Mr Lautner Builds His Dream House
With a new film and major exhibition celebrating his life and work, maverick architect John Lautner’s time may finally have come. Paul Dale looks back at the life of the man who shaped the look of US moviemaking’s hometown.
Los Angeles, it’s a wonderful town. Between campaigning environmental goddess Rachel Silent Spring Carson’s Pennsylvanian dreams and renegade architect Michael Reynolds’ radically sustainable New Mexico homes there is always LA, or more precisely the architecture of John Lautner. Don’t think that you don’t know Lautner’s work. If you’ve ever seen Diamonds are Forever, Brian De Palma’s Body Double, Pulp Fiction or played Grand Theft Auto then you have been in and around his iconographic creations longer than you think. Some of the homes and buildings he designed are known by their futuristic sounding nicknames -- ‘the Chemosphere’, ‘Silvertop’, ‘the Elrod house’ and ‘Marbrisa’ -- but it was not to the future that Lautner looked for inspiration.
The truth is that Lautner remains a mystery to us Europeans. Born just before the Great War on the banks of Lake Michigan and trained by the legendary American architect, interior designer and educator Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesen studio in Wisconsin (as one of the first group of Taliesen Fellows), the majority of Lautner’s remarkable body of work exists largely in and around the forests and byways of Los Angeles, a city he purported to hate.
As Frank Gehry points out in Scottish filmmaker Murray Grigor’s excellent new film about Lautner, Infinite Space, the man was undoubtedly the missing link between Lloyd’s humanist organic architectural movement and the shooting forms of Zaha Hadid and her like. His radicalism and reputation is at odds with, and yet oddly concomitant to, that of Ayn Rand’s reactionary smug fictional architect Howard Roark from The Fountainhead -- the self righteous egotist whose precious genius made him both a loner and a romantic maverick.
The Lighthouse’s new exhibition takes its title from Midgard -- an old Norse term for ‘middle enclosure’ or ‘between heaven and earth’. It was the name his Irish immigrant, inexplicably Norway-phile parents called the lakeside house he helped them build in his childhood, a place that remained a major inspiration for everything that followed. Grigor believes Lautner’s work is ripe for rediscovery:
‘Lautner is the maverick in the whole architectural story of America because unlike other architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler and all those Case Study guys like Craig Ellwood, he did everything different. You can almost see a similarity between all the Neutra and Schindler buildings, more so with Neutra, but Lautner never built the same thing twice. I think what drew me to make the film was this story that was that perfect fusion of difficult sites -- he loved difficult sites, wonderful clients -- the clients were interesting, progressive people and the fact that he was just a little bit mad. Take the Elrod house which is in Diamonds are Forever, Elrod, the client said ‘Give me the house you think I should have John. So he was so crazy the first thing he did was dig down in between the rocks and put stairs in. Who does that?’ Grigor bursts into laughter.
To appreciate Lautner’s work you have to understand the elemental pantheism that drove him. Exhibition curator Frank Escher (along with Nicholas Oldsberg) explains: ‘Lautner never thought of his buildings as objects in a landscape. It was always about the architectural space and how that relates to the landscape.’ Escher, whose 1998 book on Lautner and his buildings remains the seminal text on this quintessential LA architect is in no doubt as to Lautner’s place in the pantheon of American art. ‘Over a career spanning 50 years he developed a level of precision in framing the view and directing the eye to the horizon. His work is about the connection between space and the world, between form and construction.’
Both Grigor and Lautner’s daughter Judith agree that he should be remembered not only for his disparate designs but also for the close relationships he forged with both his clients and the sites he worked on.
‘When my father would get a new client he would get a map of the property and go up to the site. He would take a soft pencil and would mark things on the map. He would walk around and discover interesting rocks and plants or where the wind was or if there was an unusual view. Then he would return to his office and sit and stare at the map for days, waiting for these eureka moments. When they came he would draw quickly and roughly and jot notes. But my father was a tall man, he had big hands so he was a messy draftsman, so he would then hand these creations to his long suffering draftsmen to clean up.’ Judith Lautner believes that far from being the clichéd architect who cares less about their clients or society than their own precious integrity, that it was her father’s belief in collaboration and connection that made him unique. ‘My father liked to work with people who were handy themselves. He disliked doing the small details so even after he left a property he liked to be reassured that house was still a work in progress, something organic and he would often drop by to check on his creations and his clients.’
Grigor hopes his film and the exhibition (for which he has put together film loops of Lautner’s renderings and elevations and photographs) will offer a re-evaluation of Lautner’s legacy which suffered years of East coast snobbery under the moniker of ‘Googie’ or novelty architecture when Lautner’s work became lauded by what Grigor calls ‘groovies’ (hippies). ‘He did nothing in Europe, he did very little outside of Los Angeles, his masterpiece is the Mabrisa down in Acapulco in Mexico and the other house is the Turner House in Aspen and one in Florida but apart from that they are all in this specific area of Los Angeles. He hated Los Angeles but it was 9 million people he thought he might get three or four clients there. And yet his influence is huge.’
Escher believes there is no better time for the return of Lautner -- ‘as the architecture of domestic space seems poised to enter a new cycle of invention -- after years of stagnation -- Lautner’s work has a new relevance. Far from being startling but hollow exercises in architectural sculpture, his houses remain what they were intended to be. Spaces in which life is enriched by the unique architectural idea that animates them.’
Such are our media honed sensibilities towards architecture that Lautner’s ability to appease and offend will undoubtedly continue to be his most noticeable legacy, that and the wisp of the zeitgeist that remains forever in Pulitzer prize winning poet Charles Simic’s poem Solving the Riddle -- 'Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all the others were making ships.'
Between Heaven and Earth: The Architecture of John Lautner, The Lighthouse, Glasgow from Fri 20 Mar-Sun 26 Jul. Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner, GFT, Glasgow on Sun 29 Mar.