Glass House
Book Review

The Architecture of John Lautner

Any architect who believes fame, or at least serious recognition, has passed by, might take some consolation from ‘The Architecture of John Lautner’ (Thames and Hudson). John who? Virtually anonymous until his death in 1994, Lautner rates as one of the most enigmatic talents of North American architecture. This exquisite volume telescopes the prodigious gifts of a designer whose work remained virtually ignored until the last decade of his life.

Lautner’s remarkable architecture has been meticulously researched and catalogued by Alan Hess and complemented with loving creativity by photographer Alan Weintraub.

In doing so they have finally released the geni from the lamp. We should be grateful. Although not a latest release, this volume straddles time like few others.

Unlike architects who slavishly imitate, Lautner went to the extremity of the limb to respond to specific requirements. He consistently resisted the temptation to replicate his own creations and trade on successful patterns at the expense of creative risk and advancement. The publishers deserve praise for punting on a comparatively relative unknown. Much easier to profit from recycling established names.

One of Frank Lloyd-Wriight’s few students to survive the bombast and gravitational pull of the master, with confidence intact, Lautner’s legacy is bound to inspire. Students of architecture and even seasoned campaigners will discover plenty of motivational material where glamorous results have been achieved by the pedestrian process of rigorous application. Although inspired by Wright, it is clear Lautner was his own person throughout life - something not so easily claimed by other products of Wright’s Taliesen experiment.

Lautner’s obscurity can be traced to a nervous, conservative culture that undermines so much North America’s architecture. Its media network was, for years, grounded in Cape Cod or Malibu Mission as design excellence. This is part of the reason why Lautner’s always inventive, often exhilarating architecture was overlooked or debunked. Other complex factors, not the least his distaste for spruiking, conspired too. But this book eloquently speaks for the essence of what Lautner strived to achieve. And it is proof, amongst all of the Versailles and Versace, that among the fool’s gold there is the real thing in the hills of California.

From his earliest efforts it is clear he was at odds with mainstream architecture.
He was, as Alan Hess points out, a modern architect; he dealt with modern issues of technology and its impact on society, cities, culture and nature. He used concrete, glass and plastics; he rejected tradition for innovation. His solutions pushed so often near the edge, and he was, in Los Angeles, largely un-aligned with any academy or established camp other than Taliesen.

Although concrete and glass are frequently mishandled with aplomb, Lautner proved to be one of the few who could transform them into silk. It is little surprise to learn that among the few architects and engineers he respected were Pier Luigi Nervi, Felix Canndela and Eero Saarinen. His embrace of concrete and glass achieved startling effect lost on the style avatars of the time. Whether frameless and floor to ceiling, faceted, saw-tooth, or inclined, his use of glass created a startling ‘non-structure’. This allowed a rich engagement between the natural and man-made landscape of swimming pools, rock formations, trees, sky and ocean.

It was this ‘visionary’ use of glass that is a hallmark and contributed to his then radical concept and now ‘modern’ notion of ‘inside/outside’ living.

Lautner’s career - from 1940 to 1994 - reflected the life of an urbane, gentle man whose architecture provided the unusual combination of talent, humanity and humility. He showed no caprice for treating clients as accessories or benefactors. There is a great joy in his generous space-making and detailing. Certainly enough to suggest a love for his calling and care for his clientele.

Rather than slabs of solid mass, his designs evolved from the need of site and client requirements rather than say, the pre-fabricated boxy forms of the Case Study Houses. Many of his designs feature gravity defying cantilevers and flowing curves such that his builders and engineers must have had sleepless nights. The architecture featured is hallmarked by a rare modernity. Earlier work such as the Tyler house (1953) with its timber and glass projections still appears remarkably modern. Not even an unleashed budget and sweeping, organic brilliance of the Pacific Coast house (1990) diminishes the effect of such seminal efforts.

If concrete provided the physical skeleton, a masterly use of glass created houses with eyes and luminous souls. His design were not merely objects to be viewed, they were (and are) gorgeous to appraise and gorgeous from which to embrace a world only now beginning to comprehend Lautner’s legacy.

Always inventive, his residential and commercial works are as sensual as they are sublime. The Malin house (Chemisphere) 1961 with its UFO like form held aloft on a single, web-trussed column captured Los Angeles from its octagonal plan and near seamless angled glazing system. Apart from playing backdrop in a few Hollywood films, his houses were often seen, as extravagant curiosities for the rich.

Some readers might disapprove the absence of any drawings and absence of critical deconstruction of his life, but these are issues best left for the draughtsperson and biographer . There remains plenty to intrigue about this extraordinary talent. As a result the book shimmers to the eye as much as it resonates in the mind. With its publication, Lautner is deservedly installed in the pantheon of 20th century architecture. If not front row alongside Wright, then surely within winking distance of the master.

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2004

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.