The two architects whose work best adapt to the Los Angeles sensibility and natural terrain, and coincidentally are my favorites, are Rudolf Schindler and John Lautner. Both of these architects spent time working in Frank Lloyd Wright’s office in LA before doing their own early work, which in both cases was influenced by Wright. Lautner—raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a wilderness, lake area adjacent to Wright’s original home base in Wisconsin—studied at Wright’s Taliesin East in Wisconsin. Later Lautner worked in collaboration with the Wisconsin master in his LA Brentwood “Sturges House,” a house which dramatically cantilevered a large terrace in the air over a sheer drop in the hillside terrain. This work had a clear influence on Lautner’s later LA houses, which often were sited atop hills overlooking ravines to give airy vistas of lower, greater LA. Schindler’s best LA, work, in my opinion, are low-budget apartment complexes in Studio City and Silver Lake, radically terraced into differing levels of quasi-mountainous terrain. These projects were influenced by Viennese social housing and equally by Adolf Loos’s interior “open plan.”
Both Lautner and Schindler’s early LA work begins with their take on Frank Lloyd Wright’s “open plan” adapted to the quasi-mountainous ravines of the LA hillside. Schindler’s work is heavily landscaped, perhaps reflecting the influence of Wright’s frequent visits to Japan, whereas Lautner’s work is often completely suspended from and set into its natural setting.
Lautner’s idea of nature and site specificity differs from Wright’s seminal works like Falling Water, which are romantic, scenographic fantasies, often left unfinished (sometimes due to client’s lack of funds or a “falling out” with the architect). On the contrary, Lautner’s houses are built for permanence. Lautner’s first LA houses, such as his own house in Silver Lake from 1940, are close in feeling and in their use of wood timbers to Wright’s work of the same and slightly earlier periods.
Although Lautner’s classic work is associated with luxury, Lautner in his early LA practice, like Schindler (who he admired) experimented with low-cost houses, highway motels and gas stations, as well as rustic, isolated vacation cottages.
What is characteristic of Lautner’s classic houses is the centrality of the swimming pool in his design. Lautner is a Cancer, like his fellow Cancer-sign architect, Robert Venturi, who based his early house for his mother on the central fireplace; Lautner also based his compositions on a central hearth-like focus, substituting the swimming pool for the fireplace. These LA houses incorporate the remnant of mid-western Wrightian nature worship, based around the Wrightian house’s fireplace, re-directed to Southern Californian hedonistic sun/water worship, epitomized by the terrace’s swimming pool. The pool was the center of Lautner’s luxury houses. (As a Cancer water sign, also connected with childhood memories, Lautner’s work seems to relate to the water-environment of the Lake Superior area where he grew up.) Lautner’s last works, sited near the Pacific Ocean, substitute the sea, surrounded by sky and earth, for the swimming pool, as central metaphors of man to nature.
The organic metaphor in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work was perhaps first encountered by Lautner in Wright’s Racine Wisconsin S.C. Johnson Research Tower from 1944–1950, whose interior, supporting columns resemble large “inverted” lily pads, floating in the pond of a 19th century Crystal Palace–like Botanical Garden or perhaps gigantic, mushroom-like plants.
The middle-to-late Lautner houses, which substituted concrete for wood as building material, often use undulating concrete, shell forms, which develop organically to link the house to the surrounding land or sea. Lautner by then had turned his attention to structural engineering, partly under the influence of the aero-space industry located in post-war LA, but also manifested in Lautner’s awareness of the works of post-war Italian structural engineers/architects such as Pier Luigi Nervi, who had used reinforced concrete in curvilinear, folded forms, as well as the concrete structures of Baldessari. Another major influence on Lautner’s practice was the shell forms of the Mexican, Felix Candela, as well as the forms of the Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer. Lautner’s Malibu Cliff House, 1990, and his Acapulco Marbrisa House, 1993, have echoes of Nervi’s spiraling forms as well as relating to Saarinen’s TWA Airport Terminal at JFK as well as his Yale, New Haven, Ingalls hockey rink.
Lautner’s first use of reinforced concrete is in the roof of his 1963–89 Sheats/Goldstein House, whose forms echo Louis Kahn’s concrete ceiling in the Yale University Art Gallery.
The Sheats/Goldstein House was the first Lautner house I personally experienced. The house is precariously perched, like a tree house, in a wooded area on a hillside overlooking Beverly Hills. In this house, views of the swimming pool are central. From the houses’ upper level we first glimpse the pool seen from above; the pool is situated at the middle, terrace level of the house. On a lower level we can actually look through the pool’s water from an underwater vantage point through a sheet of thick, transparent glass, rather like the view of penguins in their underwater habitat we see in zoo architecture.
The house is surmounted by the concrete roof, resembling a Louis Kahn in its geometric form, and seems to be a metaphor for the light experienced in a timber house in the forest wilderness (not unlike the summer cabin in Michigan where Lautner was born). Lautner’s Sheats/Goldstein House uses 750 drinking glasses set into the roof’s concrete to re-create a speckled, flickering light suggesting a primeval forest canopy.
The house makes use of many, contrasted, interwoven textures, overlapping layers of thick quasi-transparent glass, wood paneling, rug and ripped floor surfaces, all of which interact with shifting glimpses of light and fragments of outside foliage lightly reflected on the interior glass partitions and windows.
Lautner employs the use of overlapping layers of glass as interior partitions to capture surface light reflections of people moving around the transition spaces linked by various staircases. This interior glass reflects and connects people’s gazes and bodies with the doubling indoor/exterior sunlight. These glass reflections also intermingle to the reflective surfaces of the water in the pool. The internal glass relates subtle movements of people transiting the space with reflections of the various textures of the wall surfaces and floor coverings as well as the flickering outdoor light.
Lautner’s use of glass in this and other houses is vastly different from that of modernist architects where window glass makes a clear divide between outdoor light and interior space. (A notable exception is Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion where thick glass, the marble’s polished surfaces, and the water of the reflecting pool allow the transiting observers a subtle Lacanian “mirror stage” glimpse of their own gaze, superimposed on the material’s surface and the gaze and bodies of other observing spectators.)
Lautner’s final works, in their gentle, curving, enfolding, somewhat organic surfaces evoke and interconnect the house’s interior and exterior surfaces with the surrounding natural forms—sea, earth, and sky. Lautner described the concrete roof of his late, Baja California seaside Marbrisa House as “a roof to sandwich life between earth and sky to the surrounding sea.” His Michigan lake/wilderness natural childhood experience was deeply influenced by ideas of Nordic, Germanic, and Irish nature mythology as well as by his philosophy teacher father and his artist mother and it is now re-oriented/re-created in the new Pacific Ocean setting of Southern California.