PROJECT Brooks Avenue House, Venice, California
DESIGNER Marc Bricault
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Kenji Arai, unless otherwise noted

Venice Beach is perhaps the only district in Los Angeles that’s made for walking. Its oceanfront boulevard is lined with hawkers, buskers and soothsayers in a linear 30-ring circus. Narrow lanes and canals are flanked by an eclectic panoply of architecture, an odd mix of high-end favela and California cool. Century-old beach bungalows with piecemeal additions share a block with comical new constructions like Frank Gehry’s giant binocular-shaped faade for Chiat/Day. This is a neighbourhood that is all about the art of the promenade. And in keeping with the spirit of the neighbourhood, this transformation of a house on Brooks Avenue is a promenade in itself.

Designed by Vancouver-based Marc Bricault, the Brooks Avenue House reads as a linear narrative, and a good portion of its interior feels more like a covered boardwalk than a room. The project is an addition and renovation of an existing 2,000-square-foot house, which was itself an outgrowth of a small beach cottage built almost a century ago. Effectively, though, this is a brand new house, augmented to 3,700 square feet wrapped around a newly created courtyard.

Bricault is what you might call an architectural artisan. Not only is he unregistered, he has no formal post-secondary training in architecture, design, or anything else–at least, not in terms of formal parchment-wielding institutions. He trained the way architects of decades and centuries past have trained: on the job, at night, as an apprentice, as a collector of images and ideas. It’s easy to imagine how the multi-disciplinary nature of his practice serves him well in distinguishing his projects from workaday Modernism.

“Not having been trained as an architect,” says Bricault, “I’m perhaps more interested in details.” His interior for Vij’s restaurant in Vancouver is distinctive not for its spatial configuration but for gestures like the teak feature wall that evokes a louche cocktail bar. It follows logically that his work crosses over into other design disciplines, including graphic and industrial. For Thomas Haas Chocolates, he designed both the packaging and the chocolate tablet itself, embossing both with concentric trapezoids that enhance the sense of indulgence.

Bricault has done millwork for high-profile Vancouver architects like Tony Robins and Richard Henriquez. He physically constructed the wood-and-glass Memory Theatre installation, arguably Henriquez’s signature creation and the centrepiece of the eponymous exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Canadian Centre for Architecture. The pragmatic and direct hands-on experience of architectural creation has served Bricault well: as he simply puts it, “I know how things go together.”

Bricault’s work posits a leading role for craft in architecture and an exaltation of surface. Both words are suspect in contemporary discourse, true craft having been vanquished a century ago, and attention to surface having been tainted by the speciousness of Postmodernism. Contemporary architectural studies, largely estranged not only from craft but from the very act of construction itself, do not offer an obvious role or theoretical framework for this kind of design. What, then, are its underpinnings and its inspiration?

For a clue, one might look to Bricault’s predilection for collecting images. Through the macro lens of a camera, close-ups of tree bark, ripe tomato, train tracks, and insect wing transform into abstract exotica. Bricault himself downplays any direct correlation between the shapes and colours captured in his photographic wanderings and the specific curves and hues of, for instance, the goldfish pattern in a shower stall’s tile floor. “I just like looking at structure and composition that nature seems to pull off so well,” he says.

The fractal geometry that nature pulls off is the same kind of compositional order one sees in Bricault’s detailing: in the ornamental enamelwork, the backlit floral motifs, and nature itself by way of the vibrant “living wall” of greenery that clads the rear zone of the house.

Even a casual observer can perceive a link between the cloisonn pattern of an insect wing and the intricate patterns and gentle backlighting of his projects. The Brooks Avenue House is a primary example. The existing house, a prewar cottage embedded in a 1980s-era expansion and second-storey addition, was a relatively straightforward rectilinear plan. The cottage-area zone was transformed into a guest area, and the entrance and living area was renovated and re-articulated with a new fenestration pattern. But the essential transformation is the extension of the kitchen into a double-storey wing whose first floor serves at various times of the day and week as hallway, flex space, playroom, dining chamber, and a second entryway to the newly expanded upper floor. The upstairs of this wing contains the children’s bedrooms and threshold to the new master suite, constructed over the carport. Clad in battenboard, this extension defines the inner courtyard, imbuing it with a Moorish flavour and making Bricault’s signature detailing seem especially apropos.

For the back lane of Brooks Avenue, the double-height addition generates an unusually beautiful faade–the only faade, really, in this typically bleak big-city alleyway. It reads as a careful composition of a lush green square (the living wall) over a rectangle of beautifully wrought metal (the carport gate). And the crowning feature, quite literally, is the penthouse lantern, the endpoint of the helical staircase and the entry point to the boardwalk-equipped rooftop garden.

In architectural terms, Bricault cites the Maison de Verre, Chareau’s 1932 glass-block masterpiece in central Paris, as a kindred-spirit project. The Maison de Verre, which is also a fusion of craft and Modernism, is defined by translucence, by careful filtering to soften and shape the raw natural and electric light. On the level of detail and gesture, this is how Brooks Avenue works. The most direct example is the glass-block wall of the master ensuite bathroom. Less directly but still in keeping with the approach of using luminosity as a design tool, the landscaping in the courtyard and alongside the outside wall includes embedded ground lights. As night falls, the glazed flex room between the kitchen and staircase turns into an ethereal dining chamber. Sword Ferns, Cup-of-Gold, Birds of Paradise and other botanic exotica project a backdrop of intricate shadows onto the adjacent outside wall with operatic flair. Set on a concrete pad, it reads much like a covered bridge or glass-walled pergola, visually floating over the ground. “You’d sense that the garden just slips underneath and comes up the other side,” says Bricault.

Over an evening dinner, the homeowners speak of their wish to make the “perfect” home as one of the tools to create–or at least aim for–a perfect life. That seems archetypally Californian, and beyond both the means and the purpose of architecture–and, for that matter, life itself. Bricault’s work does not project the illusion of perfection in the manner of Ando or Pawson. With its vervy juxtapositions, it more strongly suggests the jarring unpredictability of life.

The Brooks Avenue House is unabashedly embedded with ornament: visual intricacies that at times border on eccentricity. Especially uncanny are the curlicue forms that ambush a visitor at irregular intervals. The first such gesture occurs literally as one sets foot on the site: the brushed-metal front gate has an intricate leafy pattern cut out of the metal. Just off the entrance foyer, the powder-room mirror projects another foliage-inspired form, eerily backlit by a fluorescent light.

Behind a pair of floor-to-ceiling seismic cross-braces and in front of a tiled wall is a helical staircase with
matching cross-braces for its balusters. Make that a compressed helical staircase: it winds upward within a trapezoidal space with two rounded corners, up to the same-shaped lantern skylight from which one can walk out to a rooftop garden. On the second floor, behold the master bedroom’s Juliet balcony, sculpted into a metal grille with an Art Deco-like cutout pattern of undulating tulips. The tiled shower floor of the master ensuite is inlaid with a scatter of brightly coloured enamelled fish, whose gyrating forms are evocative of the tendril patterns on the gate and mirror. Then, the living wall: four walls and a rooftop carpeted with a crazy quilt of foliage, fed by recycled greywater from the house.

Conventional Modernism, with its tenets of sleekness, clarity and muscular bravado, tends to be at odds with these animated and feminine shapes, materials and textures. Bricault knows this, and is fine with it: “You see that in fashion,” he notes, “a collision of patterns and materials that creates lushness and richness and complexity.”

It’s a fine line, in architecture as in fashion, between elegance and excess. The Brooks Avenue House follows the simple maxim of William Morris: have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. CA

Adele Weder is an architectural critic and curator based in British Columbia.

Client Paul & Cicek Bricault
Design Team Marc Bricault, Alayne Kaethler, Jana Foit, Mike Leckie, Paul Crowley, Shamus Sachs, Rebecca Bayer, Hanna Teicher, Jacques Vrignon
Structural Andrew Lisowski
Landscape Richard Grigsby
Interiors Bricault Design
Staircase Woodwork Ted Belch
Mosaic & Tile Walter Gibson
Steel Edwardo Romeo
Contractor Alisal Builders & Blue Sand Construction
Environmental Bill Wilson
Area 3,750 ft2
Budget $1.2 M
Completion March 2009