Of all the houses I have photographed over the years, Ed Niles produced one of the most astonishing with his design for the Sidley Residence at Malibu in LA. Here is a piece I wrote to accompany a house with a 'wow' factor like few others.
Ed Niles always inventive architecture stuns the senses with his residential design for a high-flying L.A. attorney. Built right to the edge of the San Andreas fault line, the Sidley Residence is an engineering and architectural wonder built to withstand violent seismic activity. The reality is less a danger of earthquake and more of stampede as the clients batten down against ad. agencies and film location scouts seeking a house with a spectacular attitude.
Sir Joseph Paxton should be dead and buried, but once the genie was released, his return to the lamp was unlikely. Ironically, this hasn't been altogether a good thing. Imitators of his prodigious talent have clung shamelessly to his coat-tails ever since and grubbied a fine garment in the process. Paxton's epoch-making Crystal Palace was not a bad effort for a gardener turned architect. Working with the soil taught Paxton more than an understanding of parsnips and petunias. He was the pioneer of pre-fabrication that ushered a new vocabulary of material and connections.
Many inventions are exploited and Paxton's has received a caning ever since it was seen as a lantern in the fog for so much modern architecture. John Portman's atrium at the Hyatt Regency (1974) in San Francisco signaled an adrenalin rush by hotels and shopping centre management worldwide to convert Paxton's masterful conception into a giddy fix of mirrored glass, quick pour Corinthian columns and spaghetti of neon.
It shouldn’t require architecture of any quality to make the jump of one and a half centuries, but it does in this instance because Paxton's original structures were so good. Ed Niles is one of the few to make the transition worthwhile from Paxton's seminal modernity to late modernity. Niles' elevated steel framework, clad in stainless steel and glass transports Paxton through a time tunnel.
Who could deny the result is anything less than astonishing? Using antiquity as a reference for modernity, Niles has generated a structure that wallops the faux palazzos and castles so beloved by L.A. architects and their clients, cashed-up on insurance money after the latest round of disastrous fires, earthquakes and mudslides.
Niles recalls that throughout all the devastation, architects maintained their sense of optimism. "It was incredible. The blitz of promotional brochures selling architecture was staggering." Architects he had never heard of suddenly stalked the hillsides for their share of rebuilding from the house and contents insurance windfall. nHundreds of prestige coastal properties needed replacement and architects were keen to assist."
While it may be expensive, at least we can see where the money has gone. Because of the difficulty of sourcing suitable contractors at a reasonable price, Niles and his daughter Lisa took on the task. Measuring 500m2, the completed house cost $1,700 per m2. The high cost did not prove insuperable to the Sidleys who were determined to see through a vision which dissolves the boundaries of industry, science and art.
The house has already withstood tremors and quakes which frequently shake the landscape like an old rug. One quake, strong enough to toss people from their beds, could only topple a slender, free-standing sculpture at the Sidleys. Otherwise nothing bent or cracked, the bridge pylons performing exactly as they were designed too.
Of the built form, the 58 year-old Niles brims with enthusiasm: "lt's like working in a South African diamond mine when all of a sudden an enormous stone comes out of the ground. The first thing everybody does is hold it up in the air. You don't look at that diamond by putting it down on the ground; you hold it up in the air because you want to see under it~ around it, from every angle possible. That's how you begin to understand it and go home and describe this diamond to your family and friends. "
Sited on a half hectare property with uninterrupted views high above the Pacific Ocean, the house is split into two parts and is linked by a light footbridge. The main body of the house is raised on three steel piers and presents as a central spine off which project a series of rooms. The plan provides a master bedroom, library, study, guest room and gymnasium. Connected by stair-bridge is the radial hoop of livingroom, dining-room and kitchen. The form and orientation of the "hoop" provides effective solar energy gain in the morning to heat the slab mass and in-ground pool.
Heating and cooling is largely facilitated by the ceiling height trapping hot air which is returned through loops for pool heating. AS the temperature falls, pumps reverse the process and heat from the swimming pool is drawn back through the house. Sliding doors allow cross ventilation of the lower kitchen/dining area. The narrow-waisted plan and elevation produces the optimum heat gain in the coldest months. Additional heat supplied from the pool requires the supplementary boost of solar collectors and a 44kW gas heater.
Niles' space-ship metaphor required an independence of mechanical, electrical and structural systems, self-sufficient and self-contained, water source heat pumps, solar collectors, fan blowers and satellite receivers which become the genesis of the final architectural expression.
Orientation within the house is clear and component parts easily legible. The central passageway is illuminated with natural light through the tinted glass and spun fibre-glass, barrel-vaulted, roof. Rooms which branch off the passageway are similarly well lit and lightly furnished. Solar loadings are well within acceptable levels as a result of tinted glass and ceiling vents. Despite the industrial heritage and finishes, the house is so well crafted that it overcomes any sense of the clinical.
The arched pavilions of translucent spun fibreglass and glass is an attempt,"...at a skeletal assemblage processing the views and nature with the least possible obstruction. "The conceptual basis for the residence evolved over a five year period. The search for a synthesis of technology and form separate from the "organic" argument of natural land led to the discussion of an alien object free from the predictable association with 'Mother Earth'.
"People become extremely insecure about architecture and building they don't understand. In this house you may not know where the front door is but you don't care because the house says go anywhere. The traditional front and back door ceases to exist. There is only a sense of protocol where the earth has been gouged to let in the automobile.
"You can get very emotional and religious about it, but it is an exploration of the object. As observers you can have this sense of understanding and that in turn provides a security blanket for human beings. We like to know how things function and operate and are put together. There is a strength in knowledge and this is architecture that provides.
"What you're doing as a human being is finding something that is experiential; that gives you the security of understanding it. At nighttime the house is lit underneath and from inside which means that the whole house can be read in an entirely different way and is very transparent with bands of silouehette. By day it is more the floating, solid object.
"If you see a house on a hill, you only read it as a planar object, then you go into it and see it as a plan image, a sectional image and possibly as a sequenced image. What I am trying to do there is have it read and understood as a whole object," says Niles of his forceful, complex vision .
"We've become programmed by movies like Star Wars and to understand that things in space have no reality of orientation - there isn't an up and a down. What happens when you begin to see an architecture that doesn't have an up and a down? It becomes extremely exciting in that you begin to see another dimension and the most pleasing thing for most people is that you begin to feel secure with it because you know what it is."
Although essentially a bridge structure of cantilevered sections on pylons, the structural solution required additional stability to eliminate resonance problems caused by high winds and earthquakes.
"Steel is fantastic because it is so dynamic and provides these beautiful cantilevered sections. Unfortunately when we tested it the structure was too lively. It just vibrated like a tuning fork so we had to go back and dampen it and encase the bridge trusses in concrete. Once concrete was poured onto the steel deck it settled down, but it really required a concrete base poured around the pylons to completely flatten off any vibration."
Locating the 'pods', rooms made of curved steel panels and glass walls in the shape of quarter circles was a liberating experience for Niles. "After all of the calculations and investigation, we had this tremendous flexibility which was very exciting because we could hinge the pods wherever we liked on the bridge structure. Once we started craning the pods into position I was concerned that weight distribution could be affected but it made no difference where we clipped them onto the central passageway.
Niles says his architecture and engineering is based on natural forms and processes in a way that Paxton also understood. "What really shapes my architecture are the procedures that I use. I always question the process and I don't have fixed connection say, to nature, but the process is based very much on my background in science and the natural things like Darwin might have seen them.
"When I see a plant or tree I know what it is and how it grows because I find out. So when I see an object in X-ray, for example, it gives me a lot of enjoyment. Consequently when I see a steel beam I know what it is, I know where it's rolled, what kind of section it is and where it came from. I can look at a steel beam for and know by the edges where it was milled, whether it has come from Mexico, Great Britain, Japan or Australia.
"There is a lot of energy boiling over in me," says Niles. "Even when I was very young. When I was nine I built a boat and when I was 12 I built a structure. Architecture is the evolvement of concepts and yes the details are important but I just wish there was someone associated with me who would just dive with me into those things."
Relationships are important to Niles. Those that are formed with clients and those that are made between consultants. "That chemistry needs to be there and that is probably something lacking in my life but its not going to hold me back. I've got to be on the job. I've got to smell the concrete and see the steel going up and be part of it. If you're not part of it then I think you largely fail to understand what architecture is about. That is what limits my practice and why it hasn't grown large. "
Niles works with his daughter Lisa McCarthy, from sun-lit offices at Malibu and is surrounded by maquettes of work in progress. Work creates work and models in various stages of development and assembly reflect a stream of ideas changing the way his clients see the world and, in many instances, themselves. He enjoys doing work that takes other architects back. He sees himself from the "old school" although his capacity for invention has kept him at the front of the wave since working for Craig Ellwood's office in the early '60s.
He enjoys the paradox of being virtually unknown but in constant demand "I remind clients that there's no point going through the agony if at the end there isn't a sense of ecstasy. The Sidleys have worked very hard to understand the other half of who they are. It's been like a huge landslide, first a few pebbles and then huge rocks."
One has to make the clock whirr backwards to 1945 to Charles and Ray Eames' house at nearby Pacific Palisades a mere 15 minutes drive south, or Richard Neutra's 1929 Lovell Residence - to get comparable pre-fabrication. Niles' effort is no slouch, even in such venerated company. The Sidley Residence demonstrates just how North America is capable of taking on the big idea and making visions become reality, not simply with money but because somebody cared enough to get it right.
Here then is a vision of rock solid strength and structural flex. It also shows what can be achieved when clients and architect work side by side. The result is anything but a passive clunker. Instead is born a real mover and shaker. Recent coffee table collections on L.A.'s notable houses have by-passed this craft. It's a absurd omission of a modern classic no more extravagant, except with ideas, than its neighbours.
In a city of high artifice, the Sidley Residence projects itself with bared soul. L.A. hasn't seen anything like it since the work of Neutra and the Eames'. It might have to star in a leg-waxing commercial or television soap series before the City of Angles realizes just what the Devil is sitting in its lap.