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The Eye by Barbara King

Modernism, in a whole new light

It's an architectural style that's so often stark and severe. But it doesn't have to be that way.

October 02, 2003|Barbara King

Twenty-six months ago, I arrived in L.A. with a moving van full of antique and vintage furnishings collected from here, there and everywhere in my many rambles. I had edited everything down to pieces I loved, or at least admired, and I was pretty sure that this was it 'til the end. I knew they would be just right no matter where they were, because they had proved their mettle by being just right wherever they had been.

But from the start, when I moved into my 1930s apartment, something was vaguely off kilter, although it took me a while to figure out just what. One day, lying on my empire-style daybed in the living room, with the windows wide open to the clear afternoon, I looked around the room at my bulky, dark-wood furniture, and saw at once what was making me uneasy. My belongings looked awkward and out of place, like guests at a party who are dressed all wrong. Their attitude was too fusty.

It wasn't the space, exactly, that was revealing this dowdiness, it was the whole tenor of L.A., of Southern California, period. Or maybe, to reduce it to its essence, a matter of the light. Southern California light is nubile light, bursting forth with youthful exuberance, and as such a sense of youthful rebirth overtakes you here (however delusional). No one ever said, "Go West, old man."

Every single thing in the room struck me as set in its ways, ill-suited for this vibrant, haphazard city, and the thought made me both agitated and semi-sorrowful. I felt like my dear old friends and I were going our separate ways. It didn't take much longer to realize my head had been turned, and I am still surprised to realize, and almost hesitant to admit, by what: modernism.

I, who applied the usual adjectives to the modern architecture and interiors: cold, stark, severe, austere. I, who had been in too many modern houses devoid of emotion, not much more appealing than airport lobbies or lawyers' waiting rooms. Those overly rational, glassy geometric cubes with their hard perfection, demanding, Look at me. Appreciate me. Envy me. It's unpleasant to be ordered around by a house, especially one that's not your own. Worse, to feel as though the house is sitting in judgment of you, as if you should be wearing some kind of tectonic hairdo and a sober black Armani with no fuss of jewelry. All so Mies van der Rohe, the less-is-more man. And don't even think of slopping any of your emotions around, let alone that mineral water you're sipping. It calls to mind Le Corbusier's pronouncement, "A house is a machine for living," and how chilling is that to contemplate?

But perceptions change, and along with them, tastes, sometimes radically. In my case, for the best, dare I hope. Modernism feels to me appropriate in this time and in this place. Or let me qualify: modified modernism, more humanly rendered than what I knew. I've found it here in L.A, where, reportedly, we have the highest concentration of modern residences in the world.

There's an incredible lightness of being in a house with a refined sense of order, if the sparseness isn't carried to the extreme of less is a bore. One can keenly sense the Asian influence on modern houses here, the horizontal furniture lines representing a relation to the earth, the manipulation of natural light, the simple palette of organic colors and textures, the very deliberate placement of furnishings and, in particular, the striving to achieve in the interior space the serenity and balance that is found in nature.

Nature has played a decisive role in L.A. modernism since the very beginning. Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, Raphael Soriano, John Lautner, Gregory Ain, all of them embraced the notion that architects must fully address the site on which they're building -- in other words, be sympathetic with the terrain and the vistas, and incorporate nature into the design rather than disuniting it from the house.

I think that's one reason -- maybe the main one -- that the handful of modern houses I've visited in the city induce in me a sense of well-being. Everything feels open and interactive -- nature moving right in, you moving right out, such cozy companions. Add to that the strong emotional component to a house such as Carter Bravmann and Jack Koll's, with its interplay of light and dark woods, satiny and nubby upholstery fabrics, glass and metal, earth tones and punctuations of bold colors, precisely placed.

I find that my limb-hopping monkey mind settles down in these places with their lack of visual bother. I feel almost weightless. I notice the red food processor, the thick layers of oil paint still drying on a canvas, the way the cats in the leather dining chairs watch me back, grandly and disinterestedly. I feel the cooling breeze on my bare arms. I hear the persistent splash in the lava-rock waterfall. I smell the eucalyptus. In this clean, free, modern house, I am aware. I feel that youthful rebirth overtaking me.


Barbara King is editor of the Home section. She can be reached at

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