American architect, a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright (1933–9). He established his own practice in Los Angeles, designing some remarkably original private houses, including the Arango House, Acapulco, Mexico, of 1973 (where terraces exploit the views over the bay below), and the Sheats Goldstein House, Beverley Hills, CA, of 1960–3 (which seems to grow out of the rocks and is covered with a massive folded concrete roof). Perhaps his best-known buildings are the Malin House, or 'Chemosphere', Torreyson Drive, Los Angeles (1960), with the entire structure carried on one pier, and the Elrod House, Palm Springs (1968), with a concrete wheel-like roof of massive 'spokes' framing wedge-shaped windows. Esther McCoy called him a 'lyrical technologist'.
- Emanuel (1994)
- Escher (1994)
- Gössel (ed.) (1999, 2002)
- Hess (2000)
Bonding Humanity and Landscape in a Perfect Circle
John Lautner's Mar Brisas House (1973), in Acapulco, Mexico, has a pool that echoes the shape of the beach below it, as if they were created by the same hand. More Photos >
LOS ANGELES — For those who find consolation in visionary architecture, this city has always been a powerful antidepressant. Its wealth of 20th-century treasures, mostly private homes, reminds us that it is possible to find quiet corners of enlightenment in dystopian times.
The 1960 Chemosphere House, perched in the Hollywood Hills, designed by the architect John Lautner. More Photos »
"Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner," an exhibition at the Hammer Museum here, makes a strong case that Lautner's role in forging that architectural legacy has been curiously underestimated. Organized by Frank Escher and Nicholas Olsberg, it presents about 120 plans, sections and renderings that counter his longstanding image as an architect who succumbed to Hollywood gaudiness and glamour. What we glean instead is a keen structural knowledge wedded to an environmental sensitivity — a seamless bond of nature, space and humankind.
Sadly, in their earnest effort to rehabilitate Lautner's reputation, the curators have toned down the fantasy and sensuality that make his houses so intoxicating. The play of light, air, water and materials that is intrinsic to his best work is often lost amid an abundance of coolly abstract technical drawings. An impressive work of scholarship, this is nonetheless an oddly dry show that may bore the average viewer.
Like other great Los Angeles architects before him, Lautner, who died in 1994, was a dreamer in a land that inspired outlandish fantasies. The Michigan-born son of an artist and a professor, he worked as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s, when Wright was entering his most radical Modernist phase.
Attached to the woodlands and lakes of his birthplace, Lautner hated Los Angeles, which he viewed as a cultural wasteland obsessed with money and devoid of beauty. Yet few serious architects are as closely associated with the city's blend of pop culture and nature, rugged individuality and lush hedonism. Like the work of the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, his buildings take their cues from their natural settings to such an extent that they are unimaginable elsewhere.
The show opens with a series of renderings of his earliest houses, mounted on the wall or on drab beige fiberboard stands. These look a bit like conventional real estate ads and lack the otherworldliness of, say, Wright's drawings. Yet all of Lautner's major themes are already here.
A drawing in graphite on paper depicts his low-slung Carling House (1947), embedded in the side of a hill. A triangular pattern of trusses supports the living-room roof from above, attesting to his early fascination with complex structural systems. In a precursor to the elaborate machinery incorporated into his later works, a mechanical wall swivels to open the interior to a stunning view of the city.
The show picks up steam with a design for the 1948 Sheats Apartments, Lautner's first built foray into what would become an obsession with circular structures. A tentative early sketch shows three cylindrical forms on a steep hillside site, the relation between them still crude and unresolved. In a later version the forms have gained in complexity, and the social relationships have become more nuanced. A narrow entry path leads to a small irregular courtyard that binds the structures into a coherent assembly; the upper-level residence has become a partial hexagon.
Viewed one after another, the drawings are a powerful expression of a creative mind at work, and of Lautner's struggle to strike a balance between individual and community, privacy and companionship.
That tension crystallizes in the 1960 Chemosphere, one of his most celebrated works. An octagon perched on a steep site in the Hollywood Hills, it is supported by a single wood mast, like the trunk of a tree; its low, round roof provides shade and a bit of privacy.
The design harks back to the mushroomlike columns of Wright's 1939 Johnson Wax headquarters in Wisconsin or Buckminster Fuller's 1927 design for the Dymaxion House. Lautner imagined dozens of his octagonal houses scattered across the Santa Monica Mountains, each in its own self-contained world enveloped in glass. The disclike form, hovering above the landscape, conjures both an oversize birdhouse and a flying saucer, embodying the technological bravura of the space age.
It also brings to mind the social fragmentation of the cold war years in Los Angeles and the culture of the suburban subdivision. Yet most of all it underscores Lautner's stubborn faith in the house as an expression of American individualism. Unlike Rudolph Schindler, whose Los Angeles houses were radical experiments in communal living, Lautner was less interested in exploring the reconfigured social relationships of the modern world than bonding the home dweller with the surrounding landscape and the universe beyond.
Sometimes Lautner risks slipping into a kind of literal-mindedness. His 1962 Garcia House on Mulholland Drive is an eye-shaped form clad in glass on either side. A deck hovers in the center of the eye, offering a sweeping view of the twinkling city lights.
In the Sheats-Goldstein House, completed in 1963, the sweeping concrete forms, vast expanses of glass and low built-in furniture border on over-the-top '60s cliché. Windows in the bedroom look into the depths of a swimming pool, transforming subtle transparency into voyeuristic fantasy.
Yet the level of innovation here cannot be denied. Lautner's undulating, curved shapes echo the curves of the surrounding landscape so that the two begin to bleed together into a whole. The houses' wildly cantilevered concrete roofs guide the eye to the distant horizon while resting on rough-hewn walls that root the dwellings in the landscape. In a masterwork built in Acapulco, Mexico, the 1973 Mar Brisas House, a swimming pool mirrors the arc of the beach below, as if the two were shaped by the same hand.
For me the great discovery in the show is the 1969 Walstrom House, in the Santa Monica Mountains. Built for an aeronautics engineer and his wife, it is a deceptively simple three-story wood box with a strikingly sloped roof. Lautner set the house into the side of a steep hill along a path that the couple used to hike up into the mountains. He even integrated the path into his composition, threading it through the rear section of the dwelling.
Entering the house, you can either turn and step up into the two-story living room or proceed out to the top of the hill. A balcony is perched in the upper corner of the living room, like a bird's nest; you feel as though you are wandering through the trees.
With its asymmetrical forms and intentionally rough wood construction, the house anticipates the iconoclastic work of later architects like Frank Gehry. And it teases out the mythic themes of Los Angeles architecture: freedom from convention, stunning surroundings, the fleeting nature of man's imprint on the landscape.
It also underscores Lautner's intellectual breadth. His work is never a mere sculptural exercise; it always starts with an intimate understanding of the site, which prevents him from slipping into self-indulgence. That spirit of empathy, of context, unites all great architecture. Whatever the show's flaws, this revelation alone is worth the price of admission.
"Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner" runs through Oct. 12 at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles; hammer.ucla.edu; (310) 443-7000.