Cooper House
A Study in Outdoor - Indoor Living


The Cooper House was designed as a vacation someday-to-be retirement home for Southern California.


It was to built out of basic simple materials: Precast and gunite concrete with a sand colored/textured plaster finish; Spanish tile floors (with carpeted areas); oak or birch furniture; painted steel framed folding doors and windows; natural fiber carpets and oriental rugs.


This is an outdoor pavilion house easy to maintain and clean. Mrs. Cooper said she wanted a house that she could wash out with a hose except for the few carpeted areas which were to be raised or sunken and protected. She also wanted a house where the kitchen was an integral part of the daily life. For the Coopers this meant part of the swimming pool and placed to be the center of things. So, I designed her a food service area in a swimming pool.


Mr. Cooper was an engineer and had made his money in electronics. He wanted a work-studio detached from the house. We discussed, in 1960, a Guest House but I did not add that until 1965 when Max Stormes did a perspective of the building. I further revised this part of the design in 1999 when I started adapting the concept for today’s circumstances. The studio, designed in 1960, was further developed at this time. The design, however, remains mostly like it was originally conceived and drawn.


The House was never built. The Coopers liked the concept however they wanted to see the construction method proved out before they started. The construction method was developed for the American Pools Display and Office Building which remained un-built [link] for lack of financing. I was about to get my first lesson on banks and unusual architecture - the financing did not get approved because of the design was considered too radical. I moved to New York shortly thereafter and lost contact with both clients. The gunite method was proved out, at a later date, on a school project for which I was a consultant and I used it on a number of projects later in the 60s.


The site for the Cooper house was an interesting one. It was inland about 20 miles on a north-south line half way between Newport Beach and Redondo Beach. It was in a grove of Avocado Trees which were large, attractive and messy. I think that I got paid the majority of my fee in Avocados which was all right with me at the time. The site was near a quarry and had a sudden rocky out cropping at the North East portion of the property, The total site was about 10 acres but only a smale section of it was considered buildable by the Coopers - to them, this meant the least attractive part of the landsacpe that looked at the better areas.


The house was designed to be built part way up and into this out cropping with all natural landscaping (other than the Sunken Garden) replanted including the covering for the roof. Earth Sheltered housing it was soon to be called. I do not recall having a name for it then and it was considered quite novel at the time.


There were several influences on this work: the obvious one was the Jester House by Frank Lloyd Wright which featured round rooms, semidetached, clustered around a swimming pool. I showed this house to the Coppers and they agreed that it fit their lifestyle concept Taliesin Architects built a version of the Jester house in the late 60s. Another work that I had just discovered, upon moving to Southern California after leaving Taliesin, was the Lowell Beach House by Schindler - this was just a few blocks away from where I lived when I first moved to Newport Beach. The raised living area, the overall “abstractness” of the work, the use of concrete and plaster had high appeal (it is still one of my favorite buildings). While at Taliesin, I spent an afternoon and evening at the Price House outside of Phoenix. The high pavilion roof and how it worked as a junction between house wings in a warm climate impressed me greatly. Still, the greatest influence remained the National Gallery in Washington D.C. where I spent so much time a decade earlier. The Cooper House was one of many studies which I worked with round forms and the first - along with the American Pool project - where I achieved command of the form. In addition, I had worked out a way to build it. Just prior to designing this house I spent a week with Bruce Goff at his studio in the Price Tower. We talked from 10 am in the morning until about two or three the next morning every day. We went out to see some of his built works; looked at his drawings and art works. He introduced me to Gaudi and the Watts Towers, modern music and various parts of his vast art library and slide collection. It was the most compact, extensive educational experience of my life. Goff knew what he was doing and why he was doing it more than any architect I have ever engaged with. Bruce’s sensibility slowly worked it way into this work - it still is working in as I prepare it now for the world of today.


At the time I designed this house I was working as a gunite Forman for American Pools. I had this idea that sprayed concrete could be used for round buildings and wanted to learn the medium. Besides working the gunite crew, I also tied steel and set tile. There were about six of us that could do the entire pool building process - a great education in basic building that I was to come back to later in the decade [link]. This meant, in terms of the Cooper design, that I was practicing (at the time that I designed it) several of the basic trades that made up its prime grammar - providing an intimacy with the building that I have rarely exceeded. I keep coming back to this experience today. Today we have contractors - not builders. The design-build experiences cannot be separated. “Contracting,” while an important aspect of the total process, is not building. We have many contractors but few builders. There is too much separation between the designer and those who actually build. This must be an intimate experience with high frequency feedback between visualization and actualization. The gap is actually growing wider in recent years. Building the Cooper house will be an exercise in closing this gap.


Round forms have always intrigued me - there is no question that no matter what influences I have had - or not - that I would have ended up designing many round buildings. I believe the form is particularly suited for residences. There are, however, three aspects of the round form that make it difficult to handle: first, it eats up space. A round building will always use more space than other forms to accomplish the same utility. Second, the form is not easy to treat in elevation. Too often, the roofs look like lids on pots - a different strategy is required than will work with rectiliner forms. Third, the round form is difficult for many to built precisely. There is more complexity with how dimensions have to be controlled. All of these challenges are met with the Cooper design.

With this design utility space, per se, is not an issue. This is in reality a large open pavilion with some small areas that are “finished” like a traditional house. There is distance between these finished areas - and level changes. The pavilion can be closed to weather with large folding and sliding steel and glass doors and windows. The assumption is, however, that they would remain open most of the time. The distinction between indoor and outdoor space is full of ambiguity. This structure is three semi-connected buildings the largest of which has a few highly finished areas within a large covered space. Traditional square footage calculations do not apply here. The location of these areas in relation to one another to the outside and to to wind, sun and view to carefully chosen. In this case the “extra” space that comes with the circular form is an asset. In regards the elevation issue, there are four solutions employed: the roof, being planted, has thickness; the profile is curved with “eased” edges; the walls will be slightly battered with radius between one plane and another; and, the finish of the concrete surfaces is softened by the sand finished plaster finish (something notably absent from the Guggenheim museum in New York). These, in consort, create a structure with mass yet one that - despite it strict geometry - has a softness with one element flowing into the next. the way that light plays on the surface of this building is very different than the linier, hard surfaced, uniform surfaces that make up so much of today’s residences. The difficulty of building round forms was dealt with by the construction method. All edges will be pre-cast on the ground in forms, then lifted into place and tied to the steel and mesh for guniting. This way the edges, which are the most difficult to get precise, will be crisp and the the gunite/plaster can be hand-worked to provide a a “crafted” result. Now, I am considering using compacted earth for many of the nonstructural walls and floors. In total, this method saves time and cost while simplifying workmanship - and, it employs each form of the “earth-materials” as is appropriate for their structural and surface requirements mission. This method also embodies a nicely physical process in the making of the building. These days, the entire focus, in the majority of construction, is to eliminate the work of building and to remove craft from the process. This is unfortunate and you can see the result. It is a false economy. This building is designed to be build once and to last several lifetimes with only minimal maintenance. The way it is built is both it’s esthetic and the process of investing human energy and essence into the structure. There is no substitute for this and no way to get real quality by evading the issue with these so-called labor-saving strategies. Real economy is found in the elimination of redundant work, material wastage, and specific labor-wasting processes - not in the whole-sale avoidance of craft [rbtfBook].

The Coopers, as clients, offered an ideal challenge. They wanted a vacation home - one that added up to a causal outdoor living style and informal entertainment. They wanted low maintenance and low daily up keep - easy to clean. They liked contemporary architecture and realized that their lifestyle would not fit into a traditional idiom. They wanted a big space including lots of indoor/outdoor transition areas. They had enough money to build what they wanted. I wanted to explore certain architectural opportunities, as well as, a new way of building. It was a perfect match.


In one way this was to be a mainstream organic exercise more-or-less in the Wrightain tradition. In another, it is a romanticized classical Greek work in modern American idiom. At the same time, there are many aspects of the design that pushes new ground - even today 40 plus years later. Emerging out of this mix of ideas, influences and methods was the first stirrings of my own unique view of architecture. I took my time with the design letting it grow in my mind. I thought about the project for three months then did the drawings in three days - ink on paper no erasers. Whatever all the aspects that fed into this work, it became a true artistic expression of (one way) that I saw life. It was my first “statement” complete in itself and a work that, if built, would have stood time very well. It pushes the envelop on the open house concept by a wide margin - the various spaces interact with one another in a variety of surprising ways - usually by unexpected vertical viewpoints. The movement, in recent years, has been back to closed spaces and single function rooms. This has lead to very large houses with many relatively small rooms of dull demeanor, prosaic space and separated lives in what passes for a family or community.

Because this house was designed for a couple with grown children who were away from home, the openness of the house is extensive. As both the coopers went about their day they would “run into” each other in a variety of ways providing awareness yet separateness. The typical floor plan is much more restrictive and inhibited in this regard being a series of boxes organized around some simple theory of relationship. The Cooper house is like a landscape you travel through often finding yourself back at the beginning but from a different point of view. The traditional house is a thing. The Cooper environment is a process.

While this building was designed, originally, for southern California, I think that it would be better adapted, today, to the northern California climate. The Cooper’s land was fairly cool, however, I think that most areas in the southern region are too warm and polluted, today, for this design. The San Fransico Bay area - on the west side - is ideal for this design which will be far easier to warm than to cool while keeping the open design dictated by the intended lifestyle. To a certain extent, this depends on the temperature tolerance of the occupants. At any rate, a warm building in a cool climate can be a real pleasure and this is the adaption I am assuming with my present design development efforts.

[note: in December 2005, I was contacted about the feasibility of building a house, in the Virgin Islands, based on the Cooper House. This would be an ideal location for this concept as the site is on top of a low mountain, with a constant breeze, on a small island with a 360 degree exposure to the ocean]


This is a building I want to build very badly. I am looking for the right couple that wants the simple, organic lifestyle this design provides and has the four million dollars required to build a work such as this - a rare combination, I admit. However, with a talented owner-builder, careful buying of materials, a situation removed from the economy of a place like Northern California, and a tight design-build process, this cost can be reduced dramatically. The Cooper house also lends itself to being built in phases. It is possible to expand the structure easily as long as the foundations for all of it are placed in the beginning as well as evolve it through progressive levels of finish. An enterprising couple could afford this house by “growing” it over a number of years. The experience of building, if approached correctly, integral to the act of making architecture and a key aspect of proper ownership. Today, houses are brought and sold as a commodity with the main consideration in their making the resale value. People own their homes - in the crass sense - rather than steward - in the high sense - an intimate part of their planetary environment.

A Tour of the Floor Plan

For a building that can be “grasped whole” as instantly and simply as this one can, the Cooper house has a great number of sub-areas of distinct character and feeling. The building is like a landscape with many micro climates. This is accomplished by the geometry which works on three levels of recursion. Approaching the building, the circle of the great roof is the dominate feature. However, when walking in the building, the space breaks down into several subordinate areas. Each of these create a complete place of their own while, simultaneously, flowing into other spaces. Prospect and refuge are intermingled depending on the direction one is looking always providing foreground, middle-ground and background views. The Cooper House also provides a rich development of complex vertical spaces as well as indoor/outdoor ambiguity. The great roof and it’s supporting columns anchors the basic space. Every functional area of the building is formed in relation to it while moving in and out of the basic geometry of the roof. The changes in level and the interplay between the floor levels causes the vertical dimension to shape the character of the space as much as the horizontal. The boundaries between specific functional areas are particularity rich in spatial complexity. They are like the tide pools between land and water. All this is accomplished with simple geometric forms that intersect in ways that make highly varied three dimensional spaces. The way that this space is created is by light. Always moving sunlight in the day and variable mechanical lighting at night. How this building “reads” - is formed by light, shade and shadow; and, by subtle always changing colors. The finish of the basic concrete/gunite structure is critical in this regard. The texture and color is like beach sand - like a sand castle at the point between being wet and dry. The light - direct and reflecting - plays on this palet. It makes a sensual touch. These soft textured concrete surfaces will radiate different heat signatures depending on their orientation to the sun at any moment and how stored heat is re-circulated in the structure - providing cool to warm surfaces. The tile floors do the same. This is a building to get close to and FEEL.

Sections and Elevations

The sections and elevations have to be read in relationship to the plan. They show walls and things which are not the object - the space is the object and the only valid perspective is that of a human inside this space.


Building Materials and Methods

In addition to the form and geometries of this building, which provides its great esthetic quality, it is the Cooper house’s materiality that gives it its earthy, tactile presence and the capability of provoking a strong visceral response. I was not able to accomplish this level of both factors, in a built project, until the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital Executive Offices to be completed in early 2004 - almost 24 years later [link]. One aspect of this latency is related to opportunity; another, to the complexity of accomplishing this, within a contemporary program and budget, given the rapid move toward manufactured components and materials.
When conceived, the basic material palette was pre-cast concrete, gunite (sprayed concrete), plaster and clay tile. Today, I would use the same only add compacted earth construction in all the non-structural parts of the building. This will soften the surfaces considerably and provide a more sustainable and economical result. I also facilitates a greater and more natural range of colors in the final finish. It also, if built in NorCal, is more expressive to one of California’s building tradition and, now returning, idioms. When younger, I was not as sensitive to these as I am today falsely thinking that being modern, and “creative,” meant disclaiming the past. I decided on this change when designing the iterations compound in 2000 [link].

Heating, Cooling and Water Management Strategies

The Cooper House was conceived from the beginning to make maximum use of natural cooling, heating and water management (earth-sheltered, passive) strategies. At the time I conceived it, these were not in vogue although there was a rich history from pre-industrial times to draw upon, as well as Wright’s second Jacobs House [link]. In the 1960s, of course, these ways were considered ignorant and primitive our society having decided it had solved the energy equation forever. My concern, then, was not energy savings or even ecological impacts although I was aware of these things. My intent was more direct and physical. I was a young man then and engaged in my first truly passionate relationship [link]. When I designed this building, I was very aware of my physical nature - just discovering it in fact. I wanted a building that was a direct expression of this sexual awaking. I was conscious of this at the time and the Coopers were the first, and actually the last, clients I have had that seemed to share this perception (or, at least, expressed it). These aspects of our nature are ignored in our society in the day-to-day world, exploited shamelessly in the media and absent, in any legitimate way, from our the vast majority of our architecture [link].
Living in This Work

As I have stated, this building is not designed for a conventional lifestyle. It does not accommodate conventional furniture. The WAY those living in the environment relate to the building is intrinsically different than living in a conventional building. In this regard, the Cooper House is far more like a boat than a traditional house. In this design you migrate to the PLACE that fits your functional requirements and esthetic mood. As an indoor-outdoor pavilion structure, there are a variety of spaces - at any time of the day - that have the “weather” orientation, prospect-refuge mix and functional facilities appropriate for what you are doing. One MOVES to that space. This is a totally different strategy than the conventional one of controlling all the variables (thus, limiting them) so that a given space is “always” appropriate for a given function. The Copper House repudiates this as a solution and claims a different path - a more natural approach that opens the entire landscape of the environment to the possibilities of a variety of uses.

The Cooper House is not something you live in, it augments a living style that is more akin to a hunter-gatherer culture. The building becomes part of the landscape with each area a different mix of features and amenity. The attributes [link] of shelter, arrangement and expression are both carefully differentiated and subtly integrated. This living style was briefly experimented with in Northern California, at the turn of the 20th Century, by Bernard Maybeck and others who where exploring more “natural” ways of being in a modern society.
With this work, the intimacy with the structure is greatly enhanced by by the texture, color and quality or the materials [link]. This is basically and (cement augmented) earthen structure whose mass is radiant heated. If built on the Northern California coast line (or similar clime) the heating of this thermal mass would be done the majority of the year. These earthen materials are of the kinds you want to get close to - to embrace. This provides a sensual quality much lacking in most “civilized” architecture. This approach has long been part of the organic tradition, however, it is more urgently needed now than ever before. Over the last 50 years, post WWII, the build environment has become increasingly synthetic and “cold.” I designed this work over 40 years ago and was quite aware of this aspect of it when I did it. This aspect of the design, however, speaks to me in a much stronger and urgent way, today, than then. This is a measure of how much has been lost over the last decades.
The core of my approach to architecture remains the plan. This was the dominate attitude of modern architecture post World War II. There was a, perhaps, naive idea that life can be positively effected by the way a building is organized. It turned out, of course, that there are many other factors that play in the mix. However, we should return - with contemporary knowledge - to the way that a floor plan brings a specific focus to a life - a viewpoint. Architecture is an art you live in. The subject of this art is this life lived within. A great work provides a distinct point of view - a way of experiencing the world like no other. A way of being. A uni-verse. Architecture is the background music of the film that is the story of that life.
The Cooper House will be the built expression of this concept of architecture: serine and provocative; intimate and expansive; organic and sophisticated; blending into the landscape and providing a district human point of view; open to the weather and made comfortable by transparent technology; modest living and the luxury of designed space; physical and spiritual; a strong sense of place and an endlessly fascinating abstraction of the play of form.
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Making Place - 20 years of Taylor Environs
Nature of Experience
Noise - The Hidden Pollution

Matt Taylor
Palo Alto
August 23, 1999


SolutionBox voice of this document:


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posted August 23, 1999

revised January 24, 2006
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• 2002 • •
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note: this document is about 85% finished

Copyright© Matt Taylor 1960, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003


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