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John Lautner (1911-1994)

John Lautner’s visionary approach verged on technological lyricism in the city he claimed at first made him physically sick

John Lautner’s reputation, by publishing weight, is largely posthumous. Andrew Holmes first proffered me a Lautner poem on a scrap of A4 one afternoon at the AA in the early 1990s.

Artemis published a mammoth, sumptuous, bronze-jacketed two-kilo volume − John Lautner, Architect − soon after, in the year Lautner died aged 83. Rizzoli followed up with Alan Hess’s well-regarded monograph in 1999. The latest deluxe addition, Between Earth and Heaven, The Architecture of John Lautner (Hammer Rizzoli, 2008) is academically more prickly since Lautner is now something of an industry; enjoying a Foundation at Getty, centenary celebrations, conservation conferences and so on.

‘OMG’ would be a reasonable exclamation on stumbling across any Lautner building, even in a book. However, the reader has to tread more carefully across the idiosyncratically populated slopes of Lautner’s world; it’s easy to be wrong-footed. Some (including me) have understood him as author of Googie, inspirer of The Jetsons, or home of Bond villains.

The latter’s lairs seem almost uniquely inspired by the extravagant retreats that form much of his work. It turns out this is no accident, it is even appropriate, but it is still wrong.Today he’s primarily considered a visionary, but Esther McCoy once described him as a ‘lyrical technologist’, while Banham just said he was ‘eccentric’; I had him as ‘goofy’.

Lautner on Lautner (that poem) manages to come over as both sardonic and idealist simultaneously. For certain, John Lautner is absolutely of the place: of LA, of Hollywood, Malibu, Beverley Hills and so on. He is also of mountaintops, lakeshores and shady glades at the same time.

‘Today he’s primarily considered a visionary, but Esther McCoy once described him as a ‘lyrical technologist’, while Banham just said he was ‘eccentric’; I had him as ‘goofy’

Lautner hated LA. It made him physically sick, but it also worked for him, largely because his clients were sick of it too. His houses represent literal and metaphorical escape. Clients loved a piece of bespoke Lautner: ‘We have danced together throughout … I (can now) stay on the ground and fly!’ cooed Mrs Segel over her ocean-front residence (Malibu, 1979).

His cradle was the shore of Lake Superior, with a rugged upbringing amid nature, transcendentalism, mysticism; the cultivation of intuition, instinct and individualism (Bergson for breakfast) and faith in the revelation of making. He joined Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin with his first wife fearful he might be artistically contaminated, but in fact was one of the earliest and most enduring of disciples. He went west and rather bungled Wright’s Sturges House (1939) but soon recovered, was briefly in partnership, but ran off with the partner’s wife.

There are highs and lows, but he settled down to a career where ‘two or three clients a year who wanted real architecture’ would do. At 70 he was doing less, but no matter; they were masterpieces. In look, these unfortunately foreshadow today’s prevalent gooey virtuosity, but overall his trajectory is toward solidity; from timber to concrete, from fast to slow, from primitive hut to cave.


English degree from Northern State Teachers College, Michigan
From 1933 to 1939 he worked under Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin and Arizona
Key buildings
The Chemosphere, LA (1960)
Garcia House, LA (1962)
Elrod House, Palm Springs (1968)
Casa Marbrisa, Acapulco (1973)
Turner House, Aspen (1982)
‘Oh it was depressing: when I first drove down Santa Monica Boulevard, it was so ugly I was physically sick for the first year I was here’

He was a tall man with big hands; it looks as if he drew with his fists, and his signature is assertive, like his buildings. He didn’t court publicity, especially when his buildings started to get it, so while beavering away at his unique blend of wood butcher’s art and Cartier, only his clients, readers of Playboy, Hollywood art directors and the odd West Coast scholar seemed to get it. Now he’s part of the globalised furniture and an apt aesthetic for Snoop Dogg.

The Chemosphere House (1960) − on its 30-foot concrete pole and reached by funicular off Mulholland Drive − was described by Encyclopaedia Britannica as the most modern house in the world, but it is the word organic that hangs like a mirage. At a distance it is clear, but up close, it disappears. If the organic is attractive (his work is very photogenic), at times Lautner reaches the sublime. The Turner House (1982) in Aspen is a vast shell featuring a whole segment of floor plate that swings out over the snow.

The Marbrisa House in Acapulco doesn’t seem to have walls. The Malibu Cliff House (1990) resembles a giant slug. That or it’s intrusive, the living spaces ungainly, and impossible to populate effectively with furniture. However, you can fit the cameras and lights in, and Bambi and Thumper can do somersaults. It is a paradox too that you rarely see people living in a Lautner (in pictures): wonderful, but intimidating perhaps.

You see vistas, horizons, and close-ups of rocks, but the more everyday aspects of inhabitation seem elusive. So no wonder these houses appear as more stage sets with potential. Such disregard for earth and sky beyond lighting levels would have infuriated Lautner, but such is the way of the world rather than our commune with nature.

Today our commercial expressions are even worse; his work is inclined to ‘define the luxury spaces of our lives’ and bring us ‘a little piece of heaven’; it is aspirationally inspirational. It epitomises California dreamland and costs millions of dollars. That’s not to say he didn’t have designs and ambitions for ordinary people too, but this was his situation; he practised an inverted contextualism that was deeply contextual. All has been brought down to earth by ‘flickerland’ (Lautner’s term).

Mel Gibson impressively pulls down the Garcia House (1962) with his pick-up in Lethal Weapon 2. Originally built for a jazz dude, it was charmingly employed as the home of a drug-running South African diplomat. The Elrod House (playpen of Bambi and Thumper) incarcerated Willard Whyte in Diamonds are Forever; Bob Hope lived in Stromberg’s Atlantis; and The Big Lebowski gets drugged in the Sheats Goldstein house.

‘The living spaces can appear ungainly, and impossible to populate with furniture. However, you can fit the cameras and lights in, and Bambi and Thumper can do somersaults’

These cultural connotations no doubt irritate legions of devotees. Lautner embodies two essential contradictions. First, that the other Modernism, the organic kind, while blind to function and habit in the broadest sense, was very attractive in others. Second, that while labelled ‘timeless’, it’s hard to know how it adapts.

In LA every owner comes predisposed to re-modelling. Lautner held particular views (such as not believing in the division of public and private) and now he’s dead; hence the industry, so there is a tendency to be over reverential. Jean-Louis Cohen has attempted to extend the critical domain, but inadvertently reminds us that if we are trading superlatives, Oscar Niemeyer’s Canoas house (1953) is more delicate, sensual and light of touch.

Uncomfortably it’s the word fantasy that comes to mind. A man who refuted commodification, commodified. We should note that there are more spiritual retreats in California than ever before. To what extent is Lautner a cultural product when he so stubbornly insisted on his individuality? He was certainly the best part of Howard Roark; an uncompromising architect who didn’t feel the need to dynamite perfectly serviceable housing complexes, but who, with considerable dexterity, whisks you to dreamland with the spectacle of the authentic.

So perhaps it is tempting to view Lautner through the lens of hyperreality; as a vivid simulation, too real to be real. Whatever his struggle, he was in the right place at the right time; architecture was somehow spiritually fecund, and we hadn’t yet to register the essential truths in Bugs Bunny.

Finally, to ground us, it is to the advantage of all publishing enterprises and galleries that their subjects are dead with a decent body of work behind them by the time they get famous. Lautner was a hoarder, so expect The Genius of John Lautner anytime soon.


Illustration by Adam Cruft

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