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Pierre Koenig, 78; Architect's Designs Personify Modernism

April 06, 2004|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

Pierre Koenig, whose sleek glass-and-steel houses became emblems of the progressive values of Postwar suburbia, died Sunday of leukemia at his home in Brentwood. He was 78.

As part of a group of architects that also included Charles and Ray Eames, Raphael Soriano and Craig Ellwood, Koenig was a key figure in a generation that helped make Los Angeles one of the great laboratories of 20th century architecture. Of these visionaries, Koenig seemed best able to capture the hopes and anxieties of California's booming middle class.

His reputation in large part rests on the creation of two houses -- Case Study House #21 and #22 -- that were completed in 1959 and 1960 as part of an ambitious program that sought to introduce the values of Modernist architecture to suburbia. Clean abstract compositions, with a powerful relationship to their natural context, they exist as enduring emblems to Cold War America's faith in technological progress and its transformative powers.

"Until the end of his life he remained an ardent believer in industrial materials and prefabricated systems -- the idea that life could be improved through architecture," said Elizabeth Smith, who curated the 1989 Case Study show, "Blueprints for Modern Living" at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

The son of a salesman, Koenig was born in San Francisco. He often recalled taking walks along the city's industrial waterfront, where he became fascinated with the massive steel cranes and merchant ships that were potent symbols of American industrial prowess.

The family moved to Southern California in 1939. After returning from a four-year tour in the Army during World War II, Koenig enrolled at USC's school of architecture.

By then, architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra had already built a number of major architectural works that sought to adapt the Modernist aesthetic to Southern California. These architects were drawn by the city's vast open tracts of land, its distance from the often oppressive conventions of traditional cities. They helped create a climate of architectural experimentation that was unrivaled anywhere else in the U.S. at that time.

Koenig -- a precocious talent -- fit neatly into this tradition. His first house was completed in 1950, while he was still a student at USC, and is an expression of many of the themes that would concern him throughout his career. Built at a modest cost of $5,000, the house was a model of industrial efficiency. Its L-shaped form was supported on slender steel columns and capped by a corrugated metal roof. Sliding doors opened onto a small private garden. Inside, more sliding partitions separated living and sleeping areas.

Other projects, such as the 1953 Lamel House in Glendale and the 1957 Burwash House in Tujunga, signaled Koenig's early mastery of composition and form. Mostly designed of affordable Industrial Age materials, they were a reflection of Le Corbusier's famous dictum that houses were "machines for living." The difference was Koenig's ability to root such ideas in the particular ethos of suburban L.A., with its trim lawns and whirring appliances. In Koenig's mind, the ideal house would one day be mass-produced "just like a car."

The breakthrough came a few years later, when Arts & Architecture editor John Entenza tapped the emerging architect for his Case Study House program. Nestled within its canyon site in the Hollywood Hills, Case Study House #21 was conceived as an idealized blend of natural and man-made landscapes. In an effort to dissolve the boundaries between inside and out, Koenig surrounded the house's simple geometric form with a series of reflecting pools. Large windows and skylights flooded the interior with natural light. The house's steel frame, meanwhile, gave it a striking ephemeral beauty. In essence, the entire structure was nothing more than a conceptual frame -- one that defined an almost utopian relationship between man and nature.

By comparison, Case Study House #22, completed two years later, was high drama -- one in which the entire city becomes part of the architect's composition. Approached along a winding street set high in the Hollywood Hills, the house first appears as a blank concrete screen. From here, the visitor steps out onto a concrete deck that overlooks a swimming pool. Just beyond it, the house's living room -- enclosed in a glass-and steel-frame -- cantilevers out from the edge of the hill toward the horizon.

The house was immortalized in a now famous image taken by the architectural photographer Julius Shulman. In it, two women, clad in immaculate white cocktail dresses, are perched on the edge of their seats in the glass-enclosed living room, their pose suggesting a kind of sanitized suburban bliss. A night view of the city spreads out beneath them, an endless grid of twinkling lights that perfectly captures the infinite hopes of the postwar American dream.

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