It was Frank Lloyd Wright who first attempted to show that a large and formal country estate did not have to be dressed in the garb of a traditional architectural style, and that modern architecture, in the right hands, was capable of evoking the same grandeur, the same sense of expansive luxury, not to mention the aura of relaxed elegance, that we associate with the greatest Georgian or Renaissance or classical villas. In early projects like the Ward Willets House and the Darwin Martin House, Wright created buildings that were radically new and different, and yet at the same time possessed a decorous, proper order that was not quite as radical as it sometimes pretended to be: houses that were generous and expansive and rich, big houses of flowing space and formal axes that were altogether different from the austere, bare-bones architecture of the International Style that would come to define modernism a generation later.
It is hard not to think of these early villas of Wright’s when you look at Scott Mitchell’s recently completed house in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles. Mitchell’s house is not literally Wrightian, or at least not like Wright’s early Prairie Houses—if anything, its mix of concrete, glass and steel calls to mind Wright’s concrete block period—and in the end, the feel of this house, with its concrete walls and curtain walls of glass and steel, is more industrial than Wright, and very much of the twenty-first century, although Mitchell manages a few affectionate nods to mid-century modernism along the way. But you think of Wright because Mitchell uses the elements of our time to achieve the same end Wright was seeking more than a century ago, which was to demonstrate that modernism can produce a large villa that exudes an air of formal, yet relaxed, grandeur.
And this house, like Wright’s, takes its axes and its vistas seriously. It has some of the formality of the Beaux Arts, with landscaped terraces and a healthy respect for symmetry, but an even greater respect for both visual and physical comfort. This is a building made to be felt and experienced, not shaped by architectural dogma; Mitchell’s interpretation of modernism is one of rich, varying textures, interpenetrating spaces, precisely crafted details and knowing juxtapositions of materials. It feels at once hard-edged and soft-edged, at once grand—there is a two-story living room at its heart—and intimate. There is great luxury in this house, but no excess. The Holmby Hills house is at once disciplined and celebratory: a design in which restraint and sumptuousness seem in perfect harmony.