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Sam Hall Kaplan

Lautner Still Ahead of His Time

September 14, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

A select jury of the American Institute of Architects will be meeting shortly to review nominations for the organization's highest and most coveted award, the Gold Medal.

Among those nominated last year from California and eventually losing out to Canadian Arthur Erickson was John Lautner, the maverick designer of a variety of lyrical, singular structures in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

The hope here is that Lautner once again will be nominated and somehow the power, originality and genius of his imaginative designs will overcome the prejudices and parochialism of the profession's establishment, and that at long last he will receive the recognition he so richly deserves.

For nearly 50 years, Lautner has been leading an almost monastic existence in Los Angeles, bucking tradition, styles, fashions and fads to produce woefully few structures. It is a price the architect has paid for trying to incorporate the latest building technology into original designs to serve both the environment and the user.

But the relatively few designs by Lautner that have been realized are landmarks that promise him a place in architecture history, with or without an AIA Gold Medal. Though some were built decades ago, they are still ahead of their time, and I suspect 50 years from now, they still will be ahead of their time. Such has been his vision.

In Los Angeles, his buildings include the Chemosphere house, an octagon-shaped structure that sits like a flying saucer on a single concrete column in the Hollywood Hills, overlooking the San Fernando Valley. But the house is more than just an entertaining, odd-shaped object.

Here Lautner, in 1960, created a unique living space on what was an unbuildable, steep site without resorting to the usual bulldozing to create pads and havoc with the sensitive hillsides. The solution was lyrical and logical, and unexpected.

Also unique is the expressive Carling house above Mulholland Drive, which features a living room wall with a built-in sofa that swings out on a hinge onto a terrace to provide exterior seating. Built in 1950, the indoor-outdoor wall still works, a tribute to Lautner's training as an engineer.

Lautner's design, in 1963, for the Silvertop house in Silver Lake is another example of his marriage of engineering and architecture to create a futuristic form that not only engages the eye and mind, but works well as a space for living.

Beyond Los Angeles, there are singular structures in Palm Springs (for Bob Hope), Aspen, Colo., Anchorage, Alaska, Hawaii and Mexico. And, of course, there also were some select commercial buildings in the 1940s and 1950s, including a variety of eye-catching coffee shops that gave rise to the so-called Googie style. The style, which at first was heckled for its flamboyance, recently has been heralded in various architectural histories for its expressionism.

"His designs have been unique; every structure a one of a kind," declares renowned architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who has observed Lautner's work since the designer came West after studying at Taliesin to supervise, in 1939, the construction of Frank Lloyd Wright's Sturgis house in Brentwood.

At 75, Lautner is still young and looking to the future, though his practice is limited.

"I guess one of my problems is that I have cared more about creating a sympathetic space that enriches the client's life and work--spaces that provide a service--than about being trendy," said Lautner recently while philosophizing in his cluttered Hollywood office.

"I'm afraid I am just not into the superficial facadism with all its phony rationales that seem to preoccupy architecture these days," he added.

Lautner also took strong exception to the current fad among some architects to pervert materials for effect, or in straining to be witty by use of a grab bag of historical references.

"It is amazing what architects are getting away with in the name of art, thanks to an undiscerning media," declared Lautner. "You people have let them get away with it; you and those sheep-like clients, who want to be trendy, even if it means getting a building that doesn't wear well or work.

"But I don't want to criticize. It is too easy. I want to create."

He then described a house he designed that is in the last throes of construction in Malibu. Its soaring concrete form hints of being another striking Lautner structure.

This is not an architect who looks over his shoulder to see what might have worked in the past, or to mimic others, or who grovels for peer approval. Like his designs, Lautner is an original. There are not too many unselfconscious, honest ones left in architecture today.

If Lautner receives the medal, it will be he who honors it, rather than it honoring him. But one cannot be sanguine about his chances. Too often the award has gone to businessmen and politicians posing as architects rather than to the professions's dwindling true theoreticians and innovators.

That is not to be taken as an insult to gold medalist Erickson, who, in addition to having offices in Vancouver and Toronto, maintains one in Los Angeles as he supervises the completion of his design of California Plaza.

Out of respect for Erickson, I assume last year's award went to him primarily for his individualistic designs in and around Vancouver rather than the competent but not particularly inspired commercial effort on the lobotomized Bunker Hill.

Having experienced Erickson's stunning Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and the powerful campus of Simon Fraser University, and having welcomed his presence here, I am still hopeful that he will have other opportunities to apply his broader talent to the wanting Los Angeles cityscape.

Hopefully, Lautner also will have the opportunity, embodying, as he does, so much of the city's faith in the future.

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