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An L.a. Story

Lautner's designs were as unconventional as the city itself. It's time to embrace the legacy.

July 23, 2011|Alan Hess

The great architects of the greatest cities capture the essential nature of their home, whether that's Bernini with his fountains and churches in Rome, Christopher Wren with St. Paul's Cathedral in London or the sensual modernism of Oscar Niemeyer in Rio de Janeiro. In the long roster of great Los Angeles architects, John Lautner stands out more than any other as the mirror of this city.

Lautner, who died in 1994, would have marked his 100th birthday this month, and a slate of events is celebrating his legacy. He was the architect of houses and commercial buildings as emblematic of L.A. as the circular Chemosphere house, hovering on its concrete stem above Mulholland Drive. As the author of a book on Lautner, I'm partial to his work, but I'm not the first to admire his astonishingly complex and original architecture, and his unmatched design of light and space. His mastery of concrete architecture is as great as Mies van der Rohe's mastery of steel and glass.

For the 56 years he lived here, Lautner had a complex relationship with the city. Los Angeles -- the ideal of Los Angeles -- was one of his muses. Lautner was no naive admirer of his adopted city, though.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, July 23, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Silvertop: A July 23 Home section commentary on architect John Lautner said the living room of the Silver Lake house known as Silvertop is 3,000 square feet. The living room is 1,000 square feet.

"When I first drove down Santa Monica Boulevard," he said of his arrival in 1938, "it was so ugly I was physically sick for the first year I was here."

For the city's part in this thorny relationship, it threw stifling bureaucrats and crass commercial clients in Lautner's path -- and never gave him the major public commissions he craved.

But Lautner's ire really stemmed from frustration over the city's missed opportunities to live up to what it could be, not revulsion for its basic nature. He spent his career trying to show Los Angeles how to be true to itself as a Modern city.

You still can't spell Lautner without L.A.

His birthday is a good time to come to terms with our Lautner legacy. He still has a lot to show us about who we are. The city and the architect shared the same creatively rebellious soul. Both have the courage to be unorthodox and defy conformity, and both have suffered for it: Critics still skewer Lautner and L.A. alike as undisciplined and self-indulgent.

Lautner never won the Oscar of the architecture world, the Pritz- ker Prize. That says much more about the shortcomings of that award than about Lautner's talents. Experts rarely knew what to make of him -- or Los Angeles. Neither could be defined in conventional terms.

Today, L.A.'s attitude toward Lautner is mixed. In some ways, he is praised more than at any time in his career. Real estate agents regularly boost the work of lesser architects as "Lautner-inspired." His houses still star in movies. Nearly four decades after the spectacular Elrod house in Palm Springs was in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971), the elegant Schaffer house of Glendale was home to the title character in "A Single Man" (2009).

Even movies reveal an ambivalent undercurrent about Lautner: They often cast his homes as villains' lairs.

In "Body Double" (1984), the extraordinary 1961 Chemosphere house is the hangout of an actor skidding to the sleazy side of life. In reality, it was exactly the opposite -- the family home of an aerospace engineer, his wife and three children.

What are we implying? Only morally corrupt people would want to live in such unconventional houses? Or in such an unconventional city?


Crossroads of cultures

The truth is that Lautner's actual clients were a cross section of Southern California in the midcentury boom years: teachers, musicians, grocers, doctors, philanthropists.

Underlying this ambivalence about what Lautner's architecture signifies is our lack of self-confidence. We love living here, but we often hesitate to defend it.

Those of us who live here must realize that Los Angeles has never been conventional. It's not urbanist Jane Jacobs' Greenwich Village, which many critics favor. No, the ideal concept of Los Angeles is Broadacre City, the daring urban model of a suburban metropolis designed by Lautner's mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, in the 1930s. It was a city with widely spaced high-rises (think Mid-Wilshire, Century City, Universal City) connected by low-rise districts where people live close to the ground and close to trees and gardens. Lautner understood this.

Critics judging Los Angeles by the Greenwich Village standard found much to criticize.

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