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By Design : Q & A: Tim Street-porter

June 01, 1995|ROSE-MARIE TURK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I nternationally renowned photographer-author Tim Street-Porter studied architecture in London, moved to Los Angeles 18 years ago and is married to Annie Kelly, an artist and interior decorator. From their historic landmark home base, Villa Vallombrosa in Whitley Heights, he moves around the world, photographing architecture and decor with a rare warmth and intimacy.

His third book, "The Los Angeles House" (Clarkson Potter, 1995), is a tour of some of Southern California's most spectacular homes. The book has received praise and some minor criticism for historical gaps. But as one insider puts it: "He is unique, tops. Everything is beautifully photographed, so just as a record, it is wonderful."

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Question: In your book, you write, "Los Angeles is a city of crisply defined architecture and palm trees, illuminated by a radiant light similar to that which had once attracted Van Gogh and Matisse to the South of France and Klee to North Africa." Does that light continue to influence L.A.'s architects and interior designers?

Answer: I wish architects here were more influenced by the climate. I'm really criticizing them for not going any further with concepts than architects like Schindler were doing in the 1920s--when for the first time you would slide the doors away. The indoor floor and the garden outside were all on the same level and there was a feeling of space flowing in and out.

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Q: What do they say when you discuss it?

A: I haven't, but I'll be happy to in the future. Architects are often smug, pompous people, so it's fun when you can treat them to a little bit of their own medicine.

Q: What makes them so pompous?

A: It's all that training, and also they're quite uncultured in many important ways. For instance, most architects can't furnish a room, which is why they relinquish this whole area of control. Then they are furious with what the interior decorator does. The one architect in L.A. who is able to embrace everything is Brian Murphy. It means the whole environment is his creation.

Q: Isn't that what earlier architects, such as Greene and Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright, did?

A: Yes, and Schindler as well. The whole house is like one work of art. Q: What obligations come with owning an architectural treasure such as yours, which has a ghost, I believe?

A: A previous owner got himself pushed down the stairs a couple of times, which forced him to sell the house. He was going to put in aluminum sliding doors and a shag rug. It was an act of violence to any ghost with a decorating sensibility, which the spirit here allegedly has.

Q: For many people, doesn't "the Los Angeles house" bring to mind a tasteless piece of modern construction?

A: That was one motivation for working on the book in the first place. I feel very strongly that L.A. has the most remarkable heritage of 20th-Century housing in the whole world, and it's something we ought to be very proud of. We have a legacy of historic houses which too many people think have very little value. But, in fact, I feel some of L.A.'s architecture is as valuable, architecturally, as a Romanesque church in France.

Q: In the book, you mention historic houses that have been destroyed. Are you worried about others?

A: We have to include several of the Frank Lloyd Wright concrete block houses from the 1920s. My gripe is with the Getty Museum, which is really the only game in town to save the Ennis house and the others. Instead, they flit around England and Europe trying to buy very dubious Victorian masterpieces like "The Three Graces."

Q: Madonna had Castillo del Lago, a 1920s John Delario house, painted oxblood red--with yellow and red stripes. Does that bother you?

A: I find it very attractive. In fact, I wish more people would use color here. I was in Miami Beach recently, and when I flew back to L.A. I suddenly realized how drab it is in comparison. Miami Beach was like the Coral Reef of architecture. It was stunning.

Q: Were we less drab in the past?

A: I don't think color was ever a terribly strong feature here. It was more about form. In the 1930s when L.A. was covered with all that wonderful Streamline Moderne architecture, most of it was white, as far as I know.

Q: Which photographs in the book represent personal triumphs?

A: One is the Robert Evans house, and quite a lot of the work of Billy Haines and Tony Duquette, and the work of John Lautner, which hasn't been very widely published and has been really ignored by architectural critics.

Q: Why?

A: Because it wasn't trendy and they had trouble dealing with what I feel are the more important issues in Lautner's case--the elemental issues of architecture, which are shelter and comfort.

Q: Do you rearrange rooms before you photograph them?

A: Some have been changed a lot, others hardly at all. I am concerned about getting really good photographs that express ideas about interiors. It's not a question of cheating. Things are changed around so that the ideas can come across as clearly and attractively as possible.

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