Speaking Frankly About Los Angeles
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
Let’s be frank about Los Angeles. When we urbanists think of the City of Angels, we typically lament its many apparent shortcomings. But seldom are the city’s myriad detractors aware that it has the richest, deepest and most extraordinarily progressive residential architecture heritage of any city in North America. Bar none.
Who knew that here, lurking in this temple of skin-deep fantasy architecture and suburban schlock, you can come upon – and be profoundly moved by – an arc of the most original houses by such avant-garde designers as Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, the Eamses, and Frank Gehry? You just need to know where to look.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise given that so many creative, wealthy individuals have so much money to spend in Los Angeles, and so little of it is spent on the public realm. That, and the idea that one’s home is the ultimate fantasy environment – which has long had a firm grip on the imaginations of LA’s elite – have conspired to produce this result. On a recent Frank-to-Frank tour around some of the suburbs that lie between downtown LA and the sea, I revisited a veritable cornucopia of projects from the febrile minds of these designers.
So, for example, you get not one but several of Frank Lloyd Wright’s deeply rhetorical concrete block houses in which he explored the tactile properties of that lowly building material. Hollyhock House in Barnsdale Park is but the most well known, being a public destination. But Wright’s low-slung houses that hug the slopes of the Hollywood Hills are extraordinary in their inventiveness and responsiveness to site. See them while you can: some are in severe states of decay and in danger of collapse.
Irving Gill was one of the very first local practitioners to evolve a stripped-down modernism from the then prevalent Spanish Colonial Revival style, even before the High Modernists of Europe – Le Corbusier, Mies, Gropius, et al – were getting it on. While Gill’s Dodge House was lamentably demolished, his deceptively modest Horatio West apartment building in Santa Monica is sublime.
Then there is Rudolph Schindler, the moody Viennese expat who came to California to work for, and perhaps influenced more than is acknowledged, Wright. Don’t leave LA without visiting his 1922 house on Kings Road in West Hollywood. It is an exquisite exercise in the interplay between interior and exterior space, solidity and permeability. It was also deeply innovative in its use of elements such as tilt-up concrete wall panels, sliding screens, and clerestory windows. It feels more Japanese than anything else.
So to Richard Neutra, another complicated Viennese. He arrived in California in the 1920s and went to work for, and live with, Schindler at his Kings Road compound. By 1929, he had designed what became his calling card in California, the Lovell House on the slopes below Griffith Park. Although hard to fully see from the street in all its modernist glory, it is well worth the circuitous drive up into the hills above Hollywood to pay homage. Come at sunset to get the full effect, but look out for the armed response security details that rove these parts.
From the Hollywood Hills I drive west towards the Pacific Ocean. Here, in a meadow overlooking the sea, the über-cool husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames served up what is perhaps the most astonishing house of all, their ‘machine for living in’ (Corbu’s phrase) that is #8 in the famous Case Study House series of homes commissioned by John Entenza, then publisher of the progressive Arts and Architecture magazine. Designed for themselves as their home and studio, and built in 1948 from prefabricated off-the-shelf industrial components, the Eames House hugs its slope like a sleek, eternally modern machine. You can visit the grounds during regular opening hours. Go and be inspired.
Frank Gehry ends my LA tour, and brings us full circle. Gehry, who was raised in Toronto by the way and is another Californian transplant, pulls the threads of these earlier iconoclasts together into whimsical yet profoundly modern form. The reticent stucco box of his Danziger Studio on Melrose Avenue, for example, or his flamboyant Norton House on the Venice Beach boardwalk, or his own house in suburban Santa Monica, serve up contemporary reinterpretations of the early modernists, while celebrating the vernacular and temporal nature of Los Angeles.
So my advice to all you urbanists out there: drop the superior attitude, embrace the LA zeitgeist, and hop into your convertible for an exhilarating tour of the best that the City of Angels has to offer. And enjoy the ride. I love Los Angeles. There, I said it!