Architect Peter Zellner stands in the entry foyer of the house his firm ZELLNERPLUS has just finished in Tijuana. Named Casa Anaya, the house is perched on the edge of a hill, and the windows offer a panorama of the border city below, Otay Mesa in the near distance, and the mountain ranges in southeastern Santa Diego County beyond. But Zellner has his back to the view. His phone is out, and he’s filming a tiny waterspout that keeps forming spontaneously in the fountain between the two wings of the building. Over and over the funnel-shaped vortex develops and, like magic, dances for a second as the wind blows off the cul-de-sac, then disappears.
Zellner, who grew up in the Valley and has practiced and taught architecture in Los Angeles since the late 1990s, is unabashedly beguiled by the phenomenon. (The video will show up later that day on his Instagram feed.) His design philosophy takes a predilection to the strangeness of the everyday. Unplanned, the waterspout manifests as a minor dissonance in an otherwise rational design.
Casa Anaya is one of a series of homes in Hacienda Don Juan, a hilltop tract developed by Tijuana architect, contractor, and real estate developer Alfonso Medina of T38 Studio. Unlike the nearby suburban McMansions frosted in Italianate stucco and tile roofs, the homes under Medina’s development are contemporary and somewhat smaller, sitting on lots half the size of their neighbors. The designs, by Zellner, Medina, and others, appeal to a younger generation of homeowners — the same hip Tijuaneros who are driving the city’s resurgent food and art scene. Unlike in Los Angeles, where new construction is beyond the reach of most first-time homebuyers, here there is a market for architecture. It goes along with the trend for local Tijuana microbrews and the rejuvenation of the pasajes as art galleries.
The clients are a young couple with plans to raise a family. At its most programmatic, the house reflects their aspirations — for life and for architecture. There are two wings: one for the adults and one for the children. In plan, these take shape as two rectangular volumes set at an angle to each other, so that they squeeze together at the street and then open up to create a courtyard facing the panoramic view. A concrete stair, which seems to levitate, leads to a bridge that connects the two wings.
However, there is something off-kilter. The street façade skimps on windows, offering up nearly blank stucco boxes, but a gap between the two wings teases with glimpses inside. When I suggest a correlation to Villa Muller, by Viennese architect Adolf Loos, whose boxy façades punched with un-revealing windows hid a world of spatial complexity within, Zellner points me westward, back toward L.A. “It’s Loos via Frank Gehry’s Danziger house,” he explains, referencing the architect’s 1965 work in West Hollywood that features a pair of inscrutable stucco volumes. “The tropes are all clear, but something’s off. You never know what genre it is.”
After a decade designing spaces for Los Angeles’ art world, such as Night Gallery Downtown L.A. and Matthew Marks Gallery in West Hollywood, Casa Anaya is the architect’s first ground-up house. A nod to art history exists in the master suite, a corner window that makes reference to Robert Irwin’s “1° 2° 3° 4°” installation just up the coast at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla. And although art venues give Zellner a chance to experiment with scale, light, and spatial relationships, they are limited in their material palette. Also, like most construction in the U.S., the projects are constrained by a litigated relationship between the architect and the contractor, where the designer is given an advisory role in the field and the act of building is prescribed by codes, permits, schedules, liability, and budget. South of the border, the professional armature of architecture is different, more flexible and hands-on.
“I went to Mexico trying to figure out how to work differently,” he explains. “What I took back was learning to work on the fly and learning to improvise, not entering the discussion with preconceptions about the right solution, and sometimes not even showing up with — this sounds horrible — with finished construction drawings. Often we worked out things in the field, making the drawings on site.”
This is how Zellner found himself in the field with the stonemason, sketching out a tile pattern for the marble shower. Details and material selections were more collaborative than up north. “Some days there wasn’t a right answer,” he continues, describing an almost artisanal process. “The question was: What materials are available today, for instance knowing what sort of marble we can source, how can we cut it? When you are working with people with 40 years of stone working experience, they’re not scared to not know the answer that day. They worked it out on the spot. I learned something from that sort of approach.”
Zellner’s shift from a professional paradigm toward a more ad hoc approach may seem anachronistic in an era when digital tools are defining the cutting edge of architecture and the act of building a has become almost a conservative byproduct. (He teaches at technological powerhouse SCI-Arc, after all.) A long history of artistic and architectural precedents underscores his philosophy. For instance, ZELLNERPLUS has no physical office — it’s a post-studio practice. The trappings of the professional atelier have been traded in for a laptop and mobile devices. Zellner cites minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, who phoned in his early 1960s sculptures as instructions to fabricators, as one inspiration for applying art world methodology to conventional architecture practice. And the influence of the L.A. School — Gehry, of course, but also Morphosis, Studioworks, and Fredrick Fischer — is there. Beginning in the late-seventies, those architects found experimentation in everyday materials combined with new formal expressions and spatial relationships.
“Experimentation now is understood as kind of the byproduct of toying with software and fabrication techniques, but I’m less interested in this rarefied concept,” Zellner explains. “Today, the venues for experimentation are galleries and museums, books, the Internet, and the academy. However, my understanding is — at least as far as subjective experimentation in Los Angeles from Schindler to the Case Study architects to the L.A. School goes — that experimentation occurred at the bequest of the client and with all of the associated work and responsibilities. So there was the degree of possibility that things could and should go wrong. I think an experimental approach to making architecture has to account for and embrace the possibility of chance.”
At Casa Anaya, Zellner points out where experiments in poured concrete worked, where they didn’t, and where a window was moved during construction. It’s the language of details, of process, of labor. “I’ve always believed that architecture was bracketed by certain things — and this sounds so banal — a site, planning, context, the culture that you work within, a budget that you have to address.” he says. “But in today’s culture none of this makes architecture radical , right? That is at best a little short sighted but in the larger picture somewhat tragic. Many architects have abandoned an interest in the things that give architecture is power and relevance.”
Zellner’s approach is not a radicalization of architecture, but a deviation–an attempt to reactivate quotidian practice. By delving back into building, he questions the very notion of experimentation.