Engineering an Architectural Masterpiece: The Garcia House by John Lautner
Things you’re not likely to hear in 2023 and beyond: “Please design me a cliffside home. It needs to be on stilts. The property it will be situated on is simultaneously known for earthquakes and mudslides. Also, please make it look like futuristic, functional art.”
This is exactly what (we assume) Russell Garcia asked architect John Lautner to do in 1962. Garcia’s other requirements: It needed to have a space for Russell to work on his musical compositions, and it needed to have ample room for entertaining. Check and check.
Also known as “The Rainbow House”, the Garcia House is located on Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles.
The home was designed at the peak of the mid-century architectural movement. The structure is relatively small for a “mansion” with about 2,500 square feet of living space. The compact size and suspended nature of the house make you feel like you are in a treehouse. It’s one of the most iconic houses ever built.
Interestingly, the home does not meet in the middle; It’s completely open, with two equidistant spaces under an arched roof. This makes for seamless transitions between indoor and outdoor spaces. The home is designed around a central, spiral staircase that connects the front entrance to the lower deck and main living areas. The living room is massive, spanning the majority of the lower level, with 30-foot ceilings and space to entertain 100 or more.
There are two main bedroom areas, and the primary bedroom was originally a composing space. It’s now been retrofitted with a clear, lucite bed and some funky carpet. The components of the primary bathroom are made from a material called “honey onyx” and yes, they glow in the dark.
How does the Garcia House stand on the cliffside?
The Garcia House is built on twin v-shaped struts, like those used in suspension bridges. These struts extend vertically from the outer beam, deep into the cliffside below.
Restoring the Garcia house:
By the early 2000s the house was in a state of complete disrepair. Previous owners had modified the layout and painted over the original wood. The home was purchased by John McLLwee, and restored by CM Peck Inc.
“The restoration and remodeling of the historic Rainbow House by John Lautner involved strengthening the primary ‘arched’ glue lam rim beams, as well as reinforcing structural posts supporting the roof. In addition, we provided recommendations for repairing significant steel degradation that had occurred in the entry fountain area and designed the restoration of the catwalk on the downslope side of the building which had suffered extensive dry rot. Also, the timber entry drive and its attachment to the abutment at the street required strengthening and new attachment methods. As part of the remodel, the garage area was retrofitted and restored to its original configuration, and some interior remodeling was performed on the lower levels that affected the wood shear wall systems in that area. The primary pipe column supporting structure and foundations was not modified. We worked with the architect to restore the property in keeping with the original design.
Modifications to the Garcia House:
The original design called for a pool, which was to be located below the outer terrace, mimicking the arch design of the roof. The pool was never originally installed because the design was so expensive and risky that no bank would loan the money.
Fortunately, the pool was well documented in the original plans for the hole. The process to build the pool took four years in total: two years to get the building permits, and two years to build it. The effort was well worth it, adding significant outdoor living space with twelve hours of sun and panoramic views of Los Angeles.
Other modifications included updating the kitchen with new materials, while maintaining the original look and feel. By relocating the HVAC systems to below the home, the team was able to gain a large area of interior space. This was converted into a bathroom using other Lautner designs as inspiration, and recreating many of the original materials and techniques.
Where have I seen this house before?
Feel like you’ve seen this place before? It’s been in just about every architectural book and magazine since the 60s, and in “Lethal Weapon 2,” it’s a key set piece. Mel Gibson actually pulls it down the cliff with his truck. Not sure if I’m more impressed with the special effects or the implied towing capacity of an early 90s dually pickup!
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