Narrow house

A rare look inside Bernard Judge’s experimental cabin

Is it possible to feel abandoned in a wilderness refuge in the middle of Los Angeles? This is if you live in the experimental house that the architect Bernard Judge built in the 1970s.

Situated high up on the ridge on an incredibly steep hill overlooking West Hollywood, the “Tree House” as it is called not only feels like stepping into a real treehouse, but it seems to come close to the shape of a tree with its structure.

A 1977 design story in the Los Angeles Times magazine described him as “a house lark.”

I became intrigued by the Tree House after writing the obituary for Judge, who died on November 15 at the age of 90. As a designer, he came of age as a result of LA’s mid-century case study program, devoted to exploring low-cost housing solutions. Judge was interested in these ideas, but also in questions of ecological sustainability.

The Tree House, which is supported by four steel beams embedded in the hill, occupies land that was once considered unbuildable.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Completed in 1975, the Judge’s House rests on four steel columns planted vertically into the hill, a structure that serves as a load-bearing device for the two-story wooden structure that surrounds it. It is as if the house is emerging from its narrow base and trying to camouflage itself in the eucalyptus grove that partially envelops it.

As Judge’s widow Blaine Mallory told me in November, “He wanted to live lightly on the earth and fit in with the environment.

A view of the Los Angeles Basin on a sunny day after a rain from the deck of Bernard Judge's Tree House

The views from the deck of the house on a clear day.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

On a cool December morning, Mallory was kind enough to let me and Christina House, the Times photographer, wander through the Tree House, an intimate space dotted with objects acquired over a lifetime: Andean figurines, masks African, abstract paintings. And, of course, there are the views. The house frames a large expanse of the Los Angeles Basin and, following a rainstorm, we could see all the way to the Palos Verde Peninsula. “At sunset, it’s just spectacular, especially in winter,” Mallory explains. “It changes every night.”

You enter the house through its second floor, which contains the living room, kitchen and dining room, as well as a large terrace with a view of the city. A spiral staircase in the center leads down to a small den and a pair of bedrooms, as well as a bathroom – the latest decorated in hand-painted tiles by ceramicist Dora De Larios, Judge’s first wife, who died in 2018 .

A close up of hand painted tiles bearing natural patterns such as flowers and leaves by Dora De Larios

Hand-painted tiles by Dora De Larios maintain the earthy themes of the house.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

I was intrigued by the home’s compactness: a total of 1,300 square feet spread across two floors, including decks – a space that feels intensely small compared to the 10,000-square-foot (and larger) McMansions that clutter up the hill below.

But the treehouse design – the open views, combined with a high rafter on the upper level – makes the place feel spacious. The rafter also helps ventilate the space in the summer, as it contains a large louvered window that can be opened to catch the breeze.

Judge also designed and built the interiors of the house – and no space is wasted. The narrow kitchen has hyper-efficient design elements, like a spice rack that has been carved into the wall and a narrow knife holder that takes up a small space in what would otherwise be two inches wasted between the edge of the counter and a window.

A view of Bernard Judge's Tree House shows the living room from an angle, with views of the LA hills in the distance

The four cream-colored vertical pillars that surround the spiral staircase are the beams that support the treehouse.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The wooden model of Bernard Judge's cabin sits on a shelf between pre-Columbian-style figurines

The model of Bernard Judge’s “Tree House” is in one of the wooden crates of the house and shows the narrow base from which it emerges.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Of course, experimental houses are often full of quirks.

The spiral staircase is tall and consumes more territory than it should, although it should be noted that this is a wise recycling: the judge saved it from a previous architectural experiment , its so-called “Bubble house” in which he made a house from a geodesic dome (a project that landed in the pages of Life magazine).

Additionally, the treehouse, on its perch atop a hill, is exposed to the elements, and its glassy surfaces make it vulnerable to extreme weather conditions – something that could likely be improved by installing energy-efficient insulating glass from the type that was not readily available when the judge built the house.

The wooden spiral staircase of Bernard Judge's treehouse seen from above

The wooden stairs of the Tree House are from an earlier experimental project designed by Bernard Judge.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Other environmental considerations, however, make the structure compelling. The house barely touches the ground, resting almost entirely on its narrow, steel-framed pedestal – a design patented by the judge – on inexpensive land that had once been considered “unbuildable.”

Says Mallory of the Design: “It can go into a flood zone or a jungle.

In the 1970s, Judge told The Times that living in the house was “like living in a huge toy.” But as we design with density and climate change in mind, this unusual Los Angeles home offers some intriguing food for thought as well.