An Ode to John Lautner

19 May, 2017

One of the most important contemporary American architects of the last century, John Lautner uses his design to express human relationships and their relation to their environment. He called his architectural forms “mind-bending shapes,” a psychological distortion of how we see, feel, and interact with everyday buildings. Folded concrete forms and panoramic glass views show deep influence from his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright's philosophy of Organic Architecture. Traditionally, the word “organic” refers to animals or plants, but Wright’s philosophy expands its meaning, reinterpreting nature's principles and respecting the properties of its materials. It is not a limitation of style, instead reinterpreting nature's principles by respecting the properties of materials used. This idea focuses on integrating separate spaces into a coherent whole. For example, you wouldn’t twist solid steel into a flower out of respect for the harmonious relationship between form and function.

“The purpose of architecture is to improve human life.” - John Lautner

Born in 1911, Lautner was raised in Marquette, Michigan, where he consistently said the northern woods and the deep blue of Lake Superior would remain in his soul. While he graduated from college there, but didn’t receive his architectural license until 1952. His unconventional, gravity-defying houses were produced decades after World War II for more than 55 years, with some of his most unusual and unique residences in and near Los Angeles. According to his step-daughter, Elizabeth Honnold Harris, his clients were “either rich bastards or poor geniuses.”

Inside the Goldstein-Sheats house
Pool view of the Goldstein-Sheats house

In placing his homes on difficult or elevated sites like hillsides or seashores, Lautner took full advantage of the perspectives the sites offered. His designs were infatuated with rudimentary geometric forms like the circle and triangle, and each home was assimilated into its location for an organic flow between indoor and outdoor spaces serving as a marriage between site and structure.

Lautner’s designs shift the narrative away from suburbia and back to the landscape itself. One of his most iconic houses, Sheats-Goldstein (’61), was initially designed for a young family, but became better known as the party pad of unscrupulous poronographer Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski. Wandering through the entryway down the winding concrete stairways, you’ll find a stunning skyspace structure created by artist James Turrell. Visitors can lie on supple leather mats and watch the cycle of colored lights shifting with the time of day. Sheats-Goldstein is set on a scenic sandstone ledge; at the touch of a button, its skylights disappear, cultivating a closer connection to the surrounding flora of the site.

“To me, architecture is an art, naturally, and it isn't architecture unless it's alive. Alive is what art is. If it's not alive, it's dead, and it's not art.” - John Lautner

The Silvertop house

Lautner was known for integrating cutting-edge technology into designs like Silvertop, whose vast structure, designed in collaboration with his client Kenneth Reiner, got its name from its swooping lines and elegant concrete dome. The two men worked closely on the house for over a decade. Reiner was very particular about the design and requested futuristic features like automatic, faucetless sinks, and a hydraulic table that would raise or lower for dinner or drinks. When certain features he requested didn't exist, Reiner invented and built them himself in a special workshop inside his factory. This extravagance undid Reiner in the end, causing the original budget of $75,000 to balloon to over $1 million. (Ultimately, he went bankrupt and had to sell the house.) Silvertop was eventually completed for new owners who also worked with Lautner in ’74. In ’87, the home was featured in the film Less Than Zero, providing a cold reception for Clay Easton, when he returned from college to his wealthy, dysfunctional family.

The Chemosphere was featured in Coppola's Body Double
Inside the Chemosphere, where Benedict Taschen lives now

One of our favorite Lautner designs is The Chemosphere, built on a 45-degree slope that was considered to be unbuildable. Instead of constructing unsightly retaining walls to support the structure, Lautner’s design lingers over the untouched landscape, supported by a singular reinforced concrete column. An octagon-shaped building sits on top of the column, with a roof constructed like the expanding ribs of a ship. The Chemosphere became famous because of its otherworldly appearance, something Lautner did not intend. His goal, as with all of his designs, was to create the best solution for the site. (Originally built for Leonard Malin, an aerospace engineer, the residence was featured in the ‘84 film Body Double and inspired the home of the villain in the ’00 film remake of Charlie’s Angels.)

Hollywood’s love affair with Lautner is undeniable, as his designs continue to pop up in TV shows, films, and music videos (often as the space-age bachelor pad of psychopaths, pornographers, and drug dealers). The core of Lautner’s ideology was always the belief that the development of a building's architectural “character” would reflect the inherent relationship of the site and its surroundings. Even today, nearly four decades since some of his most iconic designs were conceived, they still stand for a certain breed of Los Angeles exceptionalism, making their mark by blurring the line between home and habitat in an only-in-L.A. way.

Words by The Editors.

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