The architecture of Los Angeles
it’s one of the most influential images of all time — and, if you’ll forgive the reuse of this much abused term — one of the most iconic: two women in pale dresses of Fifties’ cut and paler shoes, sit, glass-encased, hovering high over a night-time city defined by a seemingly vast grid of lit-up boulevards and cross-streets. In the foreground, there’s the edge of a terrace, a corner of a lounger, a plant in its regulation pot; the top framing is provided by the roof of this starkly modern dwelling, its underside exposed to show parallel steel beams ranged in a chevron.
Julius Shulman’s 1960 photograph of Case Study House Number 22, in the Hollywood Hills neighbourhood of Los Angeles (also known as the Stahl House), captures the precise point at which the City of Angels ascended, on filmy wing-beats, to become the city of lights. The women are poised in an aerial compartment of home comfort, and are seen by the camera eye, while remaining to the wider world — which lies so far below them — altogether invisible.
Yes, yes, Hollywood had been associated with light and vision ever since 1914, when Carl Laemmle began shooting on the chicken farm that became the Universal Studios lot; and since then there had been many self-reflexive iterations of that foundational narcissism, but it seems to me it’s only with the Stahl House that the defining philosophy of Hollywood — I am looked upon, therefore I am — became so classicised that it took the form of a recognisable style of indigenous domestic architecture.
Not that the Hollywood Hills hadn’t long since been home to weird cantilevered structures, thrusting people — and swimming pools — out into the local voids. Writing in the Sixties, shortly after the Stahl House was completed, Reyner Banham — a Brit and the presiding spirit of so much architectural writing about Los Angeles — speaks of the quintessential Los Angeles dwelling as being “the house of a plainsman, not a mountaineer. The economics of its structural technology imply a flat buildingsurface, not a sloping one; and those economics are demanding enough to ensure that the site will be a flat one by some means or other.”
Probably the most radical example of this is the Chemosphere House, a bizarre flyingsaucer-like pod of a dwelling, poised atop struts branching from a single 29ft concrete trunk implanted in the steep slope leading up from the Valley to the crest of Mulholland Drive. Designed by John Lautner and contemporaneous with the Stahl House, on the dewy morning I went to visit, this alien architecture appeared — in the otherworldly context — as banal as a Tudor-bethan semi in a British cul-de-sac; and, of course, as level.
In the case of the Stahl House, the leveller was CH “Buck” Stahl himself, who — I was told by Andrew, the custodian during a visit I recently paid to the property — spent the three years after purchasing the lot, cruising Los Angeles looking for old concrete scrap with which to build a retaining wall; Stahl then backfilled it himself, by hand, until there was a level surface upon which to plonk Pierre Koenig’s very plain, plainsman’s house.
The Case Study Program had been initiated by John Entenza, the editor of the LAbased magazine Arts and Architecture. What might have been of merely local interest became a worldwide design phenomenon with Case Study House 8, designed by Charles and Ray Eames, and built in a dramatic site on the coast at Pacific Palisades.
Coinciding with the launch of their eponymous chair, the Eames House became a sort of portal, welcoming design cognoscenti into the Californian dream; a hypnagogic architecture that scrambled inside and outside, up and down, the solid and the vacuous, a style typified by Banham thus: “glass carried in frames of visible steel”. He points out that similar work was being done contemporaneously by starchitects Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, but that the Case Study Program houses differed in being far more modest, both in their size, and in their detailing, which was often off-the-shelf rather than bespoke. Banham speaks of their metal sections as “skinny”, but perhaps it’s precisely this “skinniness” that makes them so definitively Los Angeles, because what else do they remind us of, save the perforated frames of old celluloid film.
Looking at the women in Shulman’s photo, it’s impossible to resist the notion that they are in a sort of three-dimensional film frame, quite as much as a skinny metal one. Moreover, the connection between houses in the Hollywood Hills and the movies — in particular, the credit sequences of movies set in Los Angeles — seems indissoluble. I think, immediately, of the beginning of the current Netflix cartoon comedy, BoJack Horseman, wherein our eponymous equine hero is portrayed lying in his bed, in his cantilevered house in the Hollywood Hills; an image that morphs into him lying alternately on the surface, and at the bottom, of the pool sunk in the decking surrounding this shoe-boxy property. The reference to Sunset Boulevard — which begins from the point-of-view of a dead man floating face down in a Hollywood pool — is pretty obvious, but more significant is the way the sequence works to dissolve those insistent oppositions: air and water, inside and outside, appearance and reality.
To stand on the terrace of the Stahl House, with a head full of legal marijuana, is to experience all these dissolutions at once. On the bright early April afternoon I took the tour (and be warned, it’s super-popular, and booked out up to three months in advance), recent rain had sluiced the smog out of Los Angeles’ usually bilious skies, and the views were immense: I could see Santa Catalina Island some 50 miles to the south quite clearly; also the harbour facilities at Long Beach, while the tall building cluster at Downtown seemed proximate as a desk toy. Indeed, these regulation parametrically-designed skyscrapers now occupy the position — if you stand where Shulman had to take his shot — which the frocked women once did: caught in the skinny metal framing of the Stahl House’s living room. And perhaps this is fitting, since — to paraphrase Fredric Jameson’s remark on its Westin Bonaventure Hotel — Downtown does indeed represent the “spatialisation of late capitalism”.
I realise such remarks sound a little God-like: as if from the peak position I’d been planning to rain down thunderbolts on the decadent Los Angelinos, but there is indeed a section of the Hollywood Hills called Mount Olympus, while the particular vibe of this massif full of the massively wealthy remains altogether unique. Immediately below the Stahl House’s terrace, about a kilometre away, is the echt Art Deco finial of the Sunset Tower Hotel. The temptation to launch myself into the air was overwhelming. Surely, I could trust to friendly thermals to cushion my descent, spiralling me down until I found myself standing beneath its porte cochère? The maitre d’ who’d welcome me into its hallowed and woodpanelled bar, would probably feign ignorance of my huge and translucent wings — after all, an immemorial character, he’s seen it all before.
Los Angeles being such a polymorphously perverse city, the maitre d’ at the Sunset Tower might well straddle fact and fiction as much as inside and outside. A friend of mine once said the defining characteristic of the city is, “Everything they say about it is true…” So quite possibly it’s true that this imposing figure once served Philip Marlowe a gimlet (one-part gin to one of Rose’s lime cordial), as he sat waiting for his rich buddy Terry Lennox to arrive, so they could commence their long goodbyes.
i often ask people on this side of the pond which city they know best in the world, and if they fail to place Los Angeles in the top two, I point out to them that given Hollywood’s tendency to shoot — and arguably, shit — in its own backyard, they’ve actually spent more time within its ever-expanding limits than those of any other municipality. True, in recent years — due in the first instance to costs, and in the second to tax breaks — Toronto and Atlanta have impersonated Los Angeles, but given that polymorphous perversity, and that promiscuous mixing of appearance and reality, who’s to say these other cities don’t have every right to their LA schtick?
Well, me for one. I’ve visited Toronto and Atlanta, and while both may have tall-building-clustered downtowns that also spatialise late capitalism, neither has the extraordinary wealth of domestic architecture you see on a single long, looping, Los Angelino street. The Case Study Program went through some 28 different iterations of the Modernist style Banham describes as “Puritanism and understatement”. The first, completed in 1948, still stands at 10152 Toluca Lake Avenue, North Hollywood, not far from Universal City, the unreal conurbation Carl Laemmle’s chicken farm grew into, once he realised that making movies was more golden than laying eggs.
The last to be built, also extant, is actually in Phoenix, Arizona: a bold confection of glassed-in walkways, double-height living areas and enclosed patios by Alfred N Beadle. In between, a whole generation of Modernist architects, most based in Los Angeles, had their skinny say, among them such luminaries as Richard Neutra and Eero Saarinen. Twenty-one of the houses remain standing, of which five have been extensively remodelled. You can see many of them from the road, but the Stahl and Eames Houses are the only ones open to the public.
But that shouldn’t dissuade you from taking an architectural tour of Los Angeles, given that the most meagre strand in the city can support such a rich diversity. The original vernacular architecture of the city, best characterised as “Spanish revival”, harkens back to the megacity’s origins in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, and the mission settlements. Now, you’ve only to see a few red tiles embedded in a parking lot wall or a suggestion of adobe in the render of a carport, for the entire bogusness of American heritage to rear up and hit you in your kisser – if, that is, “heritage” is considered as a single vector, carrying an assumed typology through time. But the thing about the USA, and Southern California in particular, is that this is a society in which commercialism is popular culture.
Los Angeles was created by property boosters from the Midwest, who sold hardscrabble farmers with worn-out soil the dream of balmy sunshine and citrus groves zesting towards profit. The plainsmen duly pitched up, and their icy Puritanism did indeed begin to melt, assuming the most fantastical and glassy shapes. Standing on the Stahls’ terrace — the children of that enthusiastic leveller are still in residence — I could make out a patch of thicker, darker greenery in the mid-distance, perhaps five or six kilometres away. Even in a city as greened as Los Angeles, the tony residential district of Hancock Park still stands out, and it’s here that the pocket chateaux and dinky Palladian villas cluster in licentious abandon. As I say, any street in LA offers a variety of domestic architecture but the likes of Hancock Park and Beverly Hills are more like laboratories in which fanciful architects have been encouraged to run amok.
It’s the Brits who are often styled as the kings of suburbia and we think of Mr Wemmick, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, with his pocket castle in the London ’burbs, complete with a moat and a little cannon to be fired at dusk. But European suburbia is, for the most, a tedious monoculture: cul-de-sac after close after circuit of Barratt houses, each with the same identical detailing. I once circumambulated Los Angeles… No, really, I did: an eight-day walk, beginning and finishing at the airport, with not so much as a metre of the intervening ground covered in wheeled transport. Naturally, when I got back, scoffing Londoners asked me if I hadn’t been bored rigid, and wasn’t it true that they didn’t even have pavements, so addicted are the Los Angelinos to their cars?
To which I was compelled to reply: no, and no. For those eight long days, as I walked from the dipping-bird oil derricks studding the Baldwin Hills, to the spun-iron weirdness of the Watts Towers, to the scary low-rise ’hoods of South Central, to the spatialisation of late capitalism in Downtown, to the heights of Olympus itself, my love affair with the city simply deepened, as my eyes feasted on its manysplendoured houses. As for walkers — there were plenty of them on the sidewalks — and, just as in European cities, the ones who were going furthest were those, paradoxically, who had no home to go to. the other architectural mavens on the Stahl House tour with me arrayed themselves around Andrew as he discoursed on the Stahls’ lifestyle in the early Sixties: Mr and Mrs Stahl had a division-of-safety regarding their two toddlers: he would take care of the drop off the levelled terrace; she would stop them drowning in the swimming pool. Andrew pointed out the safety fence Mr Stahl had put up three metres below the terrace edge, so that while the little ones might have a nasty tumble they wouldn’t actually die; while the house’s most important feature — its stupendous vista — would be preserved.
As for the drowning risk, how, Andrew asked, did we think she obviated it? “With water wings,” I chimed up, and he conceded this was indeed the case: “Every second the kids were awake, until they learned to swim, they had to wear their life preservers.”
Life preservers… such an ugly coinage. Los Angeles may be a fountainhead of domestic architecture, but American-English sometimes seems rather parched and aseptic to me. After the tour, I drove my house-sized rental SUV back down the looping road to Hollywood Boulevard, then headed east, to the house I was staying in off Beechwood Drive. This little quarter was originally known as Hollywoodland, and the giant letters ranged across the hillside above it once spelt out HOLLYWOODLAND as well, but after the boostering was done, the L, A, N and D took a hike. Throughout my stay, I’d come upon crazed Midwesterner tourists, standing in the middle of the road and posing for shots with the sign in the background, while Los Angelinos in their own house-sized SUVs honked vigorously as they took evasive action.
It was a case of I’m looked upon, therefore I am all right — or what I believe is called in the modern idiom, a selfie. But I wasn’t paying any attention — I was far more interested in the cottage I’d rented through Airbnb. Done in the arroyo style that morphed out of Spanish revival, this little stucco box of a dwelling featured all sorts of amazing 1923 period details, including a little breakfast nook, and a built-in wooden ironing board which folded out from a wall compartment. I was due to have cocktails at the Sunset Tower that evening, so I did indeed fold it down and iron one of my shirts. Standing beside this plainsman’s domestic appliance, marvelling at its asperity of design, it occurred to me that using this self-levelled and cantilevered structure was probably the nearest I’d ever get to inhabiting the Stahl House.