Featured Architect: John Lautner

"To me, architecture is an art, naturally, and it isn't architecture unless it's alive. Alive is what art is. If it's not alive, it's dead, and it's not art."

John Lautner (1911-1994) was an influential American architect whose work in Southern California combined progressive engineering with dramatic space-age flair.

Born in Marquette, Michigan, Lautner studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West and became site supervisor on several Wright projects.

In September 1938, Wright contacted him and this ultimately led to Lautner's supervision of a series of Los Angeles domestic projects: the Sturges, Green, Lowe, Bell and Mauer houses. Now permanently relocated to Los Angeles, Lautner created for himself a life-long career focusing on residential architecture. Two of Launter's most recognized works are in Palm Springs: the Elrod House, and Bob and Dolores Hope’s "Flying Saucer" House.

Lautner designed over 200 architectural projects during his career, but many designs for larger buildings were never realized. In the architectural press, ihs extent body of work has been dominated by his domestic commissions. although he designed numerous commercial buildings, including coffee shop restaurants such as Googie's, Coffee Dan's, and Henry's, the Beachwood Market, the Desert Hot Springs Motel, and a Lincoln-Mercury showroom in Glendale. Sadly, many of these buildings have since been demolished. With a handful of exceptions (e.g., the Arango Residence in Acapulco; the Turner House in Apsen, Colorado; the Harpel House #2 in Anchorage, Alaska; and the Ernest Lautner House in Pensacola, Florida) enarly all of Lautner's extant buildings are in California, mostly in and around Los Angeles.

Lautner's distinctive application of the principles of Organic Architecture was, of course, profoundly influence by his apprenticeship under Frank Lloyd Wright. Speaking of his time at Taliesin, Lautner recalled:

"... Mr. Wright was around all the time pointing out things that contributed to the beauty of the space, or the building, or the function of the kitchen, or the dining room, or what-have-you. And also the details of construction: how a certain way of detailing, which he would call grammar, contributed to the whole idea, the whole, the total expression. And then he kept accenting the idea that there wasn't any real architecture unless you had a whole idea ... So I really learned that you have to have a major total idea or it's nothing, you know; it's just an assembly. What most people do is an assembly of cliches or facades or what-have-you ..."

Another point of similarity is that, like Wright, many of Lautner's houses were sited in elevated locations, or "difficult" sites - hillsides or seashores - and were expressly designed to take full advantage of the vistas these sites offered; he also followed Wright's dictum of building on a slope, rather than on the very top of a hill.

Lautner's work is especially significant for its radical expansion of both the technical and spatial vocabulary of domestic architecture. He achieved this through his use of the latest building technologies and materials, e.g., his pioneering use of glue laminated plywood beams, steel beams and sheeting, and especially his ongoing exploration of the architectural possibilities of reinforced and pre-stressed concrete - and through his use of non-linear, open-plan, and multi-level layouts, shaped and folded conrete forms, skylights and light-wells and panoramic expanses of plate glass.

Another key characteristic of Lautner's architecture is his heterogenrous approach, not only in his overall concepts - each Lautner building is a unique design solution - but also in his use of materials, as Jean-Louis Cohen notes in his essay "John Lautner's Luxuriant Tectonics":

“There is absolutely no dogma in Lautner's attitude to materials; as a result he never subordinates the design concept of his buildings to any rigid rule that would require the primacy of a single material in a project. Even where he demanded rigorous continuity and integrity, as with wood in the Walstrom House and concrete at Marbrisa ... he never allowed that to undermine the sense of structure and always took into account the need for a certain structural logic ... He was happy to bring together wood and concrete ... as he did in the Desert Hot Springs Motel ... to have cables meet concrete and plastic, as in the Tolstoy House, to carry a wooden roof on steel supports, as in the Garcia House, or, so evident in the Chemosphere, to allow three radically different materials to work with each other — a structure of laminated lumber to enclose the dwelling area, metal struts to carry it, those struts bolted onto the vertical concrete column that anchors the unit to the hill.”

It is irnoic that, although famous Lautner works like the Carling and Harpel houses, the Chemosphere and the Sheates Goldstein Residence have become inextricably linked with Los Angeles in the public imagination, Lautner repeatedly express his dislike of California. In his oral history interviews he was highly critical of the standard of architecture in Los Angeles, and idealized the rural Michigan environment of his yourth, as he recalled in 1986:

"My childhood, I had a hundred miles of beaches, private beaches, you know: no people, no nothing. I mean, just go swimming anywhere you want, and no problem. The coast here to me is just ugly, you know, it's crazy. Malibu is nothing to me, it's just crazy. . .oh it was depressing. I mean, when I first drove down Santa Monica Boulevard, it was so ugly I was physically sick for the first year I was here. Because after living in Arizona and Michigan and Wisconsin, mostly out in the country, and mostly with good architecture ... this was the ugliest thing I'd ever seen ... If you tried to figure out how to make a row of buildings ugly, you couldn't do it any better than it's been done [here]. I mean they're just ugly, naturally ugly, all the way. There isn't a single, legitimate, good-looking thing anywhere."

Arguably the most widely seen of Lautner`s works, the Elrod House (1968) became famous through its use as a location in the Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Sited on a commanding hillside location (Southridge neighborhood) in Palm Springs, California, its best-known feature is the large circular `sunburst` concrete canopy which appears to float above the main living area; this area also incorporates a large natural rock outcrop at the edge of the room, creating the impression that the fabric of the building is fused with the rock. The canopy is fitted with curved glass-and-aluminium sliding doors that allow the space to be completely opened around half its circumference, opening out to a semi-circular swimming pool and a broad terrace. The prime hilltop site offers sweeping views of the surrounding desert.

The 17,500 sq. ft. Bob and Dolores Hope Residence (1973), situated close to the Elrod Residence in Palm Springs, features a massive undulating triangular roof, pierced by a large circular central light shaft. The original house burned down during construction and Dolores Hope made extensive changes to the second design, with the result that Lautner eventually distanced himself from the project. It is one of the largest and most visually striking of Lautner`s designs.

For more information about local architecture and architects, builders and developers, design and real estate - both the history in our area, and our recent and current real estate market, please contact me: 760-641-9416, daleswanson@bhhscaproperties.

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