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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

John Lautner

Arango Marbrisas, 1973, Acapulco, Mexico, John Lautner. Note the "sky moat."
A couple weeks ago, as I was extoling the exquisite beauty of the Bob Hope House in Palm Springs (08-03-13), I made a note to myself to sometime do a piece on Hope's architect, John Lautner. Today, as I was tidying up my desk, I found the note. John Lautner has long been one of my favorite architects. The problem in writing about him is that there are so many gorgeous views, both inside and outside his houses that the choice of which ones to feature in this limited space and within the limited attention span of most readers, that photo selection becomes a gut-wrenching endeavor. In addition to the Hope House, Lautner designed three or four others which easily stand out as among his best. The Arango Marbrisas House (top) is often considered his single greatest masterpiece. Perched on a hilltop overlooking Acapulco Bay, the most remarkable feature is what the architect termed his "sky moat," an infinity pool flowing around the edge of the main terrace which serves the purpose of a railing while avoiding the divisive nature of such an amenity.
The Lautner House, 1939, John Lautner. The Wright influence is notable.
John Lautner spent his apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Fellowship, though he was no fan of Wright's International Style of architecture. What he picked up from Wright was the man's feel for organic architecture, plus some of the eccentric architect's personal idiosyncrasies. Like Wright, Lautner could often be high-handed and difficult to work with. But then, genius can seldom be homogenized. Lautner went to Los Angeles and Southern California (where most of his approximately 200 lifetime projects are located) in 1938 following five years with Wright to start his own practice. At the same time, he continued his association with his mentor, supervising the construction of several Wright projects in the Los Angeles area. His first significant solo house was his own (above), built in 1939 just east of Hollywood in the Silver Lake area. It was featured in House and Garden magazine at the time, bringing him much praise and recognition, tagged as being the ideal house for California living.

Chemosphere, 1960, John Lautner. The house appears precarious from below, but
has withstood all the heavy rains, mudslides, and earthquakes the area is known for.
During the WW II era, Lautner worked with a company doing military construction in southern California. In the years following the war, Lautner broke with Wright and teamed up with architect Douglas Honnold as an associate (Lautner didn't receive his architects license until 1952) on several commercial projects. That partnership ended when Lautner had an affair with Honnold wife. Lautner later divorced his own wife and married Honnold's divorced wife. The two men remained good friends however. During the 1950s, Lautner worked on his own, his reputation for daring, cutting-edge homes growing as the hillside building boom in Los Angeles developed and soon went wild. His houses during this period were seldom large by today's standards, but invariably employed daring engineering and architectural innovations. His big splash (as David Hockney would put it) came in 1960 with his fabled Chemosphere House (above), built for aerospace engineer Leonard Malin on a nearly unbuildable lot in the Hollywood Hills area. It's "flying saucer" shape, poised on a single concrete piling, became an iconic trademark for the budding young architect.

The Wolff House, 1961, West Hollywood, John Lautner
By the early 1960s, Lautner had attained the enviable level of "trendy." During this era came the Marco Wolff House (above) in West Hollywood and the Sheats Goldstein House (below) in Beverly Hills. Unlike his later works, these two houses are quite angular, continuing to reflect the Wright influence though much bolder than the Bauhaus International Style of the previous decades. Lautner was becoming spectacular. His wealthy clients loved him. 1968 marked the construction of Lautner's most "space age" house, the Arthur Elrod House in Palm Springs (just down the street from where the Hope House would later rise up. Featuring what has been called a "sunburst" concrete canopy, its circular shape allowing broad, uninterrupted views of the desert valley below. Lautner's use of natural boulders from the site harkens back to his work with Wright in supervising the construction of Fallingwater.

Sheats-Goldstein House, 1962, Beverly Hills, John Lautner
The 1970s saw Lautner's career reach its pinnacle with the Hope House in Palm Springs and the massive, 25,000 square foot Acapulco mansion built for the Mexican supermarket magnate, Jeronimo Arango (top). Lautner was at his best when faced with difficult building sites. His Chemosphere house could only be reached up the hillside by funicular. Yet these sites always boasted spectacular views and Lautner's creations never failed to exploit these views and harmonize with the environmental assets and liabilities that came with them.
The Elrod House, 1968, Palm Springs, John Lautner

The Elrod House from the inside looking out, displaying his "sunburst" canopy.
 For an insightful video dealing with this artist/architect click here: John Lautner Houses


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