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When the answers just aren't concrete

September 26, 2004|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

Eighty years ago in the Hollywood Hills, Frank Lloyd Wright embarked on a grand experiment in modular housing that he called the Textile Block System. The notion was to simplify construction to the point where clients with no special skills could help build their own homes by mixing cement, slamming sledgehammers into aluminum molds to stamp the tablets with Wright's elaborate Mayan-inspired patterns, then forming them into blocks. These blocks would simply be stacked, one atop another, woven together with a warp and woof of steel rods.

By unifying decoration and function, exterior and interior, earth and sky -- perforated blocks served as skylights -- Wright saw his Textile Block approach as an utterly modern, and democratic, expression of his organic architecture ideal.

It all came together -- and slowly began falling apart -- in a bilevel hillside cottage overlooking Highland Avenue that would come to be known as the Freeman House.

The method caused structural problems almost from the beginning, when businessman Sam Freeman and his bohemian wife, Harriet, complained about leaky roofs and rusting rebar. Earthquake damage and moisture-corroded concrete further deteriorated the building, now owned by the University of Southern California.

Two years ago as part of a $1.3-million restoration, USC teachers and students began collaborating with Los Angeles Trade Tech College machinists on a rescue effort aimed at replacing the home's crumbling edifice with freshly minted blocks based on virtual 3-D models.

On a recent afternoon, Robert Timme, dean of the USC School of Architecture, toils in the broiling sun on the campus with a half-dozen architecture students-cum-builders. Amid the rumble of diesel-powered stamping machinery and rock music blaring from a radio, Timme pokes a still-moist slab with a makeshift vacuum nozzle duct-taped onto a copper pipe, sucking out loose gravel, as a couple of students mix a fresh batch of concrete precisely proportioned to Wright's original specifications.

"How many people can say they've physically reconstructed part of a Frank Lloyd Wright house?" Timme notes, taking a break from his labors. "We realized we could have a class where the students make these blocks, apply them at the site to build a column. When it's over with, every student knows what block they've made, and that column then becomes a part of them."

Rogie Augustin, 27, a husky third-year architecture student, is doing his part by operating a stamping machine that applies 2 tons of pressure to an aluminum mold. That, in turn, imprints a wood-framed, 16-inch-square tablet of freshly poured concrete with Wright's elaborate Mayan-inspired design. Augustin then gingerly lifts the 40-pound slab and jiggles it onto a tray where it joins a new crop of tiles, drying like loaves of bread in a bakery.

"It's kind of like going back in time to see how every little detail was considered in the design," Augustin says of the block work. "Just getting into the nitty-gritty, you can really see how it all came together. I kind of feel like I'm taking part in history."

Indigenous invention

The historical import of the Freeman House can't be underestimated. Along with the 1923 La Miniatura in Pasadena, the 1921 Hollyhock House on Hollywood Boulevard, the massive 1924 Ennis-Brown House in Los Feliz and the 1924 Storer House also on Hollywood Boulevard (which was restored by its former owner, movie producer Joel Silver), the Freeman House represents an early expression of Wright's enduring fascination with concrete. "Buildings could grow right up out of the ground," Wright wrote in an in-praise-of-concrete essay for Architectural Record shortly after completing his L.A. Textile Block homes. "Cement may be the secret stamina of the physical body of our new world."

Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, director of archives for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation based at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., says, "As designs, the Textile Block homes were a break from everything Wright had done before. He felt it was an architectural form more fitting to the Southwest, so he decided to take the concrete block, which previously had been a despised material, and render it as something beautiful."

After completing the Textile Block homes, Wright applied his patterned block approach to the 1927 Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix. In the '30s, he produced several more concrete-centric private residences before finally perfecting his everyman-a-builder concept in the late '40s with a series of seven homes he dubbed "Usonian Automatic."

"His dream," Pfeiffer says, "was that you could go into a lumberyard or a building supply place, buy his molds and a set of plans, and then build your own house. He really planned the Usonian Automatic homes to be a do-it-yourself, Home Depot sort of operation."

When Wright died in 1959, he had, on his drawing board, plans for yet another private home built with blocks.

Build your own landmark

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