YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

FROM THE 21ST CENTURY / Three Visions of Domestic Bliss

A Lesson in Ephemeral Style

Michael Jantzen's Houses Probably Won't Be Built. But That's Not the Point. His Goals Are Much Grander: He Wants to Challenge Our Assumptions About How We Live.

May 16, 1999|VIVIENNE WALT | Vivienne Walt last wrote for the magazine about a painter's views of the Owens Valley

It is one of the ironies of our age: Immense technological change has liberated us from many of the confines of modern life, allowing us to live as nomadic an existence as old desert tribes. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that a designer who has spent decades trying to transform our banal physical environment would finally ask: What would it be like to live inside a Web site?

For Michael Jantzen, a conceptual artist, the puzzle began three years ago. He was cruising down Pacific Coast Highway on a glittering afternoon, grumbling to himself about the characterless houses that blocked his view of the Pacific. The answer seemed obvious: render the houses invisible, or at least give the illusion that they aren't there. He drove back to his studio in El Segundo and sketched out the Malibu Video Beach House, a home that--like most of Jantzen's designs--makes Bill Gates' tech-obsessed mansion in the Seattle suburbs seem mundane.

This house has exterior walls that have thin, high-resolution screens on which real-time video tracks display, in full scale, whatever is happening on the other side--surfers riding the waves, or gulls gliding atop the sea in the sunset. Looking at the wall is like looking right through the house.

Inside, a grid of mirrors reflects the beach scene into the living room. The floors are covered with sea sand, and the furniture is basic beach gear: folding chairs and a food cart. If you find dark skies dispiriting, the controls can be programmed to play a prerecorded sunny day. In addition to its street number on PCH, the Beach House would also have an Internet address, so anyone could log on to the Web and move in, virtually.

No matter that you might not want to live in a house with no comforting sense of enclosure. No matter, too, that the Beach House will probably never be built. For Jantzen, that is not the point. His creations are "consciousness-raising" exercises, he says, whose purpose is to challenge our assumptions about how we live, and to offer us an intriguing glimpse of the alternatives.

With no compulsion to have his designs built, Jantzen has allowed himself to create wild fantasies, a few of which now seem almost prosaic. Twenty-one years ago, Jantzen built a dome house in Illinois for himself and his wife Ellen, installed one of the first computers ever produced by Radio Shack and programmed it to play the sounds of the woods. It was a crude first attempt at using digital technology to change the reality inside, long before Gates commissioned his dream mansion. Each phase of Jantzen's work has pushed against the prejudices and constraints of contemporary architecture: As far back as 1974, he was designing experimental solar-powered homes and greenhouses. Last year, he began designing an interactive theme park for the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he teaches environmental design and art. Not surprisingly, Jantzen admits that he has always struggled for financial security, despite his experiments' turning heads among establishment designers. In 1982, when he was 34, U.S. News & World Report listed him as one of America's young superachievers, and Popular Science magazine chose one of his alternative-energy building systems as one of the best new products of 1990.

One of the highest compliments he gets is: "I never thought of it that way," says Jantzen, now 51.

It would, indeed, be hard to have thought up many of Jantzen's creations. They are whimsical in the extreme, with a quirky sense of humor, such as the giant DNA model that he designed for children to climb on outside the University of California's Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley. The computer renderings and plastic models scattered around the office in his apartment are an eclectic jumble of recreational parks, retail shops, homes and undefinable sculpture Jantzen calls "livable form." Some housing designs are confounding, and occasionally nonsensical, while others have an ethereal delicacy.

The problem with most houses, Jantzen says, is that architects assume we want to continue living the way we do. "Housing has been stuck in a rut for many, many years," he says. "Most houses tend to be more about history than about new ideas." Instead, he insists on trying to create a "new reality," a quest that led to his work being exhibited last month at the opening of the Santa Fe Art Institute's new complex. "The houses we live in work pretty well," says institute director Kerry Benson. "But Mike is always pushing the envelope, and I really like that."

Jantzen began experimenting when he was 11, building structures on a rambling 50-acre fishing resort that his parents ran near Carlyle, Ill. "Then I started making conventional wood carvings," he says. "I got very good at it, and very bored with it." Next came abstract wood-and-clay sculptures, which steadily grew in size, until he was building pieces of art large enough to live in.

Los Angeles Times Articles