On what is ordinarily a quiet cul-de-sac near San Ysidro Creek in Montecito, the sound of big machines breaking rocks echoes from a makeshift quarry somewhere in the middle distance. Less than a hundred yards from this noisy scene of destruction and recovery, an unusual new house nestles among old oaks on a one-acre lot overlooking the stream bed.
Cathie Partridge’s home — the “branch house,” as it is known to its owner and to the team that created it — was designed and built before the recent disasters, but it embodies many principles and practices that residents of this volatile region must consider in the future. The structure’s nickname reflects both its tree-like design and the degree to which it represents a deliberate departure from the building philosophy behind the traditional ranch house it replaced.
Planted within an asymmetrical footprint dictated by the protected drip lines of the property’s many centuries-old oaks, this sturdy yet delicate residential structure is not a boulder-proof bunker, but rather a serious attempt to go with the flow of Montecito’s active alluvial plain. Lifted off the ground in many places and secured by concrete piles sunk in holes drilled through the site’s sandstone, the copper-tiled branch house perches on the site’s natural grade and within its ancient oaks like a tree house crossed with a spaceship.
The story of how this particular house and the mostly native desert garden that surrounds it came to be won’t answer all the challenging questions raised by the recent catastrophes in Montecito, nor will it necessarily provide a practical solution for the displaced residents who face the difficult decision of whether or not to rebuild and where. Everyone involved with the project understands that the house could just as easily have been destroyed like some of its neighbors if the recent debris flow had taken a slightly different direction.
Yet through retracing the steps of the design process that led to this particular result and by reflecting on the evolution of thinking about architecture and landscape that it represents, it’s possible to imagine a way of building on these rocky slopes that’s more sustainable and less insensitive to how nature works there. Through regulation, innovation, and experience, little victories over unexamined habits and unnatural practices have been achieved. Taken together, these advances point toward a building strategy that works with, rather than against, the powerful natural forces that define our region.
Oak Groves, Round Boulders, and Ranch Houses
Famous for its grand estates, Montecito is actually mostly covered in ranch houses. These single-story, single-family complexes typically feature long, low-pitched rooflines, L- or U-shaped layouts, and a decided functional split between the ornamental façade of the front yard with its manicured lawn and a backyard organized for outdoor living, often with a patio and pool.
When longtime San Marino residents Cathie and David Partridge approached Los Angeles–based architect Peter Tolkin with the news that they had purchased a property in Montecito, they had already decided that the 1960s ranch house on the lot would have to go. The only question was how far, and the answer turned out to be perhaps a bit further than anyone expected.
“It was a typical ranch setup,” Tolkin told me as we toured the property, “with the house right up against the street and a relatively untouched oak grove behind. I had always been fascinated with the fact that this area had once been an oak forest, and I knew that what had happened initially was that people had come in and mowed the forest down, graded the land, and laid slab foundations for everything from giant mansions to modest ranch houses, which was what they were planning to tear down here.”
The couple knew they wanted a modern house — “a house of today,” as Cathie Partridge refers to it — and their first request was for a tree house. “I wanted a wooden house, but I knew that because of the fires that was not practical,” said Cathie. Tolkin suggested a sheathing of copper tiles as a fire-resistant alternative, noting that “there’s a tradition of using copper as flashing and for roofs that’s very old and quite common in Europe.” Plus, the copper tiles, properly designed and maintained, would take on a natural patina that complemented the silver and green palette of the trees.
The next obstacle was to accommodate the trees, which were protected by codes. “We’ve been working around drip lines for as long as I’ve been building houses in the area,” said Rich Coffin, the contractor on the project. “Of course, at first it was sort of casual compared to today, with the very specific new codes we have about protected trees. For every project we do now, we have to hire an arborist.”
Once those lines were drawn and the shape of the space available for the footprint of the house had been established, Los Angeles landscape architect and author Wade Graham was engaged to begin planning the site. According to Coffin, the process was slow at first.
“We didn’t know Wade yet, and he resisted our standard procedure at first,” Coffin recalled. “As builders, you basically want plans on paper as early as possible so that you can start figuring out how much things will cost. Wade was more intuitive, and he didn’t commit his ideas to paper until he developed a feel for the site. It turned out that this was the key to the whole thing.”
Graham grew up in Montecito and has written about the history of the landscape there in his 2011 book American Eden: From Monticello to Central Park to Our Backyards: What Our Gardens Tell Us About Who We Are. With a PhD in American history from UCLA and a track record of finding inventive solutions for unorthodox projects, he embraced the opportunity to work for a client who wasn’t interested in building yet another ranch house. For his part, he was at first taken aback by the asymmetry of Tolkin’s design. “What I saw in the house plan was a high degree of irregularity,” said Graham. “The building is, as houses go, chaotically asymmetrical.”
He also had a yen to deconstruct the landscape vocabulary of the ranch house, and in particular to push back against the tradition of what he refers to as “slab on grade” architecture. “Slab-on-grade construction is a criminally stupid way to build anywhere,” Graham told me, “but especially in an area that’s as unstable as this.”
Armed with an environmental historian’s grasp of the region’s geological history and an experienced plant man’s knowledge of the area’s flora, Graham moved forward fully aware of the risks. “There is a fundamental violence in this landscape,” he told me. “It burns, it quakes, it slides, and if you are a lawn, it will kill you with drought.” The first house that really took this violence as its subject was the Barton Myers house in Toro Canyon, which was built both against the threat of fire and about the fact that it’s sited within a fire-prone region.
Tolkin, who designed the branch house, echoed Graham’s conclusion in a different register, asserting that when the original subdivision where the house is located was built, “they mowed the oaks down and built American tract houses …. There were no grading codes. You could grade, and you didn’t have to compact it, because there were no rules.” For this project, said Tolkin, “we looked at how to work with the natural grade.”
For Graham, the recent mudslides were “a sobriety checkpoint on building in Montecito.” According to Graham, in the 1920s and ’30s, “people came here and assumed that it was Shangri-la, and they built accordingly. Moorish castles popped up on an active alluvial fan.” Both men pointed out the preponderance of large round boulders found everywhere along the creeks of Montecito, with Tolkin asking the rhetorical question, “Hey, they had to get here somehow, right?” He quickly added that this house isn’t boulder proof but rather both lucky and thoughtful.
“It may be that these extraordinary, biblical kind of events only happen every thousand years,” he said, “but then that’s exactly what we just had. In any case, very fortunately the house was spared from the path of the debris flow by its location, so the design was not really tested by this event. I can’t claim that it would necessarily have done any better than these other houses given the intensity of what happened. What I can say is that just by being raised up off the ground, it does have a certain advantage when there’s any kind of flooding because that’s what people who live in floodplains do — they build off the ground.”
In the buffalo grass outside the sliding glass panels that frame the kitchen and dining area, a group of cylindrical sandstone drill cores left over from the building’s concrete foundation pilings form a cryptic Noguchi garden. Coffin, who names the Partridge ranch house as “unquestionably one of the top-five projects” that his firm has ever worked on, pointed out a fascinating coincidence with regard to this landscaping detail salvaged from the site’s rock pile. “In all the years I’ve been drilling those types of piers,” he explained, “I’ve only seen one other architect save them and use them in the yard, and that’s Barton Myers, who did the same thing with the dropouts from the caissons we dug for his house in Toro Canyon.”
Building for Art in the Shadow of Loss
There’s probably no better-known example of working with the destructive power of nature in mind than the house and studio complex that Barton Myers designed and built for himself high up in Toro Canyon. With its commanding view of the Channel Islands, open loft plan, “garage” doors, and series of recirculating rooftop pools to protect against fire, the complex has for decades stood as an icon of environmentally conscious modernism in Santa Barbara.
The fact that Coffin built that house as well adds a dreamlike layer of historical coincidence to the ranch house’s eco-savvy design. Graham, who has long admired all the many chapters in Montecito’s storied architectural history, describes the difference between Myers’s house and the Partridge home as a contrast between “a bunker and a tree house.” Myers’s four pavilions are each articulated as giant single rooms, reminiscent in their open plans of the lofts prized by artists of the late 20th century in such hip urban centers as New York’s SoHo.
Perhaps the most subtle and fascinating aspect of the branch house as a design for living has to do with the new way it approaches the desire to live with contemporary art. Cathie and David Partridge, both highly cultured people with a particular passion for music, had been buying and displaying major works by contemporary artists for decades when they decided to take on this project. Sadly, David did not live to see it realized, as he died of pancreatic cancer in 2014, leaving Cathie to fulfill what began as a highly collaborative vision.
Part of the rationale for the building of the branch house was to create a space that would suit not only the work they have collected but also Cathie’s paintings, colorful and nature-inspired abstractions, several of which hang in the house. Tolkin’s background as a fine-art photographer came into play as he helped discover a new way of thinking about how to live with art.
“Because of the art, I designed the house as a series of separate volumes,” Tolkin said. “My idea was that each of these volumes would be composed as a kind of picture of the landscape. Each bedroom has two views: one out and one up.” The impact of these large, floor-to-ceiling glass walls is dynamic and unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere. Thanks to thick, double-pane Swiss windows, they do an impressive job of soundproofing, yet there’s no loss in immediacy. The skylights operate like James Turrell installations, offering constantly shifting lighting effects that ignite the interiors of the single-color wet rooms in a warm glow.
The idiosyncratic, widescreen-cinema effect of the bedrooms receives an added boost from the off-kilter ways in which these volumes have been connected, or “gathered,” as Tolkin puts it. The most revolutionary aspect of the home’s interior involves these exciting and surprising “third spaces,” neither hallway nor gallery, in which the largest pieces of art are displayed.
“More than a hallway but not a room” is how Tolkin describes them. They are big enough not only to accommodate large works by important Los Angeles artists Tom Wudl and Tam Van Tran but also to be lined with serpentine tables for up to 60 dinner guests. By way of explanation, Tolkin observed that “when you’re in a hallway, you can’t really do much — they’re just for circulating. Some people with art collections build galleries, but then you don’t feel like you’re in a house; you feel like you are in a museum.”
It’s this unique floor plan in particular that marks the branch house as what Cathie Partridge insisted she wanted to build from the beginning, “a house for today.” The choice to move beyond the open plan and the now-familiar loft-like spaces of modernism gives the house an excitement and feeling of suspense that’s at once new and comfortable, sophisticated and welcoming.
Cheek by Jowl
For Graham, each widescreen bedroom window and every third-space interior plaza presented an opportunity to reframe the 20th century’s popular injunction to bridge the worlds of indoor and outdoor living. The branch house doesn’t answer to either the standard notion of mid-century-modern integration between interior and exterior spaces or the more prosaic demand for a picture window with a “beautiful” view. Graham’s remit as the landscape architect for the project was to “begin with each viewport and to treat them as individual screens. Some of them look into the trees; others are more oriented toward the mountains and the horizon.” Graham understood each window as a discrete composition, “along the lines of a Japanese tray or table garden.”
Liberated from the binary divide between front yards and backyards and from the necessity of providing a traditional lawn, he chose mostly native plants that require very little water. Despite the careful attention paid to sourcing local vegetation, Graham insists that this is “not a restoration ecology project. We are not making nature here; we are making culture.”
He describes the plantings and hardscape as “in conversation with the oaks” and says that he chose mostly natives because “California plants are rangy. They tend to sprawl, and I was going for an almost Gertrude Jekyll, overgrown-English-garden effect, what the British call planting ‘cheek by jowl.’” The native plants celebrate the location and are intended to feel “like a luxurious riot” when they are fully grown. Graham also noted that native plants bring in native pollinators and took evident satisfaction from the thought that soon there would be special indigenous California bees buzzing around, declaring that “the justification of the plant palette is in the ecosystem that it creates.”
Married to the Land
The interior of the house, like the garden, can be said to be in the process of growing in. The original move-in date was set for late November 2017, but first the Thomas Fire and then the mudslides pushed it back to the point that, while the rooms are furnished today, there’s still plenty of empty space to be reckoned with going forward. For Cathie Partridge, that’s part of the pleasure of sharing this experience with her friends.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art curator Julie Joyce, an old friend of the Partridges, joined us on the afternoon that Cathie showed the house, and she spoke warmly of the one occasion in fall 2017 when the barely finished house was the site of a wedding celebration — architect Peter Tolkin’s marriage to artist Yunhee Min. Cathie then recalled the magic moment immediately after the vows when the sun was setting and the outdoor garden lights came on automatically, trading one golden hour for another. “It was magical,” she said.
The couple’s unusual registry featured only plants, living wedding gifts intended for the garden Graham has designed for their home in Echo Park. The registry web page quotes American Eden on the way that gardens “tell of deeper, personal stirrings: of romantic love, of nostalgia for lost times and places, certainties, dreams, securities and especially for childhood, that place of refuge, real or imagined.” The branch house, as much planted as it was constructed, is a branch rather than a ranch, and represents both a memorial to the great life force of David Partridge and an expression of hope that in the wake of so much destruction, new life can grow and flourish along the creeks and in the oak groves of Montecito.
At one point in our discussion, Tolkin said that this story “should be about how to build now, how to think more with the natural forces than against them. There may be sites where you just shouldn’t build at all, but there’s also the idea of working with nature.”
Later on, when I spoke with contractor Rich Coffin about the project, he praised Cathie Partridge for having the courage to build the house, which she planned in partnership with her husband but which had not broken ground when David Partridge died in March 2014. “I think she was brave to go ahead with it,” said Coffin, “and I know that had an impact on the way we all felt about the project. It created a strong sense of responsibility among the members of the team; we all wanted to come through for Cathie, and I think she recognized that and was able to trust us in turn.”
It’s a highly personal example, and it may not speak to all the challenging situations that will arise in the difficult days ahead for Montecito. But the branch house, in its willingness to wed architecture to nature, is as good a story as any to light the way forward.