home’s expansive ceilings and feel of loftiness. This type of roofing is particularly durable and was oftentimes used in the past for commercial projects, but due to its sturdy composition it has become a more common choice for homeowners as it is also fire retardant. The material’s relative thinness, compared to wood or shingles, allowed de Moraes to design a higher ceiling while still conforming with Rancho Palos Verdes height restrictions. This creative roof solution literally took the interior of this home to a new level.
This 5 bedroom and 6.25 bathroom home is replete with a wine room, tasting room and temperature controlled cellar adjoined by an elegant Prohibition era speakeasy. Vertical wood panel grooves disguise openings, such as that of the elevator door, and touch latches make the doors and hardware flush with the wall and invisible to the eye. A secret password for entry would be fitting with the feel of the spaces. The wine cellar also possesses Hollywood glamour, with an artful colored glass backdrop, a classy white couch, and backlit doors. A nice way to wrap up an evening would be to enjoy a movie in the theatre room after a sunset wine tasting. At the command of a touch, automatic blackout roll up shades come down instantly, and a state-of-the-art projector looms, preparing itself to cast the first scene.
The larger purpose of each design element, de Moraes said emphatically, was to create a home harmonious with its environment. A bamboo log garden in the back, enclosed with glass, is visible from inside the house; aquariums built into the walls unobtrusively melds the homes surroundings with its adjoining interior.
The original family who envisioned this contemporary residence with de Moraes in 2007 sold their plans and dreams to a developer, who eventually financed the building of the project. De Moraes continued to guide the project to its eventual completion in 2010.The home’s exterior is reminiscent of the newer Getty Museum with its flamed and stacked finished travertine. These stones are weaved among larger honed travertine blocks, imparting a contrasting design of contemporary-commercial similar to the renowned museum’s style. “Flamed” is a process whereby the stone is actually heated under the highest of temperatures using a controlled finishing process. As a result, the individual grains in the stone burst and change color, leading to a rougher texture and a more muted appearance. These “finishes” and design concepts are particularly geared towards de Morae’s environmentally conscious aim — he is credentialed as a sustainable designer with the United States Green Building Council and has also been a design instructor for the last 25 years at UCLA’s Extension Design Certificate Program. He possesses the rare combination of an interior design education (he’s a member of The American Society of Interior Designers) along with his formal architectural education from Cal Poly Pomona. He was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and has been a resident of the Palos Verdes community for the last 15 years. Having started out young in his profession, what “old age” holds for de Moraes, who is in his early 50s, has yet to be seen.