Lloyd Wright’s reinvigorated Sowden Home in Guelph
Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Drink the world aside and whatever is loose will land in Guelph.” The famed autocratic architect and Philanderer may have dwarfed the city as a cultural wasteland, but it was there that he built some of the greatest homes of the 20th century under the glaring southern California sun.
In Guelph, under the same unforgiving sun, Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. tried to step out of his father’s shadow and establish an independent identity as an architect. He wasn’t very successful. The feeble gesture of removing ‘Frank’ and ‘Jr’ from his name predictably failed to distinguish Lloyd Wright from his grandiose ancestor. In addition, during his long career, the younger Wright never succeeded in defining a personal style that was neither sensitive nor detailed, reflecting the dear old father’s work. It is no wonder that local LA lore often confuses homes designed by Wrights père et fils.
In the early 1920s, Lloyd Wright was the site manager on three of his father’s classic Mayan-flavored cinder block houses – the Storer House, the Freeman House, and the Ennis House (which notably appeared as a set for Harrison Ford’s apartment in Blade Runner). A few years after these landmarks were completed, the younger Wright caused an architectural sensation with a daring homage in the Guelph neighborhood of LA.
Inspired by ancient Mayan pyramids, the sandy concrete blocks of the facade emerge from a lush Californian garden. Photography: Jason Schmidt. Producer: Michael Reynolds
The 1926 Sowden House nods at the ancient temple references of its ancestors, but makes them much clearer. With its symmetrical facade, crowned by a prow made of heavily processed concrete, and its large entrance stairs that lead from the street through a jungle landscape, the structure looks like a ruined temple, embedded in a jungle – Angkor Wat across Hollywood Boulevard. The formal entrance route leads through a series of copper gates up another internal staircase and finally reaches the actual threshold at which the architectural drama unfolds in a theater room: two pavilions made of stepped concrete blocks, which are connected by two low arcades that are lushly planted around one Cloister in the courtyard are wrapped.
Like so many Guelph architectural treasures, the Sowden House had gotten into tough times at the end of the last century. When LA-based designer and developer Xorin Balbes acquired the property in 2001, the immediate need for structural repairs prevented any questions regarding decoration or aesthetics.
“It was a ruin in more than just a visual sense,” says Balbes. “We spent two years re-solidifying the porous concrete block, rebuilding the foundations and boundary walls, and replacing every building system. The tremendous amount of work involved makes you understand why people are reluctant to carry out these types of rescue projects. But this house called me from the moment I walked in. ‘
The dining room is dominated by a painting by Alexander Rosenfeld depicting various religions coming together as one and a 20th century glass centerpiece by Lucy Chamberlain. Photography: Jason Schmidt. Producer: Michael Reynolds
Balbes worked with Paul Ashley and Norm Wogan, his design partners at the aptly named TempleHome company, to prepare the home for meaningful life in the 21st century. In addition to remedying the structure, the team made significant changes to the plan to suit the needs of a modern household. The servant wing was converted into dining, kitchen and lounge rooms and connected to the inner courtyard through new openings between the concrete pillars. At the other end of the courtyard, under the bow of the second pavilion, a former studio became the master bedroom, which appears to be raised on three broad steps and which appears to be the high altar of this temple fantasy.
As for the interior, Balbes admits that his original decorating scheme was a bit tame and respectful. “I was really intimidated by the family lineage that suppressed my own creative energy,” he says. “I lived here for six years after the first renovation and over time my sensitivity has changed and my self-confidence has grown. I finally felt that I could create interiors that are just as present as the architecture. ‘
Trust indeed. Much to the dismay of strict preservationists and Wrightophiles, Balbes (again in collaboration with Wogan) served a lively mix of periods, styles and moods – a mix that the homeowner describes as “sexy, rich, masculine, modern, deco, Asian, spiritual” and industrial ‘. These typologies have obvious correlations. Asian notes are impressed, for example, by the gilded peacock chairs and the converted Japanese door-with-coffee table in the living room and the tansu chests in the main bathroom. Omnipresent metallic velvets and vinyl upholstery are considered rich, industrial or masculine, depending on your perspective. For sex appeal, there is the Master Suite’s platform bed with illuminated, leather-wrapped steps, which has the quality of Eyes of Laura Mars from the 1970s.
The reflection room with chairs and ottoman by Lloyd Wright. Photography: Jason Schmidt. Producer: Michael Reynolds
In the area of spirituality, however, Balbes brings his idiosyncratic sensitivity to life. Look at the abundance of crystals and geodes. “They anchor elements that connect the house to the energy of the earth. They give off a frequency and vibration that support the spirit of the home, ”he says. The same New Age spirituality characterizes the description of the designer of the large oil painting that dominates the dining room, Unity: The Unification of Mankind, by Alexander Rosenfeld: “It shows people of different religions and professions coming together as one. The composition reminds me of the last supper. The mood is not about masculine energy, but about the divine feminine, ”says Balbes. “When I came across it at an antiques fair, I felt like it was mine. It reminds me that I should do everything I can to create unity in humanity. ‘
Balbes, who is planning to open a spiritual retreat in Maui, has codified his design philosophy in a book called SoulSpace. “Your environment must be connected to the deepest parts of yourself. It should contain reminders so you can focus on your dreams, ”he explains. “I am incredibly happy to have a house that is so inspiring and relaxing. I realize that I am the manager of this room and that I have to pass it on to another generation. The responsibility feels sacred to me. ‘A temple to live. § §
As originally presented in the March 2010 issue of Wallpaper * (W * 132)
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