Fred A. Bernstein

From Modest to Modernist

Jennifer Luce's triumph in La Jolla

Published in The New York Times, August 23, 2007

SIX years ago, Greg Lemke, a scientist in La Jolla, Calif., took a close look at his modest 40-year-old house and realized, he said, "that the basic structure - plumbing, drains, wiring, roof, furnace - was starting to fall apart." Mr. Lemke, an architecture buff, figured that while fixing all those things, he should try to turn the ordinary ranch house into something more distinguished.

Mr. Lemke's job at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies exposes him to superb architecture every day. Salk's campus was designed by Louis Kahn, with a layout intended to facilitate discussions among peers. According to Mr. Lemke, a developmental neurobiologist, after the institute's design proved "hugely successful" at fostering professional interaction, "the open plan became the model for pretty much all working biology labs around the world."

Scientists like proof, and Salk proves that a building's design can change the way individuals and organizations function.

But Mr. Lemke's house did not seem like an architectural masterpiece waiting to happen. Built in 1961 with stucco walls, a tarpaper-and-gravel roof and wood-framed windows, it was an ordinary box amid hundreds of ordinary boxes.

Puzzled about what to do, Mr. Lemke attended a show at New York's Museum of Modern Art about the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famous for the dictum "Less is more." The last house in the exhibition was a modest suburban dwelling that Mies designed before he was forced to leave Germany in 1937. Mr. Lemke zeroed in on the name of the building: the Lemke House. The coincidence of their names - or was it a sign? - inspired him to try for something that could someday be part of an architecture exhibition.

Mies died in 1969, but Mr. Lemke found his intellectual heir in Jennifer Luce, a San Diego architect known for her spare designs. But Ms. Luce's brand of minimalism, about as cerebral as Mr. Lemke's scientific research, is not easily achieved.

After their first meeting, Ms. Luce asked Mr. Lemke to create a work, in any medium, that would reveal his sensibility. "The idea was to really get to know how he thinks," said Ms. Luce. As Mr. Lemke recalls it, "Jennifer auditioned me as a client."

Mr. Lemke, a lover of classical music (and an amateur composer), made a tape of several of his favorite fugues, including one by Shostakovich.

The fugue, Ms. Luce realized, is about variation on a theme. With a basic structure in place, the composer can go off in unexpected, sometimes even whimsical, directions.

With that realization, Ms. Luce came up with the idea of building a spine down the middle of the house, as a kind of structure from which she could explore architectural variations. The spine contains storage for everything from clothes to music to Mr. Lemke's research notes. Its doors are a mosaic of weathered zinc, hot rolled steel and lacquered wood.

The kitchen is another gray and white composition, its surfaces giving no hint of what is behind them. "When you open a drawer, it might be spoons, it might be the refrigerator, it might be the dishwasher," said Mr. Lemke, a 51-year-old bachelor. "There's a feeling of discovery, which, as a scientist, I like." Mr. Lemke, who keeps his head shaved, also enjoys the building's clean, spare design. "My mind is going off in a million directions, and I need a place that's calm," he said.

Mr. Lemke was born in Ohio; his father was a railroad lineman who built the family's house, instilling in him "an appreciation for things done right." The future professor trained at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena before moving to La Jolla. He bought his house in 1997, for a fraction of its current value. And while the building itself was ordinary, its setting was not: Because it is at the very top of Mount Soledad, La Jolla's highest peak, it has views not only to the west, over the ocean, but to the east and north as well.

Before she could install her minimalist interior, Ms. Luce had to supervise reconstruction of the roof and drain pipes, among other unglamorous tasks. Given all that necessary but invisible work, it was a struggle to complete the project for $450,000, she said.

Explaining the price tag, Ms. Luce said she essentially built a new house for a fraction of the price of other new houses in La Jolla.

To keep the renovation on budget, Ms. Luce, born in Montreal and educated in Ottawa and Boston, avoided nonessentials. The separate kitchen, dining and living rooms became one flowing space (with the kitchen cabinets on a single wall), and the original three bedrooms were reduced to two. She kept the two bathrooms where they were - even installing new fixtures where the old ones had been, meaning pipes did not have to be moved - "a way to really save on plumbing costs," she said.

She explored inexpensive finishes. The floor is the original concrete slab, ground down and covered with epoxy. Where an interior beam was required in place of walls she had removed, Ms. Luce used wood covered in aluminum rather than steel. Countertops are honeycomb polycarbonate, an inexpensive material that is both luminous and soft to the touch. The resulting surface, Ms. Luce said admiringly, "is almost not there."

Ms. Luce, who calls her firm Luce et Studio, was also able to economize by ordering windows and doors from Fleetwood, a company in Corona, Calif., that creates custom-size metal frames at what she called "a very reasonable cost." Her Fleetwood order included a pair of windows 8 feet wide by 7 feet tall, which she modified with pivot hardware.

When the two doors, one in front and one in back, are open, the house feels like a breezeway. And even when they are closed, the large openings allow light to splash against the grays and whites of the interior. Light, said Ms. Luce, "is really the best tool for creating architecture here in California."

When the house won an award from the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects earlier this year, jurors lauded Mr. Lemke - and Ms. Luce - for keeping the building, rather than tearing it down and starting over. They "created a wonderful modern living environment without sacrificing or destroying a vintage California ranch home," said James Richärd, a Phoenix architect and one of the jurors.

Mr. Lemke said that some people find the house unusual, "but the overwhelming response is, ‘This is so cool.' " The personalized design, he added, does not mean he assumes he will always be single. "I think it's a house a couple could live in," he said.

Of course, he may eventually sell the house, though not to shut the door on modern architecture. "If I ever have more money," he said, "I might do a house with Jennifer that's even more dramatic."