As you walk along the ragtag streets of Venice, California, beach shack after beach shack signals that this community long ago abandoned its aspirations to follow the architectural example set by its prim and proper Italian namesake. But lurking throughout the disheveled neighborhoods, many modern marvels can be found resting comfortably in the Southern California sun, including one of the newest and most striking additions: the home of architect Lorcan O’Herlihy and his wife, actress Cornelia Hayes-O’Herlihy.
Just off Pacific Avenue, entering from the narrow path next to the carport, I find the Irish-born Lorcan awaiting my arrival, eager to share his latest creation. Today he is a homeowner, comfortable in his jeans and polo shirt, offering up emotional responses to questions concerning his home, but every once in a while he turns back into the architect to technically elucidate a unique flashing detail or specifics of framing.
We quickly slide past the hovering black exterior patterned with colorful windows and climb up through the center of the home on a core of stairs. The house stretches three stories to maximize volume while maintaining the minimal footprint that homeowners in urban and semi-urban settings typically must accept.
The boxis elevated above a ground level, which is used to park cars and houses a small studio space, while the second and third floors rise like well-proportioned works of cabinetry. As the stair core ascends past the second-floor bedrooms, it too becomes part of the finished carpentry, with panels opening to reveal a variety of cupboards and hidden closets within. A sliding door for a powder room at the top of the stairs can also close off the stairs, effectively separating the living areas from the sleeping areas and thus preventing the cat from joining them at night. The living room and kitchen are located on the third floor to take advantage of the light, openness, and views that height affords. When we arrive at this highest level, Cornelia welcomes us into a space between the inner core and an outer skin that is filled with light.
The house rises above the streets and canals of Venice, and a cozy penthouse window bench built into the rooftop enhances this sense of lofting above the landscape. “This is my favorite spot in the house,” Cornelia chimes in her lilting Irish accent. “You’ll find me reading here all day.” The couple’s Gaelic name for the place, Aras an Tur, translates as the “tower house,” enforcing the idea of the home as both luxurious lounging area and lookout spot. On this hundredth anniversary of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom wandering, Odysseus-like, through Dublin, it’s easy to imagine the O’Herlihys’ house as a kind of Martello tower, dispatched from its native Dublin to take up residence with its owners in the New World.
The integrated window bench, however, is not the only piece dreamed up by Lorcan—all the furnishings were custom designed by the architect to fit and complete the larger cabinet of the home itself. Wall-mounted cupboards and sideboards, with varying sized operable panels, relate with the built-ins that rise with the stair core. Freestanding pieces—such as the couches, coffee table, benches, and dining table—match the rhythm, materials, and colors of the overall house. The wooden furniture takes a stain the color of coffee beans, commensurate with the color and patterning of the exterior concrete panels. Cabinet doors in the kitchen swing in a multitude of directions, with the same playful spirit as the multihued windows that cast colored dabbles of sunlight throughout the space. Boxy forms of wall-mounted units, customizations of pre-made frames, mimic the envelope of the house. Given the stepped pattern of exterior fenestration, there is a surprising amount of wall space to house artworks collected over time, presented by friends, or painted by Lorcan himself.
“We’ve always wanted to have our own place,” Cornelia starts, letting Lorcan finish, “and we had lived on the site for three years in an old bungalow.” They had bought the dilapidated house with the intent of fulfilling a dream to build. It was 1998, and Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects (LOh/a) was rapidly expanding. Lorcan’s schedule was devoted to clients, while his own house drawings had to fit in at spare moments.
Though it didn’t generate fees, the design of the house benefited LOh/a in other ways. It was a chance for Lorcan to fulfill certain design ideas that had been gestating for years, while also allowing his firm to experiment with new directions, like the panelized exterior. Praising a staff that actively contributes to the design process, Lorcan says, “We are committed to using new mate-rials, and to using them in new applications.” Other projects of his have utilized concrete paneling, or translucent Profilit channel glass, but on this house he was able to combine them with off-the-shelf windows into a patterned, custom-built wall system that relies on only a few details repeated throughout the façade. Lorcan explains the benefit of this approach: “Once you resolve a piece of it . . . you can go the whole way.”
Because the property allowed little distance from neighbors and provided few open views, Lorcan had to redefine his use of windows, which, though numerous, are fragmentary. The windows bring in tremendous amounts of light, but instead of offering unimpeded views of the unglamorous stucco boxes looming only a few feet away, they act as visual screens. They divide outside scenes into a collection of interesting parts by closely framing individual portions. Rather than look upon other people’s homes, these windows instead borrow discrete pieces of their surroundings and pull them in to form an extension of the O’Herlihys’ living room. Colored and translucent glass further disassembles and recomposes the views.
Using standardized precast concrete board panels (split in half, to two feet), the architect found a cladding module that worked well with his notion of the narrow windows. But the concrete cladding (as illustrated above) would have to hang on the rigid structure of a steel moment frame. The steel allowed Lorcan to experiment with the rhythm of the applied façade. Pushing all structural supports to the exterior provided him and Cornelia ample opportunity to play with unimpeded open space and create the type of living areas they wanted.
Though Cornelia had grown quite accustomed to—and opinionated about—the construction process due to her congenial Irish contractor father, she entrusted much of the design work to her husband, and her requests were modest. “I only asked for a large enough bath!” she claims, though she had also imagined a modern, well-lit space to replace their dim bungalow. “I wanted to let Lorcan create something brilliant, like he had done for all his clients.” Once construction was under way, though, both Lorcan and Cornelia could often be found onsite—he to manage the particulars of putting the building together and she to check on the progress of their once-and-future residence.
Though there are still some furniture pieces to be crafted, and Cornelia would like to get curtains up in a bathroom or two, the couple is settling into their airy home. In the late afternoon sunshine of another “beach day,” the dark cement panels soak up the final warm rays while the colorful windows float about the façade. Sitting quietly above the busy thoroughfare, the home stands firm long after the beachgoing weekenders have fled—another West Coast Venetian wonder.