Filed under: Architecture
Christopher Hawthorne reviews Between Heaven and Earth, the John Lautner exhibition at the Hammer Museum.
Lautner’s architecture, even if not about futurism, was consistently marked by a fugitive instinct. If not quite Wrightian huts or concrete-and-glass spaceships, his houses are absolutely vehicles for retreat and escape.
It’s no secret that Lautner disliked Los Angeles. He described his life here as “too rotten to imagine” and complained that the city was “so ugly it made me physically sick.” Many of his most significant houses, sunk into or hovering over hillsides, are precisely containers for a life safely detached and hidden away from that ugliness.
He stayed here, at least if his comments on the subject are to be believed, only because there was so much work for architects in Southern California in the decades following World War II.
As Olsberg points out in the show’s catalog, “for 26 consecutive months after the war, Los Angeles County had more housing starts than anywhere else in the U.S.”
But it’s not just the chaotic commercial strips of Los Angeles from which Lautner’s houses flee: It’s also from engaged, communitarian architecture in a broader sense. Lautner designed a relative handful of restaurants, apartments, car dealerships and schools. But because he didn’t earn his license until the 1950s, he was ineligible for many large-scale public projects.
That hole in his portfolio didn’t seem to vex him, at least not enough for him to figure out how to fill it.
The exhibition catalogue, with texts by Nicholas Olsberg, Jean-Louis Cohen, and Frank Escher, ranges from romantic exhultations of Lautner’s working process to hardened descriptions of his structural struggles and difficulties in carrying on a financially stable practice.
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