"Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner," July 13-Oct. 12, 2008, at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca. 90024
If ever there was an architect who deserved a show in an art museum, it is John Lautner. With the sweeping curves in space and the rhythm of repeated forms, his buildings stand as functional sculpture. They are unique entities unlike those of any other architect. Since most of Lautner’s buildings are in Southern California, they were unknown to Ann Philbin, who came from New York to become director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. On architectural tours of the city, she visited a few different Lautner properties and started wondering, "Who IS this guy?"
That curiosity led to her decision to pursue this survey of the architect’s work. She sought out cultural historian Nicholas Olsburg, former director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Previously, he had been founding head of special collections at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and was familiar with Lautner. Approached about the show, he suggested a partnership with Frank Escher, administrator for the Lautner archives and editor of the first monograph on his work, John Lautner, Architect. As important, Escher is himself an architect and his firm Escher GuneWardena is restoring Lautner’s renowned Chemosphere house.
Olsberg positions Lautner as an American original in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom he was an apprentice and, eventually, a collaborator. The student’s background was not dissimilar from his Wisconsin-bred master. Born in Marquette, Michigan in 1914, Lautner was raised with the open horizon of the prairie, with a German-born father who was a teacher and a mother with spiritual leanings, who was an amateur painter. Like Wright, Lautner would look to nature for his forms and materials. As a young man, he helped his parents build their log cabin on Lake Superior, which his mother called "Midgaard" after the Norse term for "midway between earth and heaven." This house and its site were so crucial to Lautner’s evolution that it was inverted by the curators as the title of the show.
Lautner came to Los Angeles in 1938 to pursue some of the ideas he had developed during his eleven years with Wright. He was influenced by his work on Wright’s Broadacre and the notion that changing the design of affordable housing could improve society as a whole. His first experiment with this idea, the one-bedroom Springer house built for $2,500 in 1940, was published but did not bring on new clients, and he returned to collaborating with Wright on houses in L.A. including La Miniatura, the jewel box built for antiques dealer Alice Millard in South Pasadena. In the current show’s excellent exhibition catalogue, Olsberg argues that Lautner was Wright’s true successor. "He reached for a sculptural freedom and a psychic intensity that took Wright’s principles into exuberant new territory."
Wright, however, was a short man who created compression and movement within his residences by varying the ceiling heights, from very low to very high. Lautner was a tall, expansive fellow and his residences feature angled or domed ceilings that seem to expand the entire volume of the structure.
Though put off by the obsession with new wealth that preoccupied L.A. society then as now, Lautner made the city his home for reasons similar to those of Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, also associates of Wright: favorable climate, undeveloped land, lax building codes, and adventuresome clients. After World War II, there was great demand for affordable housing, but Lautner did not excel with modest budgets and standardization. It was not until the late-‘50s/early-‘60s that Lautner designed the billowing Silvertop and what is arguably his most famous residence, the circular glazed house mounted on a pedestal on a steep hillside, designed with the aid of a young engineer client, Leonard Malin. The project went over the $30,000 budget so Malin traded the naming rights to Chemseal in exchange for flooring, roofing and other plastic materials. Hence, it is called the Chemosphere House (now owned by one of L.A.’s great supporters of modern architecture, publisher Benedikt Taschen).
Called a flying saucer in 1960, the house looks like a fantasy concocted for the Jetsons cartoon series. It proved Lautner to be a pioneer in the incorporation of aerospace technology in the development of innovative forms and shapes. He was concerned with the qualities of interior order and infinite space, the view within and without. Unlike most architects of his time, according to Olsberg, he was not so concerned with building an object in the landscape as he was building an object from which to see the landscape.
Mar Brisas, built in Acapulco in 1973, is enclosed by a winding pool that aligns with the horizon line of the ocean to create what Lautner called a "disappearing space." Though initially criticized by architecture critics for the perceived excess of this and other later houses, before his death in 1994, he was lauded for breaking free of the International Style box and paving the way for the experimentation of Frank Gehry and other upcoming architects.
Happily, in the exhibition itself, there is a palpable sense of Lautner’s vision and determination. Escher’s topography of chunky supports with canted tops display Lautner’s renderings. Viewers are meant to imagine the experience of the architect in front of his drawing and envisioning a completed project in the landscape. To that end, the relevant landscape is literally established photographically along the walls of the galleries. Large models of key houses convey both the interior spaces and the effect of looking through to the view. Silent color films of the interiors are projected as well. With a bit of imagination on the part of viewers, the results can be convincing. The curators let the architect speak for himself by mounting selections of Lautner’s own writings and remarks.
Let’s face it. Exhibitions of architectural work are inherently problematic; you can’t see the actual finished product. Nonetheless, this show goes a long way toward overcoming that limitation. Also, in L.A., the museum has organized various opportunities to visit the actual houses.
For details, go to www.hammer.ucla.edu. The show also travels to The Lighthouse, Centre for Architecture, Design and the City, Glasgow, Scotland, Mar. 19-July 26, 2009, the Wolfsonian -- Florida International University in Miami Beach, Fla., Oct. 15, 2009-Jan.17, 2010, and the Palm Springs Art Museum, Feb. 20-May 23, 2010.
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.