Little Gem with History - Page 6

Caressed by hills and a pleasant ocean breeze, little-known Niguel West glories in its modern roots

Kicking Back and
Living in the Round

Little Gem with History
At the entrance to the Horizon House: a spectacular bit of architectural sculpture.
Little Gem with History
Horizon living room.
Little Gem with History
Horizon owner Einar Johnson (left) entertains neighbors Teresa Humphrey, Lon Ulmer, and Jason Ley.
Little Gem with History
Horizon floor plan.

It's easy to go into ecstasies about Niguel West's Horizon House, a spectacular bit of architectural sculpture formed from concrete and glass.

With its circular form, its undulating, scalloped 60-foot-diameter roofline, its dramatic yet comforting, almost womblike central core-fireplace, the house seems otherworldly, not quite an everyday sort of abode.

But Einar Johnson, who owns the house with Pat Gough, disagrees.

"I've got to say about this house, it's so comfortable," he says. "It's a different vibe entirely."

"For me, it's like living in a resort," he says. "I feel like I'm in the Bahamas or something."

The entirely glass-walled house, built and opened to the public in 1964 as part of the nationwide Horizon House program, was designed to showcase the utility and beauty of concrete. The sponsor was the Portland Cement Association, and about 150 concrete houses were built nationwide,

But none of them were anything like the one in Niguel West, says author and architect Ted Wells, who is writing a book about the program.

The architect who designed the house was not, as is often said, George Bissell, who designed the 72 other homes in the tract. It was the Pasadena firm John Galbraith Associates, Wells says. Wells had interviewed Bissell before the architect's death.

But Bissell had the challenging job of working with engineer Hans Baumann to turn the design into reality. The task involved attaching pre-cast concrete wedges to inner steel rings, inflating a giant balloon-like form to hold things in place, and shooting on a slurry of gunite.

"It's all held up like a tree trunk from that central core," Wells said of the house during a Friends of Laguna Architecture open house.

The Eichler Network has written about a structurally similar round, concrete house in Northern California, the locally famous Corbetta House in Los Altos Hills. It too had rooms cantilevered from a central core, and it too had a scalloped roof.

The house has since been remodeled and 'Tuscanized,' according to Lorna Corbetta, daughter of its builder, Louis Corbetta. The Corbetta House was built in 1960, preceding the Horizon House by four years.

Wells praised the Horizon House for its aesthetics as well as engineering, "the combination of the swoop of the central truck and this waviness of the perimeter, which we wouldn't expect to have happen with concrete."

"It looks almost like fabric," he said.

Some neighbors call it 'the potato chip house' because, like Ruffles, the house has ridges.

Johnson appreciates the home's livability and efficiency. "You use every inch of space," he says.

"You get up in the middle of the night and you want some water," he says. "You take this inner circle and you're at the fridge in a few feet…everything is really close."

It's a great party house, people spilling easily outside and up the hill, where Johnson has installed decks—circular, of course.

The house is so energy efficient that, although the builder provided roof ducts for air conditioning, it was never added. "I close up the house when I go to work; and even when its 90 degrees out, it's cool when I get back," Johnson says.

When Johnson moved in, there was much restoration to do, including removing several appendages that had been added to the exterior glass walls. He did retain an extra bathroom that had been added.

 "This is going to be the house where we retire, and even die in," says Johnson, who also owns a modern house by architect Ray Kappe in Los Angeles. "This'll be it. For one thing, the neighborhood is great. It's a great walking neighborhood. Right across from here is a trail that goes all the way to the ocean."