PRINT January 1964

The Sterling Holloway House

UNIQUE PROBLEMS AND UNIQUE SOLUTIONS to the problems seemed certain when Sterling Holloway commissioned me to design his house in Laguna Beach. His opening statement was that I must design it primarily for his paintings and sculpture and only secondarily for himself. This remark was quickly followed by the observation that he would therefore need many solid walls for hanging paintings but that his building site had an unsurpassed view of mountains, ocean and coastline which should not be cut off by solid walls!

As our main concern was for the gallery aspect of the house, we first considered the conflict in function between glass walls and solid walls, for it was clear that the house could not be large enough to have both a great gallery with solid walls and, in addition, living spaces with glass walls open to the view. “Choice” was obviously the key word. We must have a choice either of walls (with paintings) or the view, and either one or the other must be easily summoned at will. Therefore walls had to move, roll out in front of glass windows and show their paintings or roll back out of sight into pockets like great sliding doors when the view was preferred. Even more, to satisfy any future disproportion between size of collection and size of house, they must be multiple walls, stacked in their pockets, in order to accommodate more paintings. This would ultimately make possible another choice: the selection of whichever paintings were to be preferred at the moment.

Next was the matter of daylighting the paintings, which again implied great glass areas. Skylights are a serious heat problem if they are without costly compensating devices, and they do not provide the voids and solids esthetic of walls and windows. So we rejected them in favor of windows; but though windows were preferred, where could we put them? The rolling walls would cut off the light from the windows in front of which they rolled. The only place remaining for glass was not in the solid walls but high above the tops of paintings. This implied very high ceilings; fortunately these were wanted anyway, since big canvases were to be hung here and they would need vertical as well as horizontal space. Thus the Gallery was daylighted by almost continuous glass above ten feet, and the living room had high triangular windows on two sides of the room and a very tall vertical slot of glass above the couch. These glassed openings, necessary for light, eventually assumed widely varied shapes and sizes during that stage of the design when the building was being studied as a sculptural composition of solids and voids.

In addition to the daylighting, another functional matter to be considered was the viewing of large canvases. Large canvases demand the choice of distant or close viewing, implying a public gallery-sized room. A great deal of thought went into designing room arrangements which would provide “long views” unavailable in the average house. The Gallery was stretched into long narrow proportions, then the living room was placed at its side and at a lower level, with a large opening between them so that the normally short views across the Gallery could be lengthened to over 30 feet by viewing from a distance in the living room. Large paintings in the living room could be similarly viewed from the opposite direction, in the Gallery, and others from 40 feet away in the bedroom.

In the process of thinking these matters through, an attitude for viewing art was conceived which might best be described by the word “processional.” Intrigued by the owner’s profession, I wondered whether timing, movement and relative position to the audience, fundamental to the art of acting, might not be applied profitably to the viewing of static art. The movement of guests through a house, studying painting and sculpture, might be thought of as a procession of the eye, implying certain formal paths, stoppings and startings, roundabouts, pauses, long shots and close shots, all for the purpose of heightening the pleasure and understanding of art. The room spaces could be designed to gently guide a viewer through the house rather than, as in a public museum, depositing him roughly in the middle of an immense space, torn in all directions by the lure of two or three dozen paintings, seeing all at once and no single one alone except by a conscious act of self-discipline. Good art should deserve good viewing: in the Holloway house we might, for example, see a lovely green and white Wonner in all its thick, pigmented glory; then, a few minutes later, at another stage of the procession, we might find ourselves facing it again from afar. It would be full of sunlight now, and shadows. A different experience. Again, we might encounter a Zajac bronze figure, poised on one foot, cape flying. With a sentient finger we could caress the bronze, the folds and ripplings in the metal, then pass by, hurry down the stairs and look back from a distance and a lower angle. An audience moving through time and space, by the lapse of a few seconds and a change of position of only a few feet could become a new audience responding in a new way. The shape of the interior spaces of the house could bring about this enrichment of the experience of art. (It is interesting to recall that Peggy Guggenheim, experimenting solely with the time element in the viewing of art, turned the lights off in her gallery periodically for a few minutes, leaving her visitors in pitch blackness long enough to refresh their “viewing sense”!)

An easily-accessible special closet in the Gallery stores paintings too numerous even for all the other spaces. Long shelves by the stairway have removable sections and stands for flexibility. Here are small sculptures and other little objects, including paintings small enough to be held in the palm of the hand. Built-in print storage trays in the living room will hold hundreds of prints. The plaster walls have recessed moldings for hanging paintings, rather than exposed moldings which are dust-collectors.

Much has been written in the last few years about integrating art into architecture, as was done in all developed cultures until Renaissance times. Most modern attempts have been mosaics or murals, random sculpture in courtyard or pool. Too often they have succeeded in being only applied or “invited” art rather than integrated into the architecture. Thus I was excited and pleased when Sterling Holloway asked me to participate in incorporating into his house two special sculpture commissions: the Robert Cremean revolving sunshade panels and the John Mason sculptured doors. Unlike a wall simply left blank for a painter or mosaicist, these were to be integral, working elements of the house, meant to be handled by the owner, felt, and to be satisfying in a way different than gallery art. We were confronted with mechanical and technical matters as well as architectural decisions of scale, balance and placement. These commissioned art elements had to be well-related to the architectural elements of walls, interior space, furniture and, of course, the processional aspect of viewing each. At no time was there any conflict between artist and architect but, on the contrary, we quickly developed a lively interest in each other’s attitudes and needs. Even more, there was a mutual feeling that each was being given the rare gift of looking into the workings of the other’s professional mind, something normally impossible for the outsider.

In other matters, Sterling Holloway demonstrated again and again the profoundly good influence a truly sensitive client can have on a design. For example, in one of the early conferences he stated that the house should have three “feelings” (which I eventually saw in terms of zones): (1) for paintings: height, calmness, coolness, simple furniture, sparseness; (2) for gregarious living: warmth, woods, paintings intermingling, shelters; (3) for private areas (bed and bath): sumptuousness and comfort. He of course knew that “feelings” were not means or methods but end results which I must seek. He also constantly endeavored to understand the spaces being envisioned, asking to have them described in as many ways as possible. With no experience in graphics, he resorted to literally “talking” spaces and masses into existence in his mind. Without this extraordinary effort he could not have contributed as he did in the conceptual stages of the design.

His three “feelings” are readily sensed in the resultant building. The Gallery has great height and space, is flooded with daylight from large areas of high glass, has simple white plaster walls, is enclosed and cut off from the outside world. It is all painting and sculpture with very little furniture. A very narrow walled garden is viewed only through two splayed, narrow, man-sized window niches. These focus attention on two garden sculptures; one at a time, to maintain intimate scale.

In the living room there is fire, warm-hued sofa cushions, rough wood walls in sheltering array, richly-colored old rugs, panorama of mountain and sea, simple furniture of natural wood glowing from years of being handled, wooden spoons and utensils, and, outside, a plant deck crowded with pots and tubs. At the ocean side of the room are the Cremean panels, balanced on their pivots to turn at the touch of a finger. When opened to the daylight view, the light floods the room but sidelights the bas-relief figures. When closed to the sun’s glare or the night blackness, their figures join each other across panels in various combinations, near at hand, old friends, to be touched, admired in the firelight. Intimacy, gregariousness, painting and sculpture living in the room, and more paintings nearby on sliding panels in the walls. A room for informality, for impulses born of changing mood. From a wide-open kitchen the host talks out to his guests while he prepares dinner.

Beyond a solid barrier wall is the bedroom, closed, sheltered, a personal place of creature comforts, books, files, radio and television, more paintings and prints on the wall. Everything immediately at hand. Finally the bath-dressing room, spacious, high-ceilinged but with solid privacy walls on the landward side. On the other side, through wide-open glass walls, the ocean can be viewed while one soaks in a huge tub of warm water or basks on a sun-bench in the solarium overlooking the sea. But again, view and sun are only one stage in time for the procession of the eye as it shifts back to paintings and prints on the walls and then moves back through the house.

This account has thus far had to do with the interior spaces of the building with no mention of the exterior forms. Actually, of course, the two were designed simultaneously. In this house, the interplay between the so-called sculptural esthetic and the shaping of the interior spaces was the most fascinating part of the design experience. It would be tempting to describe it as a sculptural experience but this seems an over-simplification, which should be avoided when speaking of anything called sculptural architecture. One may view a building from such great distance that it may assume the scale of a piece of sculpture, but even from this distance it takes a deliberate intellectual effort to avoid entering it in one’s imagination and exploring the emotional quality of its interiors, because one knows it is a building and is accustomed to doing so. The reverse is true of a piece of sculpture. To explore its interiors (even assuming it has them) takes an unusual act of empathy. As an architect I of course have seen sculpture which has made me wish for an Alice-in-Wonderland phial to swallow and so shrink down to proper size for a journey within, but this is not a normal sculptural experience. An architect may be pleased to hear his work described as sculptural, but he will hear it with some surprise since he has not performed as a sculptor.

Probably most architects feel a strong kinship and yearning for their sister art. Le Corbusier goes so far as to define architecture as “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” But he could be defining sculpture as well in omitting mention of interior spaces. Architecture shares with sculpture the shaping of exterior masses, but jealously reserves for itself the shaping of dynamic interior spaces.

Paul Sterling Hoag