June 10, 2010
Every architect has that ‘one that got away’: the project another firm landed, the job where the client pulled the plug just before construction — a common occurrence this past 18 months — even the commission whose demise was no fault of their own. I think of two Los Angeles architects whose years of designing a dream Modernist house fell by the wayside when their clients, a warring couple, opted for a divorce instead of a home.
But few architects have confronted a wayward project in the fashion that Los Angeles-based architect Clark Stevens did recently.
Once partners with Michael Rotundi at the avante gard firm RoTo and now the head of his own practice, Stevens aims to re-design great swathes of the American West. Essential to this brief is creating houses for these breathtaking landscapes.
A few years ago, Stevens designed a delicate, light-filled Modernist home to be built in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument area in South East Utah. Although the site had been readied, the project fell victim to the 2008 recession: the clients pulled the plug. A dispute over fees ensured which was resolved some months later.
Two months ago, Stevens, whose love of fly-fishing and camping has led him all across the West, found himself cruising Google Earth. He thought he’d tale a nostalgic peek at the hole the in the ground that marked this fated house’s end point. Imagine his surprise at spotting shadows cast over the site.
“I saw verticals and immediately realized they were building the house, even though of course they did not hold copyright to the drawings,” he said.
[South East Utah Home plan removed]
Stevens called the contractor, a friend he’d brought on to the project months earlier. The latter confirmed it: the house, with some slight changes, was going up.
Stevens, whose practice is based in Topanga Canyon, was not sure what to do. Vestiges of the anger from the negotiations about lost fees haunted him. As did some of his own misjudgments: not making completely clear to the clients that as they increased the size of the house from its original 1600 square feet, its costs (including his fees) would also rise.
[An early sketch of the South East Utah home removed]
Lately, however, these feelings have begun to subside. A true man of the West, both old and new, he has started to see the humor in the episode. “That helped me get through it,” he said.
More importantly, two other houses, on similarly breathtaking sites, are being completed. The first is for his brother outside Park City, Utah.
The other is a two story, Modernist log cabin on the Summit Springs Ranch in Etna, Wyoming.
Stevens helped on the redesign of the one-time 250-acre dairy ranch along the Salt River for client Stillwater Ranches. Once a dairy ranch with little regard for its natural state, the ramnch will now be a fly-fishing retreat with a small housing complex, and trails to both the fly-fishing sites and up to the mountains behind.
Earlier, Stevens had done similar designs that envisioned a more ecologivally-sound future for a 24,000-acre ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii. He is currently doing similar large-scale landscape designs along Malibu Creek and Huntington Beach in California.
A native of Michigan, Stevens wants to redesign the American West in ways that are both environmentally harmonious and also give its newer occupants pleasure. If he lets a few projects slip away as he does so, that may be the price of such out-sized ambition.