On a steep and winding Beverly Hills road, behind a wall of impenetrable greenery, Corinne and Laurent Opman’s house is entirely hidden from view. In a city known for its glossy veneers and grand facades, the understated exterior offers visitors a “surprise element,” Laurent says. “The whole idea was that from the street, you wouldn’t really have a sense of what you’re going to find.”
Past the dark wood gate, a tree-lined walkway opens to the big reveal: The couple’s home comprises not one, but two remarkable works of architecture. The first is a 1957 gem designed by the late Craig Ellwood and made of wood, glass, terrazzo, and steel. The other, sitting adjacent, is a more recent addition—an airy guest pavilion with a dramatic pitched roof that soars over the original house. They frame the northeast corner of an expansive front lawn, complete with a swimming pool and outdoor sculptures by Richard Jackson and Philippe Hiquily. Built five decades apart, the two structures share a modernist language of transparency and minimalism, both equipped with glass panels designed to slide virtually out of sight.
“They create a connection between the indoor and the outdoor,” Corinne says, adding that, for her, this is a quintessential feature of Southern Californian domestic bliss. The property abounds with spaces to lounge, bathe, and dine in the open air. When I visit, its owners, wearing blue jeans and Birkenstocks, are sitting on a pair of outdoor sofas shaded by two rows of olive trees. Laurent is a real estate investor and developer from France, and Corinne is a former fashion designer and model from Germany who is co-chair of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Emerging Art Fund and recently joined its board. They collect art in their spare time, lately acquiring works by younger names such as Kylie Manning and Devin B. Johnson. With their two children having recently left for college, they frequently play host to art-world functions; these can include a few dozen or a hundred guests.
The distinctive architecture, combined with the couple’s laid-back attitude, makes for excellent house parties, says Kulapat Yantrasast, a well-known Los Angeles–based architect and a good friend of the family’s. “It’s not the traditional American concept where you have a front yard, a backyard, and a box sitting in the middle,” he says. “The two houses create a courtyard that allows life to be lived outside. There’s never that bottleneck where people gather in the kitchen until there’s no more room; you can sit at the firepit or on the grass and go from group to group.”
Laurent bought the Ellwood house in 1989, when the property was only half its current size. At the time, he was in his early 20s, interning at a Los Angeles real estate firm. Ellwood’s minimalism was the complete opposite of what he had experienced growing up. “My parents’ houses were all done by Jacques Garcia,” he says, referring to the famous designer known for his opulent, Belle Epoque interiors. When Laurent moved to Beijing in 1992 to start an agricultural technology company, he decided to keep his L.A. house. Three years later, he met Corinne—who had moved from Germany to Hong Kong as a model and eventually started her own agency—at a dinner at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. Afterward, “he inundated my office with flowers every day for literally six weeks,” Corinne says. They traveled together in Asia, Europe, and the United States; when Laurent sold his business, in 1997, and moved back to L.A., Corinne didn’t hesitate to follow. “I immediately knew I belonged here,” she says, marveling at the flow of the Ellwood house and the ease of the Los Angeles lifestyle. “I loved the fact that you could walk out of the house in a tracksuit.”
Ellwood was also once a model, as well as the classic Los Angeles playboy archetype. He had a taste for foreign sports cars and even operated under a stage name—before he was Craig Ellwood, a lecturer at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and at Yale, he was Johnnie Burke, born in Clarendon, Texas, in 1922. In 1957, he designed the Opmans’ house with many of the principles he applied to his groundbreaking 1953 Case Study House #16, an iconic experiment in 20th-century architecture. The point was to invent a new, modern home for Southern California using the latest technologies of the time. He took the efficient minimalism of European modernism and softened its rigid geometries to maximize the joys of living with year-round sun. The resulting design featured a simple flat roof with exposed structural framing, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass walls, and outdoor spaces connected to every room.
As Corinne and Laurent’s family grew from two to four, they sought to expand their living space, as well. Leaving their Ellwood house wasn’t an option—they loved the location, especially because of its proximity to Franklin Canyon Park, where Corinne would take long hikes after dropping off the children at school. In 2006, they bought the property next door, a plain ranch-style house on a lot with an elevation eight feet lower than theirs. “It didn’t have a lot of character at all,” Laurent recalls. After demolishing it, he says, “it took us a while to figure out exactly what to do.”
With the children, they wrote down what they wanted from their future home, a list that turned into a four-page document. “It wasn’t about our favorite colors or how many rooms we wanted,” Laurent says, “but about how we live and who we are as individuals.” The list took into account Corinne’s joy in cooking for 40 or 50 guests at a time, a shared penchant for outdoor living, and the children’s need for more privacy. “We knew we wanted more space, but we didn’t necessarily want a big home,” Corinne says. “I wanted to be able to look out from the kitchen and see where everybody was.”
They commissioned a concept design from Shigeru Ban, the Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect who was inspired by Ellwood during his time at SCI-Arc, 30 years prior. “We didn’t have to explain the house to him at all,” Laurent says. “He understood it from an architectural standpoint better than we even know it now.” Ban produced a scheme for a guesthouse on the property that resonated with the geometries of Ellwood’s design, with glass walls, a soaring roof, and a grand set of outdoor steps that would gracefully lead down to the lower lot. Los Angeles–based architects Steve McKelvey and Stan Hristov, of ARC PAC, took over the construction of the project with Ban’s design as a starting point. “His concept was a very elegant and dramatic solution in terms of a roof uniting the original and new,” McKelvey says. Breaking ground in 2011, the team worked closely with Laurent and Corinne to fine-tune the design according to their daily lives. “We tried to make it fit their needs in terms of the amount of space, its flexibility, and the ability to use virtually all of the site,” McKelvey says. The pavilion included a grand room, a full bathroom, a bedroom, Laurent’s home office, and a lower level with a parking garage and a living space. The architects also completed a thorough renovation of the existing house to add more natural light and give Corinne the modern, open kitchen she had envisioned, as well as an outdoor bathtub.
The finished pavilion stands in harmonious dialogue with Ellwood’s architecture, but with a lighter contemporary palette, more glass, and much higher ceilings that appear to float on its clerestory windows. For the interiors, the couple gravitated toward furniture that was simple and understated. “We wanted to let the structure speak for itself,” Laurent says. “When you come in, it’s really about the art, the space, and the natural light.” When they give tours of their art collection, they often go around the exterior of the pavilion and look inward through the transparent walls. “It has a daytime personality and a nighttime personality,” Corinne says, explaining that the house itself has the cozy glow of a lantern once the lights turn on. In fact, the look and feel of each space shifts according to the time of day and day of the year. “It’s a living project,” Corinne says, “and it took a very long time.”
Hair and Makeup by Jessica Ahn for Laura Mercier at Tracey Mattingly Agency; Set Design: Courtney de Wet at Big Leo Productions; Photography Assistant and Drone Operator: Josh Bustos; Photography Assistant: Merlin Viethen.