When is a pool more than just a place to swim?
Is it when it's the new focal point of a home?
Is it when it's set against a fanciful light sculpture that sets the mood at twilight?
Is it when it's part of an otherwise water-thrifty backyard?
In the case of Lou Sawaya and Jimmy Wilson's recently updated home and garden in Pasadena, the answers are yes, yes and yes. Walking into the couple's midcentury modern house is like stepping into a contemporary art gallery. Paintings and limited-edition prints compete for attention, but nothing the collectors have on display is more compelling than what's outside. As Anthony Exter, the Los Feliz landscape architect who designed the pool and grounds, puts it: "It's a garden, but it's also an art piece. It straddles both worlds."
Visible through the home's glass entry doors and glass entry hall, the pool brings the whole place to life. While a fountain flows in a sheet of water into the pool, 25 white globe lights appear to float like giant bubbles over a single majestic spear lily. The result is cool, elegant and practically guaranteed to induce smiles.
The pool is central to a makeover that Sawaya and Wilson embarked on when they bought the house in 2002. Previous owners had tried to evoke a Tuscan villa, cluttering the light and airy profile created by architect John Jack Pugsley in 1963. Sawaya and Wilson peeled away unflattering wood shutters, mullioned windows and terra-cotta floor tiles.
In the entryway -- a two-story atrium sheltered beneath a barrel-arched roof -- they replaced the solid French doors with glass ones. This restored the novel conceit of Pugsley's open-air atrium, which was to fool guests into thinking they were inside when they were out, and vice versa.
The only problem, Exter says, was the view of the ramshackle sloped garden out back. He scooped away the hillside, leveled the yard and erected a long concrete retaining wall to give his clients the pool, garden and outdoor entertaining space they requested. Completed last winter, the project also calls for creeping fig to wrap the retaining wall eventually and for ficus hedges to provide extra privacy.
"The idea was to keep it simple like the Case Study homes," says Sawaya, a commercial real estate investor. "We wanted everything in keeping with the architectural style of the house, which is very symmetrical and, except for the arch over the atrium, very rectangular."
Exter aligned the pool and the light sculpture so that they're the first things visitors see from the atrium stairs. The 40-foot-wide pool and a 5-foot-wide spa, both lined with celadon glass mosaic tiles that echo the surrounding greenery, sit in the middle of the backyard expanse, which measures about 190 feet wide by only 20 feet deep.
For the light sculpture, Exter drew on his interest in the circular motifs of early 20th century French painter Robert Delaunay, punctuating this space with balls of light instead of the topiary or ceramic spheres he typically uses. Exter also saw this garden as an opportunity to finally resolve a graduate school assignment that called for evoking the fizz of Champagne bubbles in a landscape design.
"With the fountain in place, you can imagine the effervescence of the water hitting the surface of the pool," Exter says. "So I laid out the bubbles to look like they're concentrated near the waterfall and then more spread out as if dispersed by a breeze."
The concrete deck allows Sawaya and Wilson to relax and dine around the pool with their daughter, Morgan, and to host holiday gatherings as well as charity fundraisers. Two gravel-paved terraces flank the ends of the deck. Rising above the loose pebbles are allees of Rhus lancea (African sumac trees) under-planted with alternating rows of the phormium Tom Thumb (a type of New Zealand flax) and Agave chiapensis (a small rosette-shaped succulent).
As with many of his gardens, Exter incorporated several sustainable features: drought-tough trees and plants; soaker hoses and a drip irrigation system; and lifelike artificial turf made of recycled plastic that fills the seams of the deck, breaking up the hardscape and camouflaging drainage slots to capture runoff. Energy-efficient 10-watt bulbs ensure that the light sculpture remains a luminous conversation piece set on dimmers.
For Wilson, a real estate agent, lighting up the bubbles for the first time was a magical experience. "I got butterflies. It was like the cherry on top of everything else. And it's been like a toy ever since. Every time someone comes over, we make sure it's on."