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07.29.2011
Comment> Lautner's Legacy
Alan Hess reflects on a legend's impact on Southern California architecture.
Sheats / Goldstein House.
Melanie McGraw

See Celebrating Lautner in Film this Saturday, July 30, 7 - 10:30 p.m. at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.

Architect John Lautner would have been 100 on July 16, raising the question: where does Lautner fit in the constellation of Southern California Modernism?

We have him pegged as something of a loner throughout his 56-year career. Silvertop, his masterful Silver Lake house with a curving pre-stressed, post-tensioned concrete roof, is not an obvious fit in an architectural catalog alongside sharp, linear designs like Neutra’s Kaufmann house, Koenig’s Case Study House #22, or Jones & Emmons’ Eichler houses.

Lautner often set himself apart deliberately by fostering his reputation as something of a modern day prophet, berating the civic, commercial, and professional establishments for their sins and shortcomings.

Yet in the 1940s and 1950s, he received the attention due his talents: John Entenza published him in Arts+Architecture, and Douglas Haskell published him in House and Home. Henry-Russell Hitchcock compared him quite favorably to his teacher, Frank Lloyd Wright. Lautner was one of the original architects involved in the Mutual Housing project in Brentwood, now considered one of LA’s hallmarks in progressive housing.

     
Left to right: Sheats / Goldstein House interior, Jacobsen House interior, two exterior views of the Jacobsen House.
Melanie McGraw
 

Long before his death in 1994, however, Lautner had become a difficult figure to pinpoint. His houses still amaze the public, so is he just another fashionably exotic Southern California designer feeding our appetite for novelty?  Even serious academics had trouble discussing him at the 2008 Hammer/Getty symposium that accompanied the first major exhibit of his career. But no serious re-examination of his legacy grew out of it. Since the exhibit and its catalog, the only serious deliberation on Lautner’s place has been Thomas Hines’s chapter in his 2010 book, Architecture of the Sun.

So the notion lingers that Lautner was a talented, often brilliant designer, but sui generis. It’s a view that ignores the recognition of many of Southern California’s leading architects. And it marginalizes an architect who is much more central to our story than we’ve accepted.

Lautner is a firm anchor, a touchstone that represents one side of a multi-faceted spectrum that ranges from, at least, the spare rationalism of the Case Study program to the organic complexity of Lautner’s work.

Compare two seminal houses from 1947: Charles and Ray Eames’ house, and Lautner’s house for Foster Carling.

Their similarities underscore the common Southern California soil from which both spring: the exploration of technology, site, and innovation. Each makes excellent use of archetypal sites, one overlooking the ocean, the other with views of both the San Fernando Valley and downtown LA. They each use striking structural systems that test ideas for mass-producible prototypes for the post-war home. But the two designs diverge in their intentions and expression.

The Eames house has a rectilinear steel frame, the Carling house is a hybrid of brick foundation terraces and walls combined with vertical steel masts which suspend the hexagonal roof from struts.  

 
Terrace at the Marbrisa House (left) and a pool at the Harpel House (right).
Ravi Gune Wardena and Melanie McGraw
 

While both architects take full advantage of their structural systems to create spaces, these spaces are fundamentally different. The Eames house space features sharply defined rectilinear volumes. The outer skin’s glass panels mediate precisely between inside and outside. The Carling house’s space, however, is both indeterminate and flowing. Beneath the suspended roof, the perimeter walls are mostly open, so space flows out to terraces and the magnificent city views beyond.

Lautner spotlights this plastic character of space and structure by hinging one living room wall so it (and its built-in couch) swings out to frame the outdoor deck. Even the pool flows under the glass walls into the living room.

Where the Eames, as rhetoricians, summed up their interpretation of Le Corbusier’s “machine for living in” with a vivid photogenic facade that instantly enchanted the architecture world, Lautner paid little attention to exteriors. While employing modern structure, the Carling house de-emphasizes technology in favor of space. It draws on organic metaphors: the three masts are like modernist tree trunks, the suspended roof is like a sheltering leaf canopy overhead.

The two designs’ different stances on technology, nature, space, the city, modernism, inclusiveness and exclusiveness, and popular culture stake out very different territories, but ones which persist in Southern California architecture. For a region of great natural and cultural diversity, this is not a bad thing.

Lautner’s choices are the heart of his contribution to Southern California Modernism. Today’s generation of Southern California’s leading architects acknowledge this. Lautner paved the way for Frank Gehry, Michael Rotondi, Eric Owen Moss, Craig Hodgetts, Thom Mayne and others to explore—and build—adventurous, exuberant shapes, structures, and ideas.

     
Left to right: Sheats / Goldstein House and the Carling House.
Melanie McGraw and Courtesy Carling House
 

Lautner showed how modern structural systems could be stretched in audacious ways, but could be disciplined by an architectural purpose. The Mar Brisas house in Acapulco contrasts its bold curving upswept concrete roof above with the free-form floor edge below. Together, their unusual shapes frame the all-important panorama of Acapulco Bay seen from the open-air living areas.

In the same vein, Silvertop’s pre-stressed, post-tensioned concrete roof arches over the 1,000 square foot living room without a disrupting column, liberating the view of the Pacific on one side, and downtown Los Angeles on the other. The Elrod house’s petal-shaped concrete dome serves the same purpose for the Palm Springs view while bringing in balanced clerestory light.

So Lautner is not sui generis, but a pivotal figure defining issues. Then, he was often reproached for his daring forms. Today, daring forms are accepted.

R. M. Schindler was a similar pivotal figure. Like Lautner, he gained some recognition during his career, but also had a hard time establishing his reputation (“The case of Schindler I do not profess to understand,” shrugged Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1940; “Lautner felt compelled to indulge in gestures that for all of their imaginative flair, invariably gravitate toward kitsch,” wrote Kenneth Frampton in 1995.) Both struggled to get jobs that came more easily to their colleagues.

After his death in 1953, however, Schindler’s architecture, once considered odd, was not only rediscovered, but became part of our fundamental understanding of Southern California design. A similar path is emerging for Lautner.

Lautner can no longer be considered an intriguing outsider architect. His extraordinary buildings explored the fundamental issues of Southern California modernism and offered challenging solutions that no one can dismiss. It’s time for the Carling house to take its place alongside the Eames house as a seminal work of Southern California Modernism.

Alan Hess