CURIOUS CITY — Curse you, Thane Roberts!
I could’ve had a 45-foot sailboat floating in its own little lagoon with its own little beach at a crazy too-cool home on my block that I could’ve shown off to friends and other varmints, bragging about my ‘hood and basking in the reflected hipness.
I saw the drawings on your wall, but noooo, you chickened out and instead built a house on that narrow Ocean Park lot that mirrored the efficiency and human values of living on a boat.
Roberts recently gave me a thorough (but still incomplete) hour-long tour of his home. It’s very generous because he is asked to do it all the time — his wife and kids seem to barely notice strangers traipsing behind dad, gawking and marveling through their living space — and told me he had just done the same for “Oprah’s people,” and was on the Dwell Magazine five-spectacular-homes tour last summer.
If you run to your computer or phone, or are already reading this there, you can see what all the fuss is about. But the photo tour tells only part of the story.
On the face of it, you see one of those wild, out-there SoCal homes, with three giant curving plastic “sails” dominating the roofline, a lap pool that looks like a lagoon lapping under the “ship’s deck” curving front to back, a bit of a green yard area in back fronting the guest house, with an ocean view, not to mention a working sundial/North star sculpture by the fire pit, and little modular rooms stacked and tucked in everywhere, on seven (chakra) levels.
Ha ha! He must have dreamed all this up while high, like, in an ashram in India, remembering palm frond homes he visited on remote tiny Fiji islands and informed by encounters with Somali pirates, right? Uh, yeah, actually.
It’s a very unusual house, certainly not for everyone, but it’s not crazy. It’s an expression of Roberts’ architectural philosophy of “evo-tecture,” which holds that, counter to 21st-century virtual reality cocooning trends, a home can more humanely be oriented not toward privacy but toward connection with “nature, self, family, community, solar system, galaxy and spirit.”
All those elements are incorporated into his Meridien House, so named for the line sailors have always looked to for navigation on the vast oceans. Why all this nautical stuff?
Because Roberts chucked his new Kanner/Roberts design firm, teaching at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, his relationship with Armani and their several sites he designed and the previous notion among colleagues and acquaintances that he was a sane fellow, and set sail from Marina del Rey in March 1997 on a nine-year, 30,000 mile journey around the world, simultaneously navigating inner worlds he hadn’t anticipated.
Some of those colleagues may now have concluded that all that time at sea drove Roberts architecturally bonkers, but he’ll tell you the experience focused his design philosophy. He told me he experienced, day after day, year after year, how much his well-being and peace of mind were tied into his access to nature. On a sailboat it’s literally steps away and surrounding you. It felt great, it felt right, and he didn’t want to leave that behind as he stepped ashore to reenter city life.
Thus came Meridien House, designed at sea over four years, and Roberts’ new professional focus on evo-tecture. Lately he’s designed a few yacht brokerage offices in the Marina — hey, a guy’s got to pay the bills, even though his home is nearly energy self-sufficient — and told me he’s “currently doing an addition to a health spa I designed in Pacific Palisades that will become a Chinese herb pharmacy.
“I would like to market the ‘Pop Top Solar Man Can’ that is on my website and am also seeking financing for an idea I have for prefabricated, low-cost artist housing that I think could be very successful.”
The Meridien House is remarkable in so many ways. It’s only 15 feet across, on a 40-foot-wide lot. But it feels anything but claustrophobic, with balconies and/or massive glass doors rolling effortlessly back into walls to open up to the entire outdoor space. There are no hallways; everything is connected by a labyrinthine series of stairs.
It has separate spaces for separate functions: small cabin-like rooms for sleeping, with little more than a bed; a playroom for the kids so toys don’t clutter the sleeping areas; office spaces; art rooms; a meditation room at the highest point in front, with views of only tree tops and ocean; a greenhouse for growing seedlings; “bathroom” functions divided into three separate areas, allowing more people to do what they need at the same time (and saving the incense for meditation).
Many furnishings are from Ikea, Roberts said, while some were specialty items, such as the tracks system for the many sliding doors. None of the rivets or connectors anywhere are covered; you can see the stamps of origin and shipping on large wooden beams. Roberts embraces the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi and believes the history of the building blocks should be exposed and celebrated, not disguised.
A book could be written about Meridien House, a rather long one if you include all the history and philosophy. You could say it wasn’t just the around-the-world sail that resulted in this design, but Roberts’ total life experiences. He told me he windsurfed to Catalina Island once, long ago — “I think I was the first one to do that.” Any other good stories you didn’t tell me, I asked him a few days later?
“Going to Europe with a one-way ticket and $200,” he wrote back, “and returning three years later with enough money to pay for college after starting a boat company in France. Sailing up the Kamai River in Borneo and meeting with Birute Gildikas, who is studying the orangutans. Dining in Djibouti with terrorists. Hiking the Annapurna Trail in Nepal … “
The most remarkable thing to me is not that a man of that background designed a home for himself that, because of all its eccentricities, is perfect for him, but that he has designed and succeeded on a unique career path that fits him the same way.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn how to surf.” –Swami Muktananda (formerly of Santa Monica)
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at email@example.com.