April 17, 2017
by George Baird
Industrial-grade garage doors open the living spaces of Toro Canyon House to Pacific Ocean views. Photo: Russ Widstrand
Our sense of the house’s setting began on the undulating plain of the Pacific coast, in Montecito, just east of Santa Barbara. We turned inland, and moved across the plain to arrive at the foot of Toro Canyon, which, in turn, led up into the mountains above. The lush greenery of the coastal plain began to give way to the dryer brush of the rising mountain-side. Close to the top of Toro Canyon Road, we turned east onto a winding, climbing drive-way. After a few hundred yards, a parking court came into view, and above it, we had our first glimpse of the house that Barton Myers designed and built here for himself.
The main house sits on a plateau on the slope of the mountain, with a garage and guest house beneath it, and a small studio building behind it. The main house is fronted by three large steel bays, facing out towards the Pacific and the island of Santa Cruz. Each bay is enclosed by a glazed industrial garage door, some 15 feet or so high. The three great bays house living, dining and kitchen. Stretching across the back of the three bays ranges a long-er, narrower, lower stucco block of more enclosed and more intimate rooms. At either end of this linear plan configuration is located a large bedroom suite.
The house bespeaks a long architectural lineage. Its designer has had an epic architectural career, and one of the main themes of that career’s ambition has been the devising of steel systems of construction for residential buildings that are meticulously fabricated—but in a relaxed fashion that does not fetishize the system. In this sense, the Santa Barbara house is a child of the Pacific Palisades house of Charles and Ray Eames. But this characterization does not fully capture its pedigree; it is, after all, symmetrical about a north-south axis. In its formality, it also evokes the grandeur of that consequential precedent that so influenced the Eameses: the Farnsworth House of Mies van der Rohe. Yet this reference also is not quite enough to close out the complex set of memories it evokes. For the grandeur of the Toro Canyon house is informal, not formal. In this sense, one reaches for comparisons back even beyond Mies to Schinkel, and of course, also to Palladio, whose stately, but modestly constructed villas in the Veneto are, after all, farmhouses.
Save for the house’s spatial amplitude and steel construction, it also is modestly constructed. The garage doors are industrial grade; the cladding of the other building elements is stucco, and many of the floor surfaces are unfinished concrete. From below, the roof assemblies of the three buildings are exposed steel deck. On top, they all hold elements of a comprehensive recirculating pool system which performs multiple functions. First of all, they serve as water reservoirs for firefighting, since the house is located high enough up in the mountains to be susceptible to brushfires capable of rapid spread. The water bodies also provide insulation, and perform a cooling function in the California summer heat.
It seems to me that the Toro Canyon House stands as a sort of summa of Myers’ design career. Technologically precocious, but also deeply civilized and urbane, and comfortable in the dense matrix of historical references it evokes, the house brilliantly, intensely, yet relaxedly integrates its constructional, spatial, programmatic and symbolic aspects.
We lingered over lunch on the giant porch, observing the intense blue California sky as it glittered on the pool in front of us, and, in the far distance, as it reflected on the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
George Baird is a Professor Emeritus at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, and is a founding partner of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects.