Keeping his eye on earth and sky

John Lautner's designs astutely merged shelter and nature. A new exhibit tries to recast his futuristic legacy.

July 13, 2008|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

FEW GRASPED how John Lautner used architecture to embrace the natural world.

He opened a Sunset Boulevard diner to the sky and was dismayed to see it become a symbol of "Googie" Atomic Age design. His flying saucer-shaped Chemosphere residence, conceived to immerse residents in sweeping mountain and city views, became emblematic of the bachelor-pad Hollywood Modernism he rejected. Movies sensationalized his creations as James Bond-style backdrops for sex machines and lethally bored rich kids.

Yet Lautner knew that Los Angeles, with its unfettered dreamers, schemers, experimenters and individualists, was the only place his visionary architectural drawings could become realities.

"Dream House or Nightmare?" a Norman Rockwell-era Saturday Evening Post asked of Silvertop, a Silver Lake Lautner residence seemingly poised to "zoom off to Mars."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Hammer admission: A list accompanying an article in the July 13 Arts & Music section about the John Lautner exhibition at the Hammer Museum said admission was $5. It is $7.

Lautner did aim for altitude. One day in 1963, he walked out onto a Bel-Air cliff-top construction site and stood so perilously close to the edge that he was in danger of falling prey to a stray gust, to gravity itself. Yet he was calm, meditating on skyline and cityscape, like a stone angel on the parapet of a European opera house reaching for the gods. He seemed to embody his contention that "the purpose of architecture is to create timeless, free, joyous spaces for all activities in life."

"Between Earth and Heaven," opening today at the Hammer Museum, traces Lautner's lifelong quest to transcend the boundaries between shelter and nature. It also attempts to redefine the legacy of a seminal architectural pioneer so profoundly misunderstood that it took the exhibition's co-curator, Nicholas Olsberg, three months to decide whether to get involved at all.

"I thought it was very difficult," Olsberg says. "The work had been misrepresented for so long, as sensational Space Age-ism, as Hollywood glamour. It was burdened with all these myths: It was vulgar, it was crass, it was drama, it was spectacle.

"But it wasn't about that. It was about trying to establish this transcendent relationship between man and his environment," Olsberg says. "You have this enormous man looking at the vastness of the world. It's the contradiction of being secure on the ground but your head is flying.

"My hesitancy was: Could we manage to remove it from its perception?" he says. "I finally said yes."

Ann Philbin, the adventurous director of the Hammer, says the genesis of the exhibition goes back to her arrival in Los Angeles nine years ago, when she discovered Lautner to be "hugely deserving and overlooked" and "underrepresented in the pantheon of 20th century architecture."

Philbin credits Lautner with "moving away from the cool, the functional and the rational tenets of Modernism toward something more sensual and transcendent. . . . I don't think it is too large a claim, in fact, to say that he is the link between Modernist architects like Neutra and Schindler and architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid."

Views from on high

ON A recent day at the Hammer, co-curator Frank Escher, of Escher GuneWardena Architecture, stood amid wooden crates as workmen delicately placed the elliptical top of a model of the mushroom-like Chemosphere on its podium.

Viewers must understand, Escher said, that as intriguing as Lautner houses seem from the outside, "they're designed as observatories."

"The whole idea is giving you a sheltered place to look out onto nature," said Escher, whose Clark Kent glasses do little to disguise his passionate intensity.

Escher got to know Lautner when he worked on the restoration of the Chemosphere. It is one of 16 buildings, six of them unusually large-scale models, that appear in the exhibition.

"Lautner used the space to connect to the landscape," Escher said. "It didn't matter if it was a tiny mountain cabin or it overlooked Acapulco Bay. Lautner brought the landscape in. He pushed architecture in a new direction in the second half of the 20th century."

Lautner loved to hate Los Angeles. He once said the city was "so ugly it made me physically sick."

Yet "he understood this was the only place he could develop his work," Escher said. "He knew that yes, this was an ugly city. But there was this incredible richness of utopian, intellectual, interesting people, as open to invention as he was. He would not have been able to do this without his clients."

One was a 27-year-old aerospace engineer, Leonard Malin. Lautner climbed Malin's "virtually impossible-precipitous-hillside" day and night, sitting in the scrub for hours, watching the light change and the city lights emerge from the darkness, Malin recalled in a tribute issue of the Journal of the Taliesin Fellows of Frank Lloyd Wright.

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