In a world where sensory overload happens daily, Swiss-American architect David Montalba makes the case for visually calm spaces.
Since 2004, Montalba Architects has over 60 designers, most of whom work in Santa Monica, California, while a handful hold a base in Lausanne, Swiss. Guided by what Mr. Montalba described as a humanistic approach, his company merges indoor and outdoor spaces and carefully prioritizes lighting design. Large panes of glass meet abundant wood, resulting in compositional pieces that invite contemplation. For owners, these structures serve as an antidote to the business of modern life.
Montalba Architects’ portfolio covers commercial, hospitality, urban and residential. Mansion Global caught up with Mr. Montalba to learn more about two recently completed modern homes in Southern California.
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Mansion Global: You’ve already designed your dream home, but if you could drop everything and build something new for yourself, what would it look like?
David Montalba: Rather, it would be mitigated due to the intensity we all face on a daily basis in our lives, both in terms of the bombardment of visual and business images. I would consider creating a home that feels like a break from the outside world, so you can disconnect for a bit. So much is expected of us on a normal day. The intensity is so great, whether you’re in a professional environment, a creative office or even a school. Whether you’re 12, 17, 30 or 50, the intensity for most of us is pretty consistent and excellent throughout the day. Designing a home that feels a bit like an escape is an important part of managing a contemporary lifestyle, and definitely something I would look for.
MG: What elements do you prioritize to allow a sense of calm in the homes you design?
PM: For us, natural light has always been an important factor. More and more, integrating water into a home is something I appreciate. Whether it is bathing spaces or the sound of water, it is something that brings us back, just like being in a forest or in nature, to larger, primary and natural experiences. It helps ground us as people. A spa experience is a great benchmark to get you thinking more about wellness. A sense of rejuvenation and recovery is one of the things homes should be.
MG: What goes into designing a luxury home that stands out from neighboring property, especially in densely populated Southern California neighborhoods?
PM: Often we design for a client’s second or third home and these have different needs. It’s not always the same house in different places. We considered integrating the landscape, in [a recently designed Manhattan Beach House]. For example, we designed a rooftop swimming pool and a large garden feature on the highest level and a large courtyard on the second floor. Inform and infuse light inside the home. Merging or mixing these two elements is an important part of our work. Truly understanding a client’s aspirations is a big part of our job.
MG: Focusing on Canyon Terrace House, a home you recently completed in the Santa Monica Canyon, how did client aspirations influence your design choices?
PM: The [building] site was a lot to consider. With this site, one of the issues was how to integrate their program with a limited building area and create new opportunities? In this case, it’s a three-story house pushed into the side of a hill. We raised a huge platform to create a private space. This is the pool landscape on the main level. There is an underground level which has plenty of natural light. It acts almost like a vertical canyon house as it is three stories tall, rather narrow and hugs a backyard poolscape. It is organized around the course of the sun and captures the heat of the sun. These are jurisdictional and site-related factors.
For this house, it is for a relatively small family, and they wanted to spend a lot of time with their children. The bedrooms are on the top floor, and they are really more for sleeping. Some customers may want homes with hotel-like suites, making them destination-oriented rooms. In this house, it was more about creating sleeping spaces and maintaining social spaces on the ground floor.
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MG: Can you give us your opinion on the residential trends you observe?
PM: The connection with nature is paramount, whether it is the indoor-outdoor space, the water, the landscape or the extensions of spaces beyond. It’s powerful. Also, ideas for flexibility and how people can use the spaces for multiple things. We have made houses with theaters that are exclusively theaters, but we have also managed to design houses with a family room and a theater [combined]. Whether you’re doing a screening or hanging out and watching a game, it’s a cozy family space. We see that customers increasingly appreciate this flexibility.
Durability goes without saying. We are seeing an increased appreciation for environmentally friendly materials and manufacturers, and an awareness of where materials come from. Yesterday we had a client who told me he was happy to pay twice as much for material from a certain location because he felt better about it. People want to feel good about where they spend their money and the things they bring home. This is probably a trend that will continue.
MG: What is your personal definition of luxury?
PM: Ultimate luxury is a design that speaks to you and is not just made overnight, but rather made over time. Luxury in architecture concerns the conservation of the space, materials and elements it contains. It’s something we don’t really need but often want.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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