John Lautner’s Chemosphere House “the most modern home built in the world” and site costs.
Alistair McLean
Category: Heritage

Alistair: Posted on Wednesday, 15 February 2012 12:40 AM


Secret Design Studio has some new clients who have purchased a beautiful block of land in one of the most attractive towns in rural Victoria.  The block is well located, not too far from Melbourne, but far enough away to have a break. When we visited for our site inspection recently the sun was shining and the location made us feel that all is good with the world. Through some thick pine trees there are watery glimpses of a beautiful lake, that often has kayakers and canoeists, but is too small for motorized boats. Only a short walk away is the historic main street, which is well served and was buzzing with people over the weekend.


The clients managed to secure this parcel of land for a very reasonable price as it had been on the market for a number of years. The reason for the property being on the market for so long and the keen price paid for it is the slope, which may be described more as a cliff!  On descending a curving car track the visitor arrives at a long narrow flattish piece of land and has to stop to admire the views.  Unfortunately this flattish parcel of land is not large enough to build the client’s house, but it will be a good starting point.  From there the land drops away steeply, diagonally across the site, which is an irregular shape and about 38m x 34m.  The fall from the highest point to the lowest point is about 10m, or the equivalent to a 3 storey building!


Fortunately the client realizes that the money saved on the land will be spent on the site costs to get the house out of the ground. Soil tests indicate that the there is lots of rock just beneath the surface so to minimize the site costs we are going to try and minimize the excavation.  The challenge for Secret Design Studio is to work with the slope, maximize the views, minimize the site costs, and hopefully make the design take the most advantage of this spectacular site.



The site reminded Secret Design Studio of a famous house designed by John Lautner, who was a progressive architect in Southern California during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  He had a similar problem site and devised a unique engineering solution.  The lot had been given to a young aerospace engineer by his father-in-law; despite his own limited means, the engineer, Leonard Malin, was determined to live there.


The building, which has been described as “the most modern home built in the world”, is admired both for the ingenuity of its solution to the problem of the site and for its unique design.   The building, known as “The Chemosphere” stands on the San Fernando Valley side of the Hollywood Hills, just off Mulholland Drive. It is a one story octagon with around 22 squares (200m) of living space, so a bit on the small side by today’s Australian standards, but perfectly adequate.


Most distinctively, the house is perched atop a concrete pole nearly 10 metres high. This innovative design was Lautner’s solution to a site that, with a slope of 45 degrees, was thought to be practically unbuildable. The house is reached by a small cliff railway.  Owing to the concrete pedestal, almost 6.1 m in diameter, buried under the earth and supporting the post, the house has survived earthquakes and heavy rains.