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The rebel of the block

DESIGN

With its wide-open ground floor and front windows that disappear into a wall, a landmark John Lautner home on Balboa Island emphasizes freedom over enclosure.

November 06, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

ARCHITECT John Lautner was out there. He learned at the elbow of Frank Lloyd Wright that boxy buildings were only good for jails and animal pens, so he created living room walls that swung open to become outside decks and houses in the shape of spaceships, with head-spinning views.

Lautner captured international attention in 1949 by making steel take flight off the roof of a Googie's coffee shop, and later by building arching houses that were so futuristic that client Bob Hope quipped, "Well, at least when they come down from Mars they'll know where to go."

This rebel, this engineering genius, this man who hated city life and was given outstretched spaces in which to anchor his swooping creations, was an odd choice to dream up a home on a slender sand lot on Newport Beach's Balboa Island, one of the most dense communities in California.

It's "the most urban of Lautner's houses," according to Alan Hess, author of "The Architecture of John Lautner" (Rizzoli, $30), which was reprinted this year. Squeezed between two predictable-looking beach homes, Lautner's house stops passersby in their tracks. And because it's in a tourist spot, the exterior of this private residence is seen by more people streaming by on the sidewalk than any of his others, even those occasionally open to public tours.

Lautner's approach to building the dome-shaped two-story was to walk around its 35-by-80-foot lot, which had nothing on it except a volleyball net. He sniffed the air, took in the views and the features of the landscape, then listened to his clients' wish list. The owners had moved from their Joseph Eichler-developed house in Palo Alto, Calif., and wanted another modern home that they could manage without a lot of fuss. They also asked for a place where entertaining could extend outdoors and one that framed the bay view and drew in sunlight.

"It's an orchestration of light," says Warren Lawson of Calabasas, who worked with Lautner and served as the project architect until it was completed in 1980. "The fun thing about what we do is there are so many ways to bring light into a house."

Even in its compact domain, the house seems larger than 2,100 square feet because it holds more light than a supernova. The narrower second floor is suspended on steel beams and, because it stops about a yard short of reaching the outside walls, sunlight from well-positioned skylights shoots from the roof through to the ground level's ceramic tile floor. There are no interior walls downstairs to stop beams from illuminating every inch of the expansive living room-dining room-kitchen, only a shoulder-high cabinet that stores pots and pans.

One effect is like something out of "Star Wars": The 30-foot-wide facade opens completely, dematerializing the line between inside and out. On the ground floor, nine glass panels, sealed together without wood or aluminum framing, recede into a sidewall with a flick of a switch.

"It was easier to do in concept than reality," recalls Lawson. "It still amazes me that we made it work. The front is the poetry of the whole space, the way the materials work together on a very small lot."

Lawson says Lautner, who died in 1994 after a 60-year career, experimented in dramatic ways. In Lautner's world, buildings melded into nature. He grew up among pine trees in Michigan and joined Charles Eames, R.M. Schindler and other California Modern architects in blowing walls away to make rooms become part of the surrounding terrain. People, he said, "want a little shelter," but they also "want to be free."

That's the kind of thinking that helped him come up with the octagonal Chemosphere, which he completed in 1961. Like a glass treehouse, it pokes out of the Hollywood Hills on a concrete pillar, dislodged from its steeply sloping site.

On the Balboa Island site, Lautner had to build a home that could withstand whipping salt air, shifting sandy soil and airplane noise. He achieved solidity and privacy with a mix of formed concrete walls, exposed steel supports, Douglas fir ceilings and a copper balcony and roof.

The combination creates a sophisticated modern home that delivers a jolt in its contrast with the expected beach motifs of the island's 1,400 homes, lined up shoulder to shoulder. Strolling amateur architecture critics evaluate as they go: applauding or panning rare wood-sided bungalows from the beginning of the last century, new Mediterraneans, marine-blue Cape Cods, storybook-style cottages and the few Moderns. But none of the multimillion-dollar homes stirs up as much response as the Lautner.

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