Mark McDermott

The Scheimer Residence: an interview with architect Ray Kappe

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Architect Ray Kappe

The rooftop deck and pool, which at 35 ft. is the highest vantage point on the Manhattan Beach Strand. Photo by Scott Mayoral

Architect Ray Kappe’s beach party house

It rises from the corner of 16th Street and the Strand in Manhattan Beach like a luxury steam liner that has been quite intentionally beached. The Scheimer Residence, designed by architect Ray Kappe, is not for the meek.

Kappe is one of the seminal figures in Southern California’s architectural history. His work is part of a lineage that includes Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler. Kappe has helped define Southern Californian Modernism, both through his architectural body of work and as co-founder of the influential Southern California Institute of Architecture. He is best known for his wood and glass, multi-leveled, modular structures, particularly his own home in Pacific Palisades – a 4,000 sq. ft. house that includes seven levels attached to six concrete towers built on only 600 sq. ft. of land that is both a technical marvel and an aesthetic masterpiece.

The Scheimer Residence appears to be a departure from Kappe’s best known work. Appearances are deceiving. Like his own home, the Scheimer Residence receives light in an almost reverential manner. Streaks of sunlight pour in through skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows, creating an ever-shifting geometry of light each day. A three story, teak paneled atrium further dissolves the blend between inside and outside.

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The home, which is 5,200 sq. ft. and includes a rooftop deck and swimming pool, was built for entertaining. The client, famed animation producer Lou Scheimer, lived in a Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles and wanted a beach getaway in which he hoped to one day retire. The home has three bedrooms and six bathrooms but was essentially designed as a residence for a couple. The third and top floor is entirely the master bedroom, which has a stairway that steps directly up onto the roof deck.

Kappe is now in his 80s but still vibrantly practicing. His firm is on the forefront of the move towards sustainability in architecture. The Scheimer Residence’s prominent location on a south facing corner Strand lot not far from the Manhattan Beach pier makes it among the most visible works of the architect’s illustrious career.

“I have always wished in my career that I would have been able to design more public or community buildings that could have touched even more people,” Kappe said in an interview last week.

South Bay-based architect Dean Nota – an internationally recognized architect in his own right  –  worked with Kappe during the 1980s and took part in the design of the Scheimer Residence. His father, Albert, worked in metal fabrication and actually did much of the metal work on the Scheimer Residence.

Nota recently revisited the home and was struck anew at the technical achievement of the design and the pure beauty of the spaces that the design created.

“This is the most interesting piece of pure architecture in the whole South Bay, in my opinion,” said Nota. “And I don’t think there is anything that comes close to it.”

Kappe recently spoke with Beach Magazine via email:

B: The house reminds me both of a luxury liner and, somehow, a cathedral. It also has a true inside/outside feel, something often preached but less often achieved and something I wouldn’t have guessed after looking at it from the outside all these years.

What was the idea behind the home? How did you respond to the site? What were the constraints and opportunities presented by this project?

Kappe: I normally do not approach my architecture with preconceptions. In this case I was responding to the client’s programmatic needs, the site and its constraints and opportunities. The Strand is approximately one story below the street, which creates the section of the house, along with the programmatic issues and the height limit.

The ocean view is obviously important. The desire for a pool at the roof level set up a special structural dynamic, concrete for the rear portion of the house and steel for the front portion. The preference for a circular living area established the form. The plan was rotated 15 degrees to face true south, since initially it was designed with solar collectors in the vaulted section over the bedroom. The city code, regarding the walkway on the south side of the building, allowed me to create garden areas extending into this space with a maximum height 42″ wall. The height constraint always is significant in the decision-making process.

These are the basic elements that determine the formal solution.

B: People often think of this as a departure from the rest of your body of work. I think that maybe this home has more in common with your design principals than is readily apparent. Do you have any thoughts on where the Scheimer Residence fits within the context of the rest of your work?

Kappe: This is a unique building for me, but there have been many others as well. I am primarily known for my wood structures, but I am just as comfortable working in concrete, concrete block or steel. The reason that the Scheimer Residence or any of the other “one-off” buildings that I have designed seem different is that I rarely get new clients from these houses. Most of them respond to my own house, and that is why I am primarily known for this type of architecture.

My approach and, consequently the results, spatially and structurally, have a consistency even though the materials might be different. The siting, the connection to nature, the openness and inside-outside relationships, and the level changes are all common factors.

B: I saw photos of the home when it had teak cladding. Any thoughts on the change to stucco? And the more recent refurbishment?

Kappe: I originally designed the house to have Alucabond panels (enamel-coated steel panels), where the teak and plaster are located, because I thought it would be a material that could take the sea condition. The Scheimers were not happy with this solution, and this is why we changed to teak. Unfortunately, we encountered problems with the teak which was installed incorrectly in some locations and caused leaks. The maintenance of teak was also labor intensive. The present plaster is a good material at the sea, looks more like the original intention, and is certainly satisfactory.

The two materials, teak and plaster, probably create different responses in people. The plaster gives the house a crisper feeling.

B: I saw this quote from your son, Ron Kappe: “For his building designs, his early sketches many times come out quickly and the concepts seem to be whole, integrating structural and aesthetic concerns seamlessly.” This house seems to be a real technical achievement — the intricacy of its geometry, and the engineering of its construction — yet it has such an artful aesthetic. Can you tell me about the sketching process and how this design evolved?

Kappe: My plan and section solutions come easy for me. Usually this is followed by a simple perspective sketch. From there a model is made for presentation to the client. Of course the detailing, development of the construction documents, choice of finish materials, etc., are all important to the final product.

B: The use of stairs really struck me. What are your thoughts on stairs, and particularly the stairs in this home?

Kappe: Stairs provide for the sequential movement through the space, and are very important in the total experience. Stairs do afford the possibility for special design features. In the Scheimer’s case, who were great clients to work with, the use of glass treads, the coordination of the glass rail and adjacent glass wall and floor make for a special experience. The same is true for the circular stair.

B: What strikes you most about this house upon revisiting it now?

Kappe: Of course, the change from teak to plaster is the greatest difference, and as I stated before it feels somewhat “crisper.” It was meant to be a “party house,” a house for entertaining. Attending a reception at the house, recently, gave me the opportunity to experience how truly successful it was…A good architectural endeavor always needs an excellent client, and the Scheimers were wonderful. Dean Nota deserves a great deal of credit for the construction documents, special steel detailing, and many of the finish decisions.

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