Case studies in Los Angeles
Hit the mid-century design trail in the City of Angels
Commonsense says that there’s more to Los Angeles than Disneyland and that famous Hollywood sign. The so-called City of Angels can’t occupy its population just with theme parks and the movie industry, but we don’t hear about much else.
You might not, for instance, think of Los Angeles as an interesting architectural destination, but it could surprise you with its design pedigree.
Los Angeles was ground zero of the Case Study House program from the mid-1940s to the 60s, a scheme sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine that was intended to bring modern, cost-effective design to the masses.
Cue an abundance of pure joy for fans of mid-century modern design as scattered across the city are uber-cool examples of US post-World War II confidence designed by some of the biggest names of the time, including Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Eero Saarinen and A. Quincy Jones. Some of the houses are open for tours and, this being LA, many have their own celebrity status.
The Stahl House by Pierre Koenig, House No 22, in the Hollywood Hills, has been used in countless feature films and music clips and is instantly recognised by movie fans. Its single-storey frame of glass and steel hovering over a blanket of city lights has come to represent the lifestyle aspirations of its generation and is still as impressive today. Faithfully preserved by the Stahl family, tours of the interior and/or the garden are available.
House No 8 was that of Charles and Ray Eames, a now famous study of volume and landscape. Its interiors feature some of the furniture pieces designed by the pair in their heyday, including original examples of the familiar Eames chair, which is still in production. Located at Pacific Palisades, the interior and/or garden and grounds are available for tours.
The Case Study House program was a success in that it not only provided exposure of modern designs to an emerging market of buyers but introduced developers to advanced building technology; entire suburbs were built using this new approach. An impressive example is the Trousdale Estate in Beverly Hills, which saw star clients, and their star architects, take this modern approach to the next level. Sprawling flat-roofed homes featuring loads of light and glass were built for the likes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and many of these houses still retain their original charm. While the area fell out of favour during the 70s and 80s, the estate has had a resurgence in popularity in the past decade that has seen a host of design-savvy celebrities move in, including Vera Wang, Jennifer Aniston and Ellen DeGeneres.
Also worth a drive-by is John Lautner’s Chemosphere. This modernist masterpiece, with its octagonal floorplan and central support, embodied a vision of the future that struck a chord with popular culture and became an instant classic when it was completed in 1960. It has been featured as a set for movies and been referenced in many more, including Charlie’s Angels and the Iron Man series.
Brought back from the brink of ruin in the 90s by Benedikt Taschen of the Taschen publishing house, the building has been completely restored. It was built on a very steep block on Torreyson Drive in the Hollywood Hills but you need to be well down the street to get a view of its flying-saucer silhouette against the horizon.
Another favourite setting of the local film industry is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House in Los Feliz, which has a list of television and film credits but is best known for its appearance in Blade Runner. If you’re lucky, your trip might coincide with one of the occasional tours organised by the American Institute of Architects, but forward bookings are essential; the next tour day, May 3, is already sold out.
If contemporary architecture is more to your taste then Los Angeles also delivers. It’s home to Frank Gehry and you can trace his career by seeing the house that first brought him acclaim — the 1978 renovation of his residence in Santa Monica. (Gehry’s first Australian building, the Dr Chau Chak Wing of the University of Technology, opened in Sydney earlier this year.)
Wrapping the original Dutch colonial house in Santa Monica with haphazard layers of glass, metal and chain wire did not make Gehry popular with the neighbours but did bring his work to international attention. Take a detour on the way to the Santa Monica Pier, for a quick kerbside look at 1002 22nd Street (corner of Washington Avenue).
While on the Gehry trail, check out the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which features his signature titanium cladding and organic forms, including the shiny metal leaves that mirror the music created at its heart. This crescendo of metal and glass is a form of “built onomatopoeia” in that it looks like it sounds. Gehry’s buildings are always a spectacle and are unapologetically expressive.
Slightly more out of the way but particularly interesting if you are a fan of “deconstruction” is the Hayden Tract of Culver City, where there is a whole estate of schizophrenic steel by Eric Owen Moss, the result of one developer commissioning their favourite architect over and over. It’s unusual to see such a mass gathering, as often these structures are lone wolves, placed in surprising places, such as amid historic centres or banal backdrops. Such a big group of extroverts competing for attention in Culver City really is a sight to behold.
Clockwise from main: view from the Chemosphere House; the building’s exterior; the first house renovated by architect Frank Gehry; Ennis House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall