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The door-to-door connection

A group of Angelenos finds a common link: They live in the small, distinctive homes designed by little-known Modernist architect Harwell Harris. It's a real icebreaker.

August 12, 2004|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

Afew months ago, Kirk Nozaki, a clothing designer, decided to do something radically out of character: He knocked on 31 doors and invited total strangers to a party at his home in Silver Lake. When he stepped up to the first house, Nozaki worried about how he would be received. "Would it be, 'Who's this dude?' " he wondered, "or 'Come on in.' "

One by one, a widow in Sierra Madre, a mother in Holmby Hills, a Superior Court judge in San Marino and a couple of dozen others agreed to come to dinner last May. People wearing name tags and eating eggplant lasagna on Nozaki's deck broke the ice not by asking the usual questions, like what the others did for a living, but asking what their houses looked like. Although they didn't know each other, at least one thing united them: Their residences were designed by an unheralded Modernist architect, Harwell Harris.

Most of the owners at the party, Nozaki found, were like himself. They knew little, if anything, about Harris when they signed their escrow papers, or even that he had designed their homes. They bought the structures simply because they liked them.

"The most famous architects are not necessarily the best," said Ted Wells, an architect and member of the Southern California Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, who attended the party. "Harris could be considered the grandfather of California Modernism. He took a look at the climate, terrain and the mythical connection we have with nature and created a California lifestyle architecture decades before what others were promoting in the '60s and '70s."

Harris, who designed houses in Southern California in the 1930s through 1950s, merged elements of Greene & Greene's Arts and Crafts style such as wood, bold roof overhangs and Japanese influences with Modernism's lean lines and liberal use of glass. His small houses showcase walls of windows and see-through doors in every room. One of his homes, a modest 1,350-square-footer built in 1934 in Altadena, has 21 exterior doors.

But Harris' softer approach to Modernism made him less interesting to the architectural press, said Wells. "Everyone's looking for the next new thing to write about, and Harris' work looked like a reinterpretation of the old thing. His was a homegrown message, and that's never as interesting as those coming from another place."

Admirers of Harris, who died in 1990 at 87, say he lacked celebrity because he was not a self-promoter. "He designed for people, not his ego," said Nozaki.

His clients felt instantly comfortable in his unpretentious, wood-framed homes, which were easier to add on to than the European Modernist steel boxes espoused by contemporaries R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra (who trained Harris in the 1920s). A California native and sculptor, Harris became an architect after seeing Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock House in L.A., which struck him as not just a place to live but as a spectacular sculpture. He realized what architecture could do.

Harris thought houses should be experienced as a slow journey of discovery. He hid front doors at the end of extended walkways. He constructed compressed entryways that seemed boxed in at first, but with a turn to one side, opened into expansive living rooms.

Rooms with low ceilings also had a look-to-the-sky feeling with their bands of clerestory windows and skylights. Indirect lighting was tucked inside beams to keep the minimal lines uninterrupted by bulky fixtures. Colors, mostly the yellows, blues and browns in nature, played a big part in creating living spaces that breathed.

John Entenza, the influential editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, was so impressed with Harris that he commissioned the architect to design a house for him in Santa Monica Canyon, and a Case Study House, a project in affordable housing that the magazine sponsored. Entenza lived in his 1937 house for years but he withdrew his support of Harris' Case Study House before it was constructed because Harris veered from pure Modernism.

Wells said Harris was also pushed aside because of his retreat in 1951 to teach architecture in Texas when Southern California builders were copying some of his ideas for suburban living. "He felt it was below him to promote the importance of his work or lecture outside the academic world," said Wells. "And there was no one promoting his legacy in Southern California."

Enter Nozaki, a designer for eS skate wear. When he first walked into his house in 1993, a real estate agent told him it was designed by Neutra. That seemed unlikely to Nozaki, who was familiar with Neutra's rather stark approach; this was warmer. But Nozaki wasn't as interested in who drew the plans as much as in the home's streamlined layout, wood details and garden views. These reminded him of traditional Japanese homes.

"It was calming," said the 42-year-old, a fourth-generation Japanese American. "When I was younger, I didn't embrace my culture.... But now I love everything about it."

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