Page C1.2 . 09 July 2003                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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A Tent on the Beach


"When it came to the fireplace," Gansa recalls, "Marcel didn't want one at all, and we wanted one in the end wall. It gets cold on the beach in Aptos in the winter. He said 'No, no, it will ruin the room.' Then he finally relented somewhat, and said maybe we could have one in the corner. But I hate corner fireplaces, and told him again and again that I wanted a big traditional fireplace. He liked corner fireplaces, so there we were in opposition again. But we insisted and he put one in.

"I remember so clearly him coming down the stairway when the house was almost completed, and he looked at the fireplace and shook his head and said, 'The fireplace is all wrong. You made me do this. It was a mistake.'

"In a way he was right," Gansa admits. "I know we threw off his concept, and putting the fireplace there in the middle of the wall probably made the place somewhat less distinctive as one of his houses."

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The Gansa House in Aptos, California, designed by residential architect Marcel Sedletzky.
Photo: Marcel Sedletzky Archive, Special Collections, University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz

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Gangplank-like stairs ascend to the upper floor.
Photo: Donna Kempner

Entering the Tent

The small carport and a wall of weathered shiplap siding bear a modernist stamp, exceptional for one subtle element indicative of Sedletzky's attention to detail: the precise fit of the horizontally fixed, rough redwood boards on the fence separating street from patio, and the contrasting, vertically fixed boards facing the open carport's interior and the asymmetrically peaked bedroom above.

  Tender for Carlise Pier Redevelopment

Access to the house is through a door all but concealed in the right-side corner of the carport, a door clad in the same boards as the walls. This understatement in creating a compressed, low-key entrance is a recurring feature in Sedletzky's houses. The main entry doorway is often recessed or half hidden, a design approach that suggests both humility and the possibility of surprise or wonder beyond the entry.

As the visitor moves through the carport door, the composition begins to reveal itself. The door leads to an interior passage, sheltered by the overhanging second-floor bedrooms. On the right, up four steps, the raised, enclosed patio affords a broad, striking view through the house to the beach.

Inside the Tent

The stunning, pure geometry of the house is revealed upon entry through the front door to the house itself, also clad in horizontal redwood boards. Directly opposite, a stairway reminiscent of a gangplank angles down from the left, slanting dramatically down into the wood and glass living room. It enters the room at a 30-degree angle, its steps and risers mitered to dramatic points, its uprights perpendicular not to the floor but to its own sloping rails.

The whole structure, angling down from second floor to main floor like a gangplank laid down to a pier from a ship, glows in hues of red and brown, the patina of more than 30 years. But the most powerful element is the parabolic roof, a seemingly arcing ceiling of Douglas fir boards lined up and angled and fixed to a center beam running from street side to beachside of the house.

The shape of the ceiling seems to change as the visitor steps around the living room, or ascends the gangplank to the second floor. The sensation of curve is precisely what Sedletzky intended in his design, in his desire to build what he told his clients was meant to be a tent on the sand.

The ceiling's one-inch-by-four-inch (25 by 100-millimeter) Douglas fir boards are anchored at the side walls of the house, and fixed to the central beam that bisects the living room at a steep angle. The side walls are steeply pitched, with their quite different high points 12 feet (3.6 meters) on the west side, 20 feet (6 meters) on the east toward the beach. The supporting, inverted U-beam maintains a nearly identical angle, but with the important difference that its high point is on the opposite side of the house, away from the beach.

This soaring, asymmetrically peaked frame gave Sedletzky the skeleton he needed to create the parabolic roof. It also placed the house's tallest windows toward the beach, maximizing afternoon light and expanding the views of the beach.

Perhaps the best time to view the complexity of the striking roof is at dusk, when the glow of interior tungsten light reveals the power of the ceiling, and the beach shimmers in the pearlescent glow of sunset. The shadows seen in these conditions reveal that the boards making up the roof are not placed side by side seamless and flush (an effect Sedletzky liked immensely and used in many residences), but rather offset and interleaving at the center beam.

Affixed below the center beam, they create an effect almost mammalian, slightly irregular, immensely powerful and fascinating. The sense of curved boards no, curved space creates in the visitor that moment of pause and puzzlement that occurs when trying to divine the nature and creation of an optical illusion. It is a spatial wonder, and a structural coup that Gansa says left the carpenters who built it impressed that Sedletzky's design worked, and proud of their execution of it.

It is when the house is viewed from the beach that its structural dynamics most clearly reveal themselves. By standing to the left, one can see the elegant parabolic effect of the roof, the soaring sides of the house, and the powerful center beam that angles from the rear of the house to a point just beachward of the plate-glass windows of the living room.

From this vantage point, it is all but impossible to see the interior elements of the roof, that sense of curving shapes, that sense of a tented interior that Sedletzky was after. But what cannot be missed is the unique beauty of this structure, this weathered, wood and glass beach house, sitting so solidly in the sand and rising to the sky in dramatic peaks.

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Bill Staggs is a journalist working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This article is excerpted from Marcel Sedletzky: Architect and Teacher, copyright 2003, available from Wild Coast Press and at



ArchWeek Image

Working drawings for the Gansa House.
Image: Marcel Sedletzky Archive

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Sedletzky built a scale model to demonstrate the design to the client.
Image: Marcel Sedletzky Archive

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Top view of the scale model.
Image: Marcel Sedletzky Archive

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The rough but precisely fitted horizontal redwood boards were a Sedletzky trademark.
Photo: Donna Kempner

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Upper floor loft under the parabolic roof.
Photo: Donna Kempner

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Marcel Sedletzky: Architect and Teacher, by Bill Staggs.
Image: Wild Coast Press


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