LOS ANGELES – New arrivals to this city are often told by locals to hop in the car and take Sunset Boulevard to the Pacific Ocean. It is a beautiful drive, world famous. It is also an initiation into the California myth without the downsides: You glide past the traffic-clogged 405 freeway, wind through rustic canyons where movie stars live and breathe in the ocean breezes west of Brentwood, as if nature had provided Angelenos with free air-conditioning.
On this same stretch of road, the newcomer is sure to encounter some of the city’s daring architecture. Just before Pacific Palisades proper, there is a curved hill, and clinging to it, a house gingerly balanced on massive concrete stilts. The two-story, redwood-sheathed home appears to hover dangerously above the road. It is architecture that broadcasts, This is not Cleveland. The out-of-towner looks up, considers earthquakes and shudders.
Thomas Carson, a Los Angeles architect who admires the home’s engineering bravado, said it has become part of the scenery of this famous route. “Everybody knows about it,” Carson said. “It’s one of those iconic houses you first see when you’re driving west on Sunset.”
J. Scott Carter, a fellow architect, likened it to another familiar Southern California sight. “It’s like a freeway overpass with those concrete pillars,” he said, adding, “From below, you don’t get any sense of somebody being in the house.”
The home does have an air of mystery. Its dramatic form and remote perch suggest the lair of a Bond villain or an aging Hollywood producer-turned-recluse. It is a striking example of brutalism, yet it isn’t the work of a renowned architect and doesn’t appear on greatest-hit lists of the city’s modernist masterworks.
While many are familiar it, Carson said, “very few people know who did it. Even fewer know that the guy who lives in it designed it.”
One afternoon last fall, Robert Bridges sat in his kitchen high above Sunset Boulevard, reflecting on his life and career. The room was bisected by a heavy Corbusian column and was man-cave-dark, and as he talked the faint whoosh of traffic could be heard 100 feet below.
Bridges, 60, is a professor of real estate finance at the University of Southern California, in the Marshall School of Business. But 30 years ago, he was a builder and architect who designed several homes around Southern California, including this one sited so precariously.
“I prefer ‘carefully,’ ” Bridges said. “It may look precarious, but it’s not. From an engineering standpoint, this thing is absolutely rational.”
His gravity-defying design was a response to limitations both financial and architectural. Bridges bought the steep, seemingly unbuildable lot for $40,000 in 1979. Beyond its Pacific Palisades location, he said, the property had just one other obvious benefit: “At the time, it was the only thing I could afford.”
To build here presented serious challenges: the grade, for one, but also the traffic noise. The house would have to deflect a never-ending symphony of revving engines and sputtering mufflers. And Bridges knew that whatever he designed would be highly visible. “You couldn’t just put in Colonial columns or some big stucco projection of a conventional foundation,” he said.
For a decade he worked and raised three sons with his wife, Janelle, while he saved money and mulled his options. Finally, after “the culmination of a lot of artistic and engineering thought,” he arrived at a solution: post-tension, reinforced concrete. As Bridges explained, “It’s basically the same technology as a parking structure.”
Support pillars make contact with the ground on concrete pads; under the pads are battered piles driven deep into the soil at an angle, the engineering equivalent of someone widening their legs to steady themselves. Atop it all sits the house.
To pour all that concrete, he couldn’t afford a costly crew with heavy machinery. It was just him, a crane and three other men. “When you’re 35 years old, it’s different than it might be at other points in your life – it’s a thrill,” he said. “But it’s incredibly risky. We were constantly hanging off the side, doing feats of daring and stupidity.”
Janelle Bridges sometimes visited the work site with their sons in tow and saw her husband suspended over a void. “I remember, when we first moved in, having a nightmare or two about falling,” she said. “I wonder where that came from.”
For all its boldness facing Sunset, the house has a split personality. Its entry is on a level residential street and is almost modest.
But the interior bears the stamp of its construction method: The ceilings are exposed concrete, while great columns punctuate the living spaces. Janelle Bridges called it “a man’s type of house,” though her husband did use wood for the floors and walls to add warmth. The effect is like being inside a treehouse designed by Robert Moses.
Robert Bridges said: “The concept was open plan, like you might have with a New York loft. There was no careful planning about exquisite detail of the interior space.”
And anyway, the focus is outward, toward the action below. Off the kitchen, a balcony extends over the busy artery. “Everybody who buys a new car in L.A. drives Sunset Boulevard, so I have seen every new car,” Robert Bridges said, standing out there. “Then we get the crazies with the expensive cars. They’ll come through here at over 100 mph.”
At night, he said, the boulevard calms: “The traffic dies down to nothing and you get this observational platform, with a view of the whole canyon. At night, this place is incredible.”