Two L.A. Architects Tackled Their Biggest Project to Date: Building Their Own Dream Home

Two L.A. Architects Tackled Their Biggest Project to Date: Building Their Own Dream Home

Two decades, three children, and more than a dozen ground-up projects into their professional and

Two decades, three children, and more than a dozen ground-up projects into their professional and personal partnership, architects Alice Kimm and John Friedman still had a gaping hole in their lives. More precisely, they had a hole on a hilltop.

It was 2016, and the couple had yet to do anything with the cliff-side chunk of land in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood that they’d acquired for about $210,000 shortly after the turn of the millennium. Cheek by jowl with some of America’s greatest midcentury houses (John Lautner’s celebrated Silver Top is just across the road), the site was Mr. Friedman and Ms. Kimm’s chance to put their own mark on the storied locale. The family was already living in Silver Lake and they’d told their three children that they would one day build their family dream home on the hilltop property. But they were busy with other projects, and so the years rolled on and still there was nothing. Finally their eldest daughter, Rae, forced the issue. “Am I ever going to live there?” she asked. 

Alice Kimm and John Friedman in their self-designed Los Angeles home.

Jessica Sample for The Wall Street Journal

Their answer—a unique riposte to a unique version of the perennial “Are we there yet?”—is a $2.38 million, glass-and-stucco Wunderkammer, a crisp and contemporary funhouse dangling improbably above the L.A. neighborhood and its namesake reservoir. After living in the evolving project for years, the couple finished it this summer. The project’s yearslong gestation involved a special kind of collaboration for its husband-and-wife creators. 

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“John spent more time on the design,” says Ms. Kimm, 57. “For me, it was an opportunity to sort of be the client.” With Mr. Friedman’s off-kilter inventiveness as the engine, and Ms. Kimm’s refinement and prudence as the rudder, the two managed to plot a wild architectural course that somehow ended up exactly where they wanted to be. 

Before they became the firm of John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects, or JFAKA, the pair were colleagues at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Before graduating in 1990, Mr. Friedman moved to Portugal to join the office of architectural eminence Álvaro Siza. Only several years later did he reconnect with Ms. Kimm, after both had relocated to the West Coast and Ms. Kimm dragooned Mr. Friedman into helping with a competition for her then employer. “It was strictly professional,” Ms. Kimm insists—but it didn’t stay that way. The two set up their own office in 1996, and married three years later. 

Under their shared banner, the couple have completed major institutional projects such as a sculptural multiuse building for Claremont McKenna College and a pair of rec centers for UCLA, and large-scale commercial buildings, notably the La Kretz Innovation Campus, a tech incubator in L.A.’s Arts District. But nothing quite prepared them for their Silver Lake adventure. “We’ve actually done very few houses,” notes 60-year-old Mr. Friedman—and this one would pose a number of singular challenges. Just 60 feet wide, the lot ranges 120 feet up the slope with street frontages both above and below; local building ordinances obliged the designers to place the entry a few steps down from the upper roadway, then carve into the hill itself to create about 3,800 square feet of interior space in the main structure. 

The duo only made things more complicated for themselves by adding features along the way, including a swimming pool and adjacent rec room on the low-lying terrace as well as a ground-level garage topped by a rentable apartment. Almost every floor of the house, in fact, has been designed to operate as a discrete apartment if need be. “The idea is that it prepares us for the future,” Mr. Friedman says. “Whatever that turns out to be.” 

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Just 60 feet wide, the lot ranges 120 feet up the slope. Building the house required carving into the hill.

Jessica Sample for The Wall Street Journal

The house has architecture references aplenty, including echoes of Paul Rudolph in the three-story atrium and traces of Diller Scofidio + Renfro in the peek-a-boo transparencies between the two top-floor children’s rooms, and from their son Milo’s room out to the stairs. On the second-story landing, there is a smidgen of Rem Koolhaas-style surrealism in the casual collision of a fully glazed shower stall, the entrance to the primary bedroom, and the duo’s split-level office tucked partially beneath the staircase. 

“Our process involves throwing out a lot of possibilities,” says Ms. Kimm, and it shows. Every inch of the place seems to be teeming with a whole career’s worth of ideas, from the swooping pergola atop the garage to the built-in sofa in the family room to the soundproof door-cum-bookcase in front of the upstairs bedroom suite.  

And then, of course, there are what Mr. Friedman calls “the gizmos.” “I have a fabricator friend,” the architect explains. “I come to him with some crazy invention and he tries to make it work.” Together the two have created a whole workshop’s worth of nifty custom features: Along the back of the living-room couch, hinged headrests provide optimal comfort while serving as a safety barrier between sitters and the atrium’s three-story plummet. Just a few feet away, the television emerges from a concealed panel, while the long corner window retracts into the wall at the push of a button. There are trap doors and concealed faucets and whimsical decorative details, including a key-shaped cutaway over the front door handle.

Inevitably, however, one feature draws the most attention. Spanning nearly the length of the ceiling from the dining room window to the back of the long galley kitchen is a yellow, rail-like structure with a tough-looking industrial crane hanging from it. It isn’t just decoration. “We wanted to be able to eat outside,” Mr. Friedman says: The crane was conceived as a timesaving device, intended to lower the entire dining room table, place settings and all, three stories down to the pool deck for al fresco meals. The dream is still somewhat in the works, awaiting a few fixes to ensure the purpose-built table doesn’t swing too much in the breeze. For now, a large custom tray is used to lower food down to an outdoor table.

Minor tuneups aside, the house has proven an unqualified hit with its most important audience. Milo, now 16, was recently given a school assignment, an essay describing the best day of his life. He wrote about the day his family moved into the house. The architects, needless to say, were pleased. “That felt great,” says Mr. Friedman. 

Ms. Kimm and Mr. Friedman in their dining room.

Jessica Sample for The Wall Street Journal