James Turrell + Jim Goldstein



James Turrell & Jim Goldstein

by Lucie Young

Jim Goldstein lives in one of America’s most architecturally daring homes, perched 400 feet up in the Hollywood Hills. Guests enter over giant stepping stones in a Koi pool. Several have accidentally fallen in. One woman tried to sue when she slipped and cut her leg. ‘Now I stand back from the door when I greet people,’ says Jim, ‘so they won’t look up and miss the last step’.

Such are the trials of living in a modern masterpiece. The house has featured in several films including The Big Lebowski, Bandits and most recently Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle. It was built in 1963 by top modernist architect John Lautner. When the original owners divorced shortly after the house was complete, the new ones, architectural Visigoths, painted the interior hippyish shades of yellow, green and black.

Jim Goldstein rescued the house in 1972 and in the late 70s started a 25 year restoration and expansion project. First he invited the original architect John Lautner back to update the interior, then he added a lush tropical garden to the surrounding hillside and now work has just been completed on a garden folly cum art installation which took 13 years to build and cost several million dollars. The result is being hailed as one of the most exciting art and architecture projects in America.

When Jim is passionate about something, he likes to take it to extreme. The house renovations have transformed the interior into a futuristic looking Bond lair. If you press the wrong switch in any of the bathrooms, the ceilings retract and leave you standing in you birthday suit with a chorus of birds and a bunch of bananas dangling over head. Floorboards in the dressing room automatically sense your weight and the main wardrobe features an industrial size electronic clothes rack that twirls at a touch of a button flashing Jim’s extraordinary collection of peacockish clothes. He is a regular at the Paris fashion shows where he collects outrageous designs by the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Roberto Cavalli (think – silk shirts slashed to the waist, fur jerkins and distressed leather jeans).

The main house is now a beautifully preserved masterpiece of modern design with its winged concrete roof which is studded with tiny skylights (Lautner embedded drinking glasses in the ceiling to let shafts of light down to dapple the floors). The secret of Lautner’s architecture according to Duncan Nicholson, who worked with Lautner on the house until his death in 1994, and who has since taken over all the architectural work, is that ‘the house has a very strong roof structure which gives it a powerful sense of shelter. The light comes in from all sides which makes you feel like you are outside.’

The original windows however, had to be replaced. They had steel mullions that partially obscured the views. Newer technology allowed for enormous sheets of unframed glass that slide back without visible tracks. Guests often accidentally head butt these invisible walls.   Even Jim has smashed into his own bedroom door. He was distracted, he says. Top supermodel Gisele Bundchen was being photographed for an advertising campaign in his bedroom.

Jim likes to live with danger. In his lush 2 acre garden, which clings to an almost vertical hillside, a viewing terrace made from a triangle of cantilevered glass makes you feel like you are floating in thin air over the jungle below. Lautner had originally planted the garden with indigenous plants; pine, creosote bushes and chaparral, but Goldstein thought the result drab and depressing, so he hired Eric Nagelmann to put in thousands of tropical plants – including 25 kinds of banana tree.

Goldstein spryly descends the 230 steps of his garden path, explaining that each 10 feet of concrete path took one month to build. At the bottom, we reach his latest project, the Skyspace, conceptualised by American land artist James Turrell and realized by Duncan Nicholson. The building sits on a plot that the local authorities deemed unbuildable. ‘It was the most complicated and exciting space I have ever built,’ says Duncan.

From the outside, it looks like a cross between a giant concrete brioche and a nuclear attack bunker. The concrete walls are 5 feet thick in places. Inside the feel is of an expensive isolation tank or minimalist monastery. It is filled with nothing except gently curved titanium white walls and a floating floor which has a halo-like glow of colored light emanating from underneath.

Two large window-like openings are the only distractions. They are pitched so high up that the only thing you can see outside is the sky. The smaller opening is closer to the horizon and in it the sky appears lighter and more striated – as if you are seeing a miniature Turner painting. In the larger window , the sky appears as a pool of intensely saturated color.

Turrell, a portly man with a grandfatherly white beard and a penchant for wide brimmed black hats, says, ‘The effect is like seeing up a chimney. You can see the stars inside, before you see them outside. You can see the deep sky much sooner. ‘

Five thousand LEDs and 500 incandescent lights are concealed around the perimeter of the room and they can wash the walls with a symphony of hues (ranging from astroturf green through sorbet pink, lemon yellow, violet, scarlet, nile blue and teal). ‘ It is like abstract music. You can really work emotion by changing the colors’ says Turrell.

The artificial colors radically effect the appearance of the sky outside – at times it becomes treacly black, magenta or deep azure blue – all in a matter of minutes. ‘We make the color of the sky. We give everything its color although we are hardly aware of it,’ explains Turrell.

In the past 30 years Turrell has built 23 such skyspaces around the world including several in the UK. But Goldstein’s is the most virtuoso design to date, thanks to Nicholson and Goldstein’s obsessive attention to detail. It is the only one in concrete (‘It should last as long as the Pantheon in Rome,’ says Nicholson with a chuckle) and it is one of just two to feature the elaborate computer controlled lighting system.

Goldstein is so delighted with the result that he trots down the hillside twice a day to check on his installation, ‘I never knew there was so much to seeing,’ he enthuses. Sometimes he brings friends. ‘Everyone has their mouth fall open. They can’t believe what they are seeing’. Of course, the Turrell pod is a fabulous talking point, and Goldstein is ready to cater to the interest. He has positioned a cocktail bar outside the pod and a music system inside, in case his guests would rather listen to hip-hop than celestial sounds. There is also a leather bed recessed into the floor, for sleep-over’s in what is probably the world’s most awe-inspiring guesthouse.

© 2005