Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

the strick house

los angeles
architecture
the
strick house
michael boyd and gabrielle doré

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by AMANDA WALL AND OLIVIER ZAHM

All pictures of the Strick House copyright Niemeyer, Oscar / ADAGP, Paris, 2018

The Strick House in Santa Monica, by the legendary Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer, architect of the capital city Brasília, was the only residential structure he built in the United States, from which he was banned because of his communist politics. Niemeyer designed it from photographs and oversaw the construction via telephone and many letters. Several years ago, a developer bought the house, planning to raze it, and started to destroy the garden. Michael Boyd and his wife Gabrielle Doré heard about the endangered house on the day they were closing on the sale of their townhouse in Manhattan. The next day, Michael was on a plane to Los Angeles on a mission to save the house. He eventually renovated both the house and garden as closely as possible to the original plan.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re the owner of this incredible house. How did you find it?
MICHAEL BOYD — It was listed as “endangered” because the developer was going to demolish it, and people were, like, “Who was that couple that saved the Paul Rudolph house in New York City and were so into restoring and protecting modern architecture?” We were just not ready to do it, but when we came to see it, we knew we had to.

OLIVIER ZAHM — They contacted you?
MICHAEL BOYD — Yeah, because we’d done a couple of architectural restorations before that. But we’d moved to California after 9/11.
We were leaving New York anyway, and then when this house came up, we were excited. It was good timing for coming back to California.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you came back and saw the house and immediately fell in love with it. But how were you able to buy it?
MICHAEL BOYD — This is the story. The developer demolished the landscape in anticipation of demolishing the building. Then local architects complained that it needed historical protection as an Oscar Niemeyer design, and the developer was handcuffed in terms of options. There was a joint mandate from the city of Santa Monica and historical preservationists saying, to paraphrase: “You have to sell
this property to people/custodians that will preserve the architecture.” The Landmarks Commission was able to prevent the developer from demolishing the house by “emergency-designating” it a landmark without the owner’s consent, and that’s when we stepped in.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — I instantly loved this house. Because we’d been on a quest — we’d lived in several houses, our children were small at that time — and usually the modernist, avant-garde houses were bachelor pads. [Laughs] So, we’d been living in one bachelor pad after another. This house was built for a family, so it was perfect.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, originally, it was conceived as a family house.
MICHAEL BOYD — Yeah. Jeremy Strick grew up in the house. He was the head of MOCA [the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles] and is at the Nasher [Sculpture Center] in Texas now. His dad, Joseph Strick, was a filmmaker and saw Oscar Niemeyer’s work in Brazil while attending a film festival, and he wanted to do a Niemeyer house. Niemeyer wasn’t interested — he was doing much bigger projects — but when he found out about Strick’s left-leaning politics, he thought it’d be great to be a provocateur in Los Angeles. Strick saw Brasília and other projects and loved them. The problem was that Niemeyer wasn’t allowed in the country because of his political views.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — He refused to sign the oath — to have entered the country, he’d have been required to sign some declaration.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Niemeyer never came to America?
MICHAEL BOYD — He came in ’47 to work on the UN [United Nations], with Le Corbusier and Wallace K. Harrison, but not since then. We’re very lucky that he lived to 104 because we were in contact with him after we got this place, and he loved that we restored it.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — We got a thumbs up.
MICHAEL BOYD — He said he was “very happy it was restored to its ’60s elegance” because there were layers of insensitive additions. [Laughs]

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s interesting, what you said about modernism — that most of the time, it’s about the bachelor lifestyle.
MICHAEL BOYD — Yeah, or an evil lair, like in James Bond movies. Modernism is an acquired taste — as if you need to be an evil genius that wants to take over the world to know that you actually want less…

OLIVIER ZAHM — Like the John Lautner house in The Big Lebowski.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — Yes, the Jackie Treehorn house.
MICHAEL BOYD — Oh, yeah, right. [Laughs] So, it’s for shady characters and evildoers…
GABRIELLE DORÉ — And yet, this house is so functional. It works so perfectly as a machine for living — you have the master bedroom here, and the kids’ rooms on the other end, so there’s this buffer zone in the middle where we all come together. And go back into our little honeycomb pods and have our privacy, and then meet out in the depot, where the kitchen and the living room are — as an open kitchen and living room, which was pretty avant-garde for that time: to have that one big room that is kitchen, dining, and living room, all in one. And it really works.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re the living proof that a modernist house is well designed for life? Are there any negative aspects of the house, something that you don’t like?
MICHAEL BOYD — I actually can’t think of any.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — Me, neither. As I said, we were on a quest for this house. “This one’s too avant-garde, this one’s not avant-garde enough, this one’s perfect.” And it worked when we had our kids, and then when our kids left, we very easily slipped in and took over those spaces. It’s adaptable to different ways of using it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And also, the orientation — it’s facing the sunset.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — Like a sundial…
MICHAEL BOYD — Yeah, that’s what this deck that we’re on now really represents.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you spokewith Oscar Niemeyer before he died?
MICHAEL BOYD — Yeah, by e-mail. A writer, Janet Eastman, from the Los Angeles Times put the Architectural Digest article of our restoration in front of him, and everybody thought, “He’s not going to remember it because he’s 100 years old, and it was a long time ago,” and he totally remembered it and was, like, “Great! I love that it has been restored to its ’60s elegance!” And the only other thing he said was, “What was the furniture that was in there before?” It was stuff that was gold and purple and very theatrical. So, he wanted to know what was up with the furniture. And we were, like, “We really couldn’t say.” One of the things that’s so great about modernism is it takes on all these layers, and it’s easy to get it back to the original intent and beauty. It tells you, if you really listen, the moves it wants you to make to bring it back to glory.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you know about the story of the house?
MICHAEL BOYD — We’re the second owners. Well, actually the third because there was the developer who bought it, but he never moved in, and wanted to destroy it.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — The Strick couple split up, so the husband, who commissioned Niemeyer, never lived here. But his wife lived here for 38 years.
MICHAEL BOYD — She’s really sweet, but she was the one who did a few things on her own.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But she didn’t destroy the structure? She didn’t add some new part, or…
MICHAEL BOYD — No, absolutely not. She is still alive, too.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — She had interesting taste and style but it wasn’t ours. We have a lot of things that were hers at our beach house in Malibu, the bed, outdoor chairs…

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did the house get built without Niemeyer?
MICHAEL BOYD — It was built mostly by the Richard Neutra Office. So, there’s a lot of detailing that’s very similar to Neutra. Amir Farr, from the Neutra Office, executed a lot of the cabinets and interpreted drawings of outdoor hardscaping. Ulrich Plaut was the structural engineer and builder. It’s interesting, the differences in building a Neutra and a Niemeyer, almost identical in execution, but different in inflection and intention.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And are these beams we are looking at decorative or structural?
MICHAEL BOYD — It’s a structural solution. We’ve had architects and roof experts up on there say: “This is impossible. It’s got to leak.” And we’re, like, “Yeah, but it doesn’t.” Usually the roof is sitting on top of the beams, and in this case, it’s hanging off the bottom of the beams.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — But they’re holding it up.
MICHAEL BOYD — Yeah, from above, no sag… So, the design for this house is a very improbable solution that’s actually great. It was Niemeyer’s third scheme. His first one was very much like his own house in Canoas, Brazil — a biomorphic, free-form roof that was totally incredible! If that house was built, wow! It makes you cry, that design, it’s so beautiful. Anne Strick killed that idea. And then Niemeyer had a second solution, which has subterranean bedrooms on the golf course. The city wouldn’t allow subterranean bedrooms. So, he sent a third scheme — he said: “This is it. Take this or leave it. You’re not working with me if you don’t take this final plan.” And they took it, phew!
GABRIELLE DORÉ — We’ll show you the three drawings, and his letter that basically says, “If you want a Niemeyer house, it’s this.” It was published in Arts & Architecture, September 1964.
MICHAEL BOYD — We republished them in a book in 2007 with Michael Webb for Rizzoli called Modernist Paradise: Niemeyer House, Boyd Collection.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, let’s speak about the garden. You told me it was destroyed.
MICHAEL BOYD — Except one tree.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — Just that one Japanese pine. Everything else, we planted.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you plagiarize the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx?
MICHAEL BOYD — He was an inspiration for us. He was a frequent Niemeyer collaborator. And we love his work. So, we studied all the books about him. We read about his plant-specimen collecting trips. He’d take 12 people out into his property, and they’d get clippings and all these crazy exotic palms and succulents and hybrids. He was a connoisseur, collecting and curating all the plants. We wanted to do something that had that essence.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — We wanted to bring Brazil to the garden. That’s the concept: to bring the jungle here.
MICHAEL BOYD — And the Santa Monica Mountains evoke a feeling of Brazil, too. The hardscaping was already here and was very damaged, with tree roots breaking through from below. We didn’t want to change the way that it was — convex, the way it slopes — so we just excavated and repaired it. Roberto Burle Marx has used that broken travertine tile mosaic a lot, so we just referenced that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now you have the reputation for saving modernist houses from destruction. But do you allow yourselves to be creative, too? To not just follow the modernist rules or the original plans? You also put guitars everywhere. You put books everywhere. It’s all furniture.
GABRIELLE DORÉ — It’s for living.
MICHAEL BOYD — Right. We don’t take any liberties with the actual structure, but within it, it can get really crazy…
GABRIELLE DORÉ — The house is a vessel for the objects that you live with, and it needs to adapt to that — and life comes first, for sure.
MICHAEL BOYD — Yeah, Le Corbusier said…
GABRIELLE DORÉ and MICHAEL BOYD — [Together] “Life is always right.”
MICHAEL BOYD — But with the buildings, we’re very conservative, like a painting conservator. The more invisible we are in the process, the better — if it looks like we were never there, then we did the right thing. If someone can see our hand in the restoration of the building, then we’re not building restorers. But then, when you do interiors or gardens…

END

THE STRICK HOUSE
SANTA MONICA

 

[Table of contents]

Los Angeles issue #30

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