DOMUS SOLARIS Los Angeles CA Buff & Hensman 1974
Anyone the least bit familiar with the Los Angeles modern architecture scene knows of the venerable firm that reigned for nearly four decades, Buff & Hensman. They left their mark on nearly every corner of Los Angeles, building everything from modernist manses for the wealthy to modest apartments and condominiums for the masses.
Conrad Buff and Donald Hensman met at USC in the early 1950’s where both were studying architecture on the GI Bill under the tutelage of lecturer Calvin Straub. Recognized early for their talents, they were selected to replace a recently deceased professor before they even graduated. Their first jobs fresh out of school were designing tract homes for developers until they joined forces with Straub in 1958 to open their first practice - Buff, Straub & Hensman - and they hit it out of the ballpark on their very first commission, the 1958 Bass Residence, which was selected by John Entenza for his Arts & Architecture magazine’s Case Study Program as CSH# 20.
No one understood the interplay of light, shadow and massing as well as Buff and Hensman and they exploited it to its fullest in their work for the next forty years. A ‘Buff & Hensman’ house is rarely mistaken for anyone else’s work. Although they were innovators in the post-and-beam construction so prevalent during their era, their better-known signature themes included heavy, intersecting vertical and horizontal massing, the horizontal usually being oversized fascias that were integral to the design of the facade and suggesting a roof that is monolithic. The end result was a Stonehenge-like permanence, a structure as firmly anchored to its site as a rocky outcropping. Overwhelmingly masculine, they were almost Brutalist in their use of form.
Buff and Hensman also pioneered the idea of “zoning” within the house with a private ”owner’s zone” for work and study, a “formal zone” for entertaining, and “family zones” for more intimate gatherings. Their enormous talent was well rewarded with over three hundred commissions in a little more than thirty years.
When it came time for Don Hensman to build himself a bachelor pad in 1974, he designed an elegantly scaled-down version of their trademark houses with only two “zones” in 1,600 square feet - an enormous entertainment area with integrated kitchen that flowed into a sumptuous master suite, all overlooking a fifty-foot swimming pool that doubled as an ornamental reflecting pool. Admired for its efficient use of siting, the house nestles into its hillside with the garage at street level and a Wrightian entry that leads a visitor up a narrow stairwell to be rewarded at the top as the house, its grounds, and spectacular vista bursts into view. The roof of the garage doubles as a sundeck with a grand view of the house as it was meant to be seen - dead-on - driving home the house’s severe symmetry. In honor of the house’s majestic siting with sweeping views from the sunrise in the east to the sunset in the west, Hensman christened his creation “Domus Solaris” - or “House of Sun”.
“The best way to tell an architect’s true design intention is to look at the house he designs for himself”, said architectural writer James Steele describing Domus Solaris. The house is distinguished by the continuity of materials that, despite their richly textured surfaces, are actually quite minimalist. The entire house is clad in redwood inside and out with teak cabinetry and tile floors. As Hensman himself explained, “the site establishes oneness, a complete unity of design and purpose.” And as any good designer will tell you, it’s that unity and continuity that bestows tranquility to a house’s occupants.
As it all too often happens, Domus Solaris was eventually remodeled out of recognition by a series of unappreciative owners, ultimately carved into a three-bedroom rabbit-warren of rooms. Fortunately, in 2004, the house sold to sports agent Michael Reilly who undertook a two-year restoration with the help of Buff & Hensman’s last surviving partner, Dennis Smith, and the legendary architectural photographer, Julius Shulman, who had photographed the house in 1976 for a Los Angeles Times story entitled “One Big Room, Two Big Views”. Reilly had to strip and replace all the redwood and even found many of the original suppliers who were delighted to help recreate the original tiles, doors, and hardware.
As anyone who has restored an important house can attest, Reilly faced the dilemma of how to update the house for modern living while maintaining the spirit of the original. He worked closely with friends and collaborators of Hensman’s to add a powder room so that guests wouldn’t have to wander through his bedroom, and expanded the outdoor patio areas for entertaining and to better enjoy the views.
Although both Conrad Buff and Donald Hensman are long gone, their work is as revered and celebrated today as it ever was during their lifetimes. A Buff & Hensman house still commands a premium in even the most challenging real estate market - proof that there’s no better investment than quality design.