The Making of Hill House: A Lively and Sometimes Humorous Talk About Serious Play

By Julian Harake   |   May 21, 2024

In the short time since its completion, Bruce Heavin and Robin Donaldson’s “Hill House” has acquired a fabled reputation among Santa Barbara design cognoscenti. Few have seen the house in person, yet rumors abound. So in a sense the recent talk about the residence was a coming out party and the first deep dive into this unusual home that could very well stand for centuries if not millennia.

At the recent VADATalks, one colleague summarized Hill House as an enormous, clam-shaped museum-cum-residence buried in the Montecito terroir with unparalleled ocean views. Another colleague referred to it as the most imaginative private residence since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. As recalled by the client and co-conceptualizer Bruce Heavin, even the Montecito Board of Architectural Review didn’t quite know what to make of Hill House when it first appeared on the scene, seeming to have appeared from somewhere beyond the Van Allen belt. 

As Heavin recounted, one member of the Architectural Review Board asked the design team if it “was a hobbit hole or a spaceship?” (Because we don’t take kindly to spaceships.) Meanwhile Silvia Perea, curator at UCSB’s Art, Design, and Architecture Museum, posited to the audience that Hill House isn’t even a house at all, because it is so far outside the prototypical idea of a house that people typically envision. 

That combination of mystery, eccentricity, rumor, and inuendo attracted a sold-out audience of architecture fans to Santa Barbara City College’s Fé Bland Forum last Thursday, for a panel discussion on the design and construction of what is right now arguably Santa Barbara’s most notable private residence. In three short years Hill House sits alongside such venerable names as Lotusland, Casa del Herrero, and of course the always controversial Bellosguardo.

Joining Heavin this past Thursday night were the Hill House architect of record Robin Donaldson, accompanied by Perea and moderator Les Firestein, Editor and Founder of the Montecito Journal’s Riv design magazine, making for an ebullient discussion that at times felt like a housewarming celebration for the general public, hors d’oeuvres included.

The discussion was sponsored by the Visual Arts & Design Academy of Santa Barbara High School (VADA), and offered a behind-the-scenes overview of the project’s development and current state. As shown through photographs, videos, architectural drawings and computer renderings, Hill House holds true to its name. It is essentially an occupiable mound with a circular floor plan, cast as a raw concrete shell and covered in vegetation. A walkable roof allows for uninterrupted views out over the Pacific, with both recognizable and anonymous artworks flowing throughout its interior and exterior. Aligning with the clients’ ambitions, art, architecture, and landscape design are inseparably bound. The house appears as an extension of its natural setting, with curvilinear walls and openings akin to an exquisite ceramic vessel. 

The sold-out audience filled the house to listen in on the discussion of Hill House

Donaldson and Heavin explained that the house was birthed from two basic requirements: to design something empathetic to the landscape, and to create something that “wouldn’t have been possible five years earlier.” No doubt a brief like that – along with its commensurate budget – is the long-held fantasy of every architect. It helps too that Heavin and his partner, Lynda Weinman, are experienced artists, privy to the rewards and complicated nonlinearity of the creative process. Thus the seeds of Hill House were planted, precipitating an extensive four-year-long design process where there was no detail too granular. As shown during the discussion, even the house’s front door handle is an engineering achievement where the ingenuity of Leonardo’s notebooks seem to merge winningly with the science fiction aesthetic of H. R. Giger.

True to his creative impulses, Heavin recalled that he wanted to “do a deep dive into the irrational and the emotional,” in designing the house. Nearly a decade after its inception, the results speak to both. As Donaldson recounted, at one point during construction, a smaller crane had to be lifted out of the site by a larger crane. Recalling the fantasmic tableaux of Hieronymus Bosch but writ modern, according to Firestein. As evidenced by the audible “oohs” and “aahs” of Thursday’s audience, reacting to photographs and drone footage projected onscreen, it all seems to have been worth it. 

Donaldson recalled being told by one visitor that entering the house felt like descending into a canyon, an analogy that pleased him enormously. Meanwhile Mr. Heavin recalled, “I’ve had people cry upon entering the house,” he shared with the lively, rapt audience.

Preceding the discussion, Ms. Perea contextualized Hill House as a product of “serious play,” whereby outlandish architectural dreams are wrestled into reality through rigor and engineering. Like the designs of Ray and Charles Eames and, later, those of Frank Gehry, Perea posited that Donaldson’s Hill House fits into a lineage of playful, future-forward designs native to Southern California, including Gehry’s iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall and the space age “Googie” buildings throughout Los Angeles (e.g. Norm’s Coffee Shop and the Theme Building at LAX). Though that aesthetic tends to be rarely encountered by the Montecito Board of Architectural Review, Donaldson noted the unusual partially submerged sand dollar shape of Hill House is perhaps beside the point. 

“Santa Barbara tends to fixate on form,” said Donaldson. “What the city should instead prioritize,” he added, “Is the social impact of our buildings, and how architecture might embolden our local communities.” The audience applauded, yet it was for the intriguing curves and shapes of Hill House that they had gathered. For Thursday’s sold-out attendance had already made clear at least one social function of form: To bring us together and enliven discussion about what it means to be a house – and what it means to be a human resident of such a house, and the custodian of such a thought-provoking structure. Mr. Heavin wrapped up the evening by quoting Ivy Ross, author of This Is Your Brain on Art. He said, “The Robots are here. It’s time for us to return to what we do best – which is be human.”  


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