Feverish Dream House
Not restrained by traditional notions of good taste,” RECORD noted of the Orange County, California, home of Joe and Etsuko Price when first covering it in 1991. Depicting the house as a vision from a feverish dream, the article said architect Bart Prince “combined craft with a futuristic, almost James Bond sensibility.”
Windowless waves of shingles give the Price House the appearance, from the street, of larger-than-life lichen. Behind its walls lie three levels of fancifully designed spaces—separated by sliding panels and platforms rather than doors—that fan out to take in the ocean view. Visually floating staircases, rock gardens, stained-glass windows, wall-to-wall sheepskin, and organically carved work areas abound. “The space is so copiously detailed,” record reported, “it makes your head spin.”
“The house, like everything I’ve done, is responsive to its situation, its site, and the client,” says Prince today. “And this was a more unusual client than most.” Indeed, Joe Price became an architectural patron of note after convincing his father, in the early 1950s, to commission Frank Lloyd Wright to design the Price Tower for his family’s oil-services company. Soon after, the younger Price hired Bruce Goff, Wright’s friend and admirer, for his own home, and later recruited Goff to design a Los Angeles study center focusing on Joe’s passion, Japanese art. When Goff died, his successor, Bart Prince, completed the study center and went on to design Price’s Orange County home. Rather than micromanage the process, says Prince, this client simply outlined his lifestyle needs. Eschewing a grand statement to the world, he aspired to a “jewel-box” house just for his family.
A few years after its completion, Price called on Prince to add a small Japanese study center for visiting scholars. While the original building is primarily wood with some copper cladding, the study center, for reasons of security and fire protection, dictated different materials. The addition appears as a monolith of poured concrete extending from the traditional Japanese teahouse that the architect had originally integrated into the home’s lower level.
Apart from the study center, the Price House appears today much as it did 14 years ago—and the client, who still lives there with his Japanese-born wife, likes it that way. His one minor complaint, perhaps, is that despite the design’s focus on privacy (with each family member granted his or her own “world”), its eccentricity has made it a must-see on tourist itineraries, and its proximity to the road gives gawkers easy access. Otherwise, time seems to have strengthened the bond between the home and its owner. “If I could do it again, I would carry it even further,” says Price. “Everything is impractical—the garage doors are a Rube Goldberg thing to get open—but it all works. And nothing has aged—besides me.”