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Beverley Hills, USA – Champions of modernism lose their battle to save a John Lautner house

Another victory for the California philistines as a John Lautner house is needlessly demolished

No city boasts more classic modern houses than LA but most are out of public view and at risk from new owners who may buy them as tear-downs, to be replaced by something larger and showier. Happily, there’s a growing public awareness of this legacy, thanks to the well-publicised campaigns of the Los Angeles Conservancy and other preservation groups, as well as a wave of museum exhibitions, books, and house tours.

Oscar Niemeyer’s only house in North America was saved days before demolition and its white knight, Michael Boyd, is now restoring other mid-century moderns. A few celebrated names command a premium - the residents of Richard Neutra’s Strathmore apartments (where I’m lucky enough to live) have launched a website, www.neutralives.com, to protect its integrity and promote restoration efforts.

However, major properties are still being razed - Neutra’s Maslon House in Rancho Mirage, Rudolph Schindler’s Wolfe House on Catalina Island and, most recently, John Lautner’s Shusett House in Beverly Hills. What makes this latest act of vandalism so painful is that Lautner’s reputation is beginning to enjoy the respect he was denied during his 50 years of practice in LA.

Monographs and a major exhibition have celebrated his achievement, and several of his houses have been impeccably restored. Michael LaFetra, a seasoned aficionado who has saved many classics, offered to buy the Shusett house or move it to a new location, and other preservationists weighed in, but the owners stubbornly refused to negotiate, even though they had occupied the house for many years without knowing who designed it. It had been insensitively remodeled but the brilliance of the concept was still plainly visible: an arc of rooms that embraced a giant pine, and a tilted roof that shaded a curved wall of glass.

Completed in 1951, it was an exact contemporary of the circular-plan Harvey House, which was rescued on the eve of destruction by writer Mitch Glazer and actress Kelly Lynch, and now looks as Lautner would have wanted it. Outrages of this kind are all too frequent. Beverly Hills, like many other cities in LA County, has no preservation ordinance. Councillor John Mirisch sought to introduce one and was outvoted; his colleagues defended the sacred right of property owners to do what they want. As a result of this libertarian attitude, Beverly Hills has lost half of the significant buildings listed in a 1983 survey, and gained a rash of Persian palaces, Tuscan mega-mansions, and po-mo commercial blocks.

Once a rather staid enclave of local wealth - few were as extravagant as Norma Desmond - it’s increasingly a showcase of vulgarity and excess, fuelled by hot money from around the world. Good architecture, old and new, has become an endangered species.

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