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Country- Style Modernism

A home in the california countryside takes 20 years to design and build—and the architecture and technology become more modern in the process

Country- Style Modernism

In 1987, the owner of this house—an avid art collector and owner of a drywall company—purchased 42 acres to grow citrus in an agricultural community north of Los Angeles. Postmodern architecture was all the rage at the time, so the owner hired Zoltan E. Pali to design a Georgianstyle residence. The young architect, who happened to be a disciple of the Case Study modernists, was just starting out on his own and couldn’t afford to decline the commission. “It’s sort of like young people when they are dating,” he says. “I was idealistic enough to think I could change him.”

In the 20 years that passed between the property’s original drawings and its full completion, both men evolved in a variety of ways. The result, they say, is a better house because they dragged their feet and took their time in designing what they call a “modern ranch house.” Their lengthy design process also allowed for home technology to get better and better—all of which makes the 10,000-square-foot home more efficient to manage.

“Living here opened up a different way of thinking,” says the owner of what he affectionately calls Lucky Dog Ranch. “In my Cape Cod house, there was a lot of tchotchke stuff lying around and that was part of the style. Now people walk in, look around and say, ‘Do you really live this way? Come on … did you clean up the house for us?’ My wife and I look at each other, and say, ‘Yeah. It’s just the way we live.’ It’s a process. Now it comes naturally.”

Can pushing buttons really run the show inside and outside this sprawling home? “The technology gives me more confidence,” the homeowner says. “I don’t have to worry if I left a closet light on for 14 days.” Music, lighting, TV and DVD entertainment, and heating and air conditioning are all controlled from several Crestron touch panels installed by Patrick Martinez of DSI Entertainment Systems Inc. “They gave me buttons to push, and that’s all I do,” the homeowner says.

While the homeowner has been running his successful drywall business since 1976, and has worked with numerous architects through the years, he especially learned to appreciate his architect’s artistic expression. “I got him and he got me,” the homeowner says. “I knew he’d come up with something neat.”

Pali’s firm, Studio Pali Fekete (SPF:a), is busy today with projects that include the renovation of LACMA West for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the design of the new Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, which will wind in and around the historic Beverly Hills Post Office. The firm helped jump-start a Culver City renaissance by designing and building SPF:a Gallery: a modernist structure that houses the firm’s studio, a restaurant and seven lofts, including the home Pali shares with architect Judit Meda Fekete, who is his 20-year partner and mother of their two children.

Designing Lucky Dog Ranch, however, came long before Pali earned the clout that comes with winning AIA Honor Awards, or becoming executive architect of Malibu’s Getty Villa Museum renovation. “This was my first job,” he says of the 10,000-square-foot project. “I didn’t have a body of work to point to.” Pali says that in trying to give the homeowner what he wanted, and striving to “retain a level of purity,” he compromised more than he would today. He admits that he wasn’t happy with the original design that revolved around the columned entry ballroom. “Richard Meier meets Robert Stern,” he says.

Thankfully, economic downturns, prestigious commissions, and twists and turns in both men’s lives stalled the project for many years. During those down times, Pali kept tinkering with the design until he came up with his own version of a modern ranch house in the mid-1990s. The owner had just planted a lemon grove with 14-foot spacing between the trees.

Always looking for “super rational” ways of starting each home design, Pali found his inspiration in the grove’s rigorous tree spacing. “When quartered, the 14 feet gave me a 3-foot, 6-inch grid upon which to align the meaningful distances in the house.” Luckily, the owner understood Pali’s thinking. After all, he’s a man who collects art because he relishes the experience of working with artists.

Before the millennium, the homeowner poured the home’s footings and purchased an adjacent 20-acre parcel on which Pali designed a barn that later earned him an AIA award in 2004. The flat-roof structure has deep eaves, open clerestory ventilation and lateral timber siding. It’s all very wabi-sabi. The hay, stored on the exterior of the building, doubles as an Andy Goldsworthy-like project—a living art installation that changes colors with the seasons. The barn also has a recreation room with distributed audio and video systems, and a big-screen TV.

The house comprises two wings—one for guests, and one for the owners, which is referred to as the “apartment.” If Pali had his way, the two wings would intersect in a pure L shape. His accommodation to the postmodern design involved retaining the curved, public entrance with high ceilings that the owner wanted, this time in the form of two curved walls that frame the field room, a public entry and a living room that’s used as a holding room. The field room, with concrete flooring, doubles as an art gallery and a venue for large parties.

When the owners entertained the members of the Los Angeles Da Camera Society, for instance, 60 seats and a platform were set up for an afternoon concert by a Warsaw quartet.

The home’s main level is 7,200 square feet. The guest wing offers four bedrooms and baths, and a separate lounge area with a home entertainment center, a card table and a small kitchenette and bar. The “apartment” contains the main kitchen, living and dining areas, and the master suite and office. In the basement is a three-car garage with a laundry facility, wine cellar, prep kitchen, dumbwaiter and a small bedroom. Each of the guest bedrooms is equipped with a 22-inch Sharp LCD television.

While not apparent to the naked eye, televisions are everywhere in the house, with the exception of the master bedroom. Sometimes they hide behind custom cabinetry, but often they stand right out in the open. “The one I watch the most is in the master bathroom,” the homeowner says, referring to the 17-inch Panasonic LCD. Televisions also reside in the master dressing area, the office, every guest bedroom and the parlor and den. There’s even a bigscreen television in the barn.

The owner has lived in many places, from a Cape Cod bungalow to a Bunker Hill penthouse in Los Angeles. Originally, he planned on furnishing his new house with the antiques from his East Coast life. But after unpacking the crates and placing the furniture in his new modernist house, the homeowner shifted gears. “It just sucked the energy right out of the house,” he says of his collection of antiques. Within a week, he sent it all away and asked Pali to help him select a few basic pieces to build upon.

Housed within a gated equestrian community, Lucky Dog Ranch is surrounded by rural California countryside. When a guest arrives at the home’s front gate and is scrutinized by the security system’s outdoor camera and buzzed in, he or she must traverse a quarter-mile-long driveway, which winds past the brightly dotted citrus groves and the award-winning barn, to reach the main house. The possibility of communicating with a guest one-quarter of a mile away was one of the biggest challenges for DSI. To accommodate such a request, fiber-optic cabling was installed underground. Getting the entry gate’s audio system working was another challenge. But, like everything else in life, the journey is half the fun.