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Living Legends of Architecture

Case Study alumni reunite to celebrate their contributions to California's housing history.

April 16, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Half a century ago they were American architecture's young Turks, apostles of a bold new design style intended to meet Southern California's climatic and cultural needs. They were brought together by John Entenza, editor and publisher of the avant-garde monthly magazine Arts & Architecture, who had a vision: to foster the creation of modern, easily constructed and affordable housing prototypes that would address the demands of the postwar building boom, primarily in the Los Angeles area. And for the 21 years between 1945 and 1966, the architects of the Case Study Houses program worked to fulfill that iconoclastic ideal.

On Sunday, when five of the program's surviving architects met at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles, it was mainly to be feted as living legends whose once-radical influence still persists in contemporary building and design. The occasion was this month's publication of "Case Study Houses: The Complete Program," a lavishly produced, handsomely illustrated, 440-page tome that weighs in at 13 pounds and is priced to move at $150. The book's publisher, Taschen, which specializes in the arts and pop-culture related topics, hosted the afternoon event at MOCA's auditorium, followed by a reception and book-signing.The Case Study project's revolutionary character lay in the belief that single-family houses, assembled from standardized components and materials such as steel, glass and aluminum, could be mass-produced like Oldsmobiles and sold at prices that middle-class families could afford. The aesthetic called for flat roofs, open floor plans that minimized internal walls, and the use of sliding glass doors to encourage a seamless "indoor-outdoor" lifestyle flow befitting the mild climate. Influenced by an earlier generation of Modernist architects, such as Rudolf M. Schindler, the 36 Case Study plans expanded Modernism's vocabulary by, in the words of the book's author, Elizabeth A.T. Smith, maximizing "the use of technology in their design and construction" and rendering it visible. In theory, the program added up to a bold assertion of American liberal democratic values and postwar optimism.

For the architects themselves--Donald C. Hensman, Edward Killingsworth, Pierre Koenig, Don Robert Knorr and Beverley Thorne, who were joined by acclaimed architectural photographer Julius Shulman--Sunday was a rare and timely reunion. (A sixth Case Study architect, Ralph Rapson, was supposed to attend the event but had to drop out after breaking his leg, said Smith, who also attended Sunday's gathering.)

Now all in their 70s and 80s, the architects assembled just a few weeks after a landmark Modernist home designed by the late Richard Neutra, in Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, was torn down. Although the Maslon House, built in 1963, was not a Case Study house, it embodied many of the program's most sacrosanct principles: simplicity, elegance, environmental sensitivity and the innovative use of modern building materials. Neutra was among several other architects in the program, a group that included Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood, A. Quincy Jones and Raphael Soriano.

The loss of the Maslon House was repeatedly referred to on Sunday, and Shulman included it in a brief slide-show presentation. Though the structure had been "viciously and vulgarly" destroyed, Shulman expressed hope that its loss might inspire more awareness of the Modernist architectural heritage that still remains. "The only way we can preserve is to create something wonderful out of a disaster, and I think we can. It's never too late," he said during an hour-long panel presentation, the afternoon's centerpiece.

The discussion, a harmonious mix of warm reminiscence and confident predictions about the Case Study program's enduring significance, was moderated by Smith, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. As a former MOCA curator, Smith helped spark the current resurgence of interest in the Case Study project by curating MOCA's 1989 exhibition "Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses." Despite the intervening decades, the men's enthusiasm and pride in their historic labors was undiminished.

"The effect of the program is worldwide, as well as locally," said Koenig, who continues to work in Los Angeles and has taught at USC since 1964. When he began his practice, Koenig told the audience of about 175 people, "houses had to have shutters and they had to have shingles and they had to have a picket fence. They don't do it anymore, and the reason is a lot of dedicated people."

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