ASCEND FROM THE STREET ON two quick sets of steps and pass through a deep doorway framed with cast concrete. Push open the iron gate and walk along a narrow entryway. At its end, a courtyard suddenly opens before you.
Inside the courtyard, you pass trees and other plantings on your right. A covered alcove on the left is furnished to offer an informal place to relax or entertain, its fireplace ready to welcome guests on cool evenings. You glimpse a two-story turret up ahead; a delicate balcony made of hammered iron projects from its upper reaches. The sound of splashing water draws you on.
You walk by the family room on the right, its French doors shielded from direct sunlight by an arched loggia. Finally, you discover the source of the water: an octagon-shaped fountain, dressed in tiles with geometric patterns in hues of blue, green, and burnt yellow, bubbles serenely. The fountain guards another deep, arched doorway; its ornamental brickwork reaching almost to the balcony above. You have traveled 73 feet and now face a heavy, carved wooden door.
“Now that you've sensed the breadth and depth of the house, you're finally entering the front door,” says Aram Bassenian, chairman and CEO of Bassenian/Lagoni, the Newport Beach, Calif.–based architectural firm that designed the house. In other words, he says, “Your front door is inside the house.”
That blurring of indoors and outdoors is one of the signatures of Plan 3, the four-bedroom (plus staff quarters and studio), six-and-a-half bath, four-car garage dream palace with the burbling fountain. At 5,227 square feet, it's the largest of the three Bassenian/Lagoni–designed models that Greystone Homes is building at The Sycamores at Shady Canyon in Irvine, Calif., part of fast-growing Orange County.
Of the 39 homes that Greystone (a Lennar Homes company) has released since last November, 38 were sold by June 1. Another eight homes are planned. The most recent buyers were paying $2.5 million, according to Greystone's South Coast division president Douglas Woodward. The community's target market is luxury family move-ups (represented by the two-story Plan 2 and Plan 3) and empty-nester move-ups (Plan 1).
The indoor/outdoor blurring is common to all three models, but is not their only signature feature. Each plan has a casita, loosely translated as “little house,” a more lyrical term than “in-law suite.” And each home is richly detailed and takes advantage of the elements of water and light.
It was the designers' aim to take the classic California Spanish revival home not to the next level, but back to the first one.
Here Comes The Sun As the crow flies, The Sycamores is no more than five miles from the Pacific Ocean, but the topography and climate have nothing in common with the beach. The rolling hills experience dry summers and mild winters. “It is the climate of Southern Spain,” Bassenian says, of the region called Andalusia—known by the cities of Cordoba and Granada—where 700 years of Arab civilization in Spain ended when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella drove the people they called the Moors across the Strait of Gibraltar and into North Africa. Ever since, the area has been known as the Moor's last sigh.
“The weather pattern of Andalusia is found in only two other places in the world,” Bassenian says. “In Perth, Australia, and in Southern California. When we tried to find the appropriate architecture [for The Sycamores], it seemed we had to respond to the climate and to the early history of Spain.”
California's early European settlers and Christian missionaries were Spanish. They lent the state the architectural designs that in modern times have been revived as Mission, Hacienda, and Monterrey styles.
“That architecture was heavily influenced by the Moors,” Bassenian says. “We decided we had to go past Monterrey or Mission architecture,” back to the elements that influenced Moorish architecture in the first place. The chief influence is the unforgiving sun, which had to be both screened and harnessed. That led to the inclusion of the loggia, or colonnade, as a transitional space, and water elements to affect the microclimate.
Exterior windows tend to be small because the typical Old World house was close to the street. “The house on the street doesn't reveal itself,” Bassenian says. The average lot is 75 feet wide by 150 feet deep, and the houses largely show themselves only once you are inside them. The best views are internal—a neat architectural trick since many of the home sites can't boast about their external views.
The homes revel in brickwork, “grout washed to give it a softness and a patina that we find in Andalusia,” says Bassenian. Plaster and stucco are also primary exterior materials. Their light tan color reflects the strong sun, and they have insulating and fire-retardant properties. Other prominent features include clay tile roofs, an abundant ornamental use of hammered iron, and tile mosaics that appear in unexpected places.
Like at the entrance of Plan 2, where a detailed geometric tile arch forms one of several layers in the doorway. “An arch inside an arch inside an arch,” is how Bassenian puts it. This is the doorway that leads inside. As in Plan 3, you pass through an entryway that opens to a loggia, with the casita on the right and one of the home's three courtyards on the left. A row of spouts along the courtyard's tiled outer wall shoots water, each stream caught in a large earthen urn.
The courtyards provide private space, another blurring of the indoors and out. On the balcony above, floor tiles protrude subtlety. The wooden-beamed ends of the balcony's roof are detail cut.
“The eye sees a simplicity of detail,” Bassenian says. “There's such an influence here provided by the architecture that it gives the buyer a good start in designing the interiors.”
Plan 2 is long and narrow and shaped like an “I” but is still 4,820 square feet with three to five bedrooms and four-and-a-half baths. Like the other designs, Plan 2 borrows light from two sides: The high-ceilinged formal living/dining room at the narrow center of the house is flanked by a windowed gallery on one side that looks onto a courtyard and on the other side by a loggia with a view of its own courtyard. With heavy, exposed trusses crossing the ceiling to accentuate the room's height, it is a grand space.
Custom-Built Neighbors As sumptuous as the homes are, The Sycamores is actually a downscale neighborhood in Shady Canyon, a 1,070-acre master planned community developed by the Irvine Co., where people pay up to $8 million to have a custom home built. Since October 2001, Shady Canyon has sold about 300 of its planned 400 custom home sites, according to Dan Nahabedian, vice president of residential marketing for the Irvine Community Development Co., a subsidiary of the Irvine Co.
Shady Canyon includes 175 acres of internal open space as well as a 300-acre Tom Fazio golf course and is bordered by approximately 16,000 acres of nature preserves extending to the Pacific Ocean.
The Irvine Co. hired Greystone Homes and Bassenian/Lagoni to build The Sycamores because the developer liked the master planned work the companies had done elsewhere, Nahabedian says. “We knew we could drive them where we wanted to go.”
“We definitely achieved those expectations,” says Woodward, who admits to liking Plan 1 best “because of the uniqueness.”
“It's a serpentine form as it wraps around the outdoor spaces,” Bassenian explains. Like the other models, this one-story empty-nester home creates surprise through alternating compressed and large spaces.
“It's a sequential experience,” Bassenian says. “As we were searching for alternative methods to design these homes, we discovered introducing the house with a series of experiences—in volume, light, and space—makes for a more exciting experience.
“When you walk into the great room, it explodes horizontally and vertically. But when you walk to the master bedroom, it pinches and opens up again.” Most of the house is lit from two directions, again erasing the line separating the outside from the inside.
As befits a smaller empty-nester home, Plan 1 is about 4,000 square feet with two to three bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, and a three-car garage. The designers made sure the garage in each house was tucked away so it would not be the dominant element. The exterior is grout-washed brick, and the entrance is framed with cast concrete and capped by a Moorish motif.
Those hints of a grand and vanished Moorish past bring out a wistfulness in The Sycamores' creators. Greystone's Woodward speaks of how rare and rewarding the experience of building The Sycamores has been. “As builders, we design and build at all different levels,” he says. “I've said to our associates, ‘Let's enjoy this, because we may not have the chance to do it again.'”
David Holzel is a freelance writer based in Montgomery Village, Md.
Project: The Sycamores at Shady Canyon, Irvine, Calif.; Size: 18.8 acres; Units planned: 47; Price: $2.2 million to $2.8 million; Builder: Greystone Homes (a Lennar Homes company), Irvine; Developer: The Irvine Co., Newport Beach, Calif.; Architect: Bassenian/Lagoni Architects, Newport Beach; Land planner: SWA Group, Laguna Beach, Calif.; Landscape architect: HRP Lan-Design, Santa Ana, Calif.; Interior designer: Trio Design Group, Tustin, Calif.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.