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Their designs within reach

The archives of Ray Kappe and John Lautner are going to the Getty, where they can be accessed by the public.

July 05, 2007|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

WOOD-BLOCK models, drawings and notes for 200 Modern buildings and projects completed over half a century have taken over four rooms of Ray Kappe's Pacific Palisades house. But in a few weeks, moving vans will transport the architect's life's work a few miles away to its permanent new home: the antiquities-rich Getty Center.

Kappe, well known for his timeless wood, concrete and steel structures that embody the California Modern ideal, will be the latest architect to have his files housed at the center's research institute. Also on its way to the Getty are the complete works of the late John Lautner, who engineered the spaceship-like Chemosphere house to sit on a single column above a canyon in the Hollywood Hills.

Eventually, these archives, as well as the late Pierre Koenig's, will be available to scholars and enthusiasts interested in the study of 20th century California architecture. The archive of Koenig, whose Case Study House No. 22 best defines the midcentury experimental project, arrived at the Getty in December and is being cataloged.

Because architectural records are becoming more scarce, safeguarding and making them accessible for research has become exceedingly important, says Cindy Olnick of the Los Angeles Conservancy. Homeowners, neighborhood preservation groups, designers, builders and historians looking for accurate information need materials beyond what's on file at the city building department, she says.

"If you want a clear picture of the original vision, you can't get better than the architect's files," she says. "These documents are also a great window into the social and cultural time of the project." The R.M. Schindler archive at the UC Santa Barbara Art Museum, she notes, contains "correspondence that gives insight into the relationship between the architect, clients and contractors."

The Getty's growing post-World War II architectural holdings are dwarfed by those at UC Santa Barbara, which started collecting plans from designers in the 1960s and has more than 850,000 pieces. "In comparison, the Getty is small," says Wim de Wit, an architectural historian who is head of the Getty Research Institute's special collections. "But we have some important materials that can stand up to anything they have."

The centerpiece of the Getty's Modernist collection arrived in 2005: photographer Julius Shulman's archive consisting of 260,000 contact prints, negatives, transparencies and other images of more than 7,000 projects by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Schindler, Charles Eames, Koenig and Lautner.

"Once Shulman arrived, people contacted us and we contacted them," says De Wit, who added that complete archives allow scholars to study how a career developed and can also contain telling personal items. Buried in the Koenig archive, for example, were his high school drawings of airplanes. "It's touching to see these drawings."

Lautner's 9,000 working drawings and other files were being managed by the John Lautner Foundation since his death in 1994. "It's complicated to handle requests," says the architect's daughter, Karol Lautner Peterson, who approached the Getty and worked with De Wit to make the donation. "My father's wish was to have his archive available to architectural writers, students and homeowners."

Koenig's widow, Gloria, says she was approached by several museums, including the Pompidou in Paris and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, but decided to send the architect's 3,000 documents from her Brentwood home to the Getty after taking a tour of its light- and climate-controlled facilities.

Competition to acquire architectural documents has been heating up and complete archives are rare, say curators. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright is preserved by his foundation. Some architects have neglected or accidentally lost their files -- most of Eric Lloyd Wright's drawings burned in the 1993 Malibu fire. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas turned down $1.3 million last year from the Netherlands Architecture Institute to wait for a better offer. And star architects such as Zaha Hadid have sold individual drawings on the art market as if they were by David Hockney.

Storage space also limits what an institution can collect. "You have to think strategically," says De Wit, who called Kappe last year to ask for his archive.

"It's flattering to be asked," says Kappe, who turns 80 in August.

The architect, one of the founders and directors of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, believed that the Los Angeles school couldn't manage his papers as well as the Getty, so he invited De Wit to his house to talk. Then Kappe and his wife Shelly met with De Wit at the research institute's library, which occupies three floors and has 100 employees to preserve and catalog original material, create electronic versions for viewing by the public and license its use to publishers and broadcasters.

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