Frank Lloyd Wright called him “the world’s second-best architect.”1 His spectacular homes have been the settings for commercials, Vogue fashion spreads, and dozens of movies. Most people have seen his astonishing work, but very few know his name. It’s John Lautner.
Lautner’s “Chemosphere,” built in 1960, looks like a flying saucer or the home of the Jetsons. It’s actually a 2,200-square-foot family home. The octagonal “saucer,” supported by eight steel beams, rests on a concrete post. The home was put together with epoxy—a material that Lautner was the first to use in home building.2
In Diamonds are Forever (1971), James Bond did battle with bikini-clad guards Bambi and Thumper in Lautner’s Elrod House (1968), a dramatic, circular concrete structure built into, around, and incorporating the jagged rocks of a Palm Springs cliff.3 Bond lost the fight and was thrown into the pool—an indoor-outdoor infinity pool—that Lautner invented and first used in the 1950s.4
Lautner’s interest in architecture began at the age of twelve when he did carpentry and laid floors while helping his father construct the family’s vacation home. Lautner’s mother (an artist and admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright) designed the home, and father and son built it by hand in the northern Michigan woods.5
After graduating from college with a liberal arts degree, Lautner decided how he was going to spend the rest of his life.
I always had a horror of any kind of routine, and that’s one of the reasons that I ultimately chose architecture. Because I felt when I was a student that many professions became ruts and routines. . . . But inherent in architecture, it involves everything in life, so that there is absolutely no end to it. By the time you’re seventy or eighty, you’re still beginning.6
Lautner knew he had a lot to learn, but not at an architecture school.
[I]n high school I had a drafting course, and it was so damn boring I couldn’t stand it: the picayune little man, and keeping your pencils sharp, and getting the lettering right—It had absolutely nothing to do with architecture. So I knew that if I went to a typical architectural school, I’d just be absolutely dead. Because I couldn’t deal with that picayune stuff. But, when I read about Frank Lloyd Wright, I mean it was just unbelievable.7
Lautner went to study with Wright, joining the first class of Taliesin apprentices in 1933.
Unlike the diminutive Wright, twenty-two-year-old John Lautner was an imposing figure. He was six-foot-four, broad-shouldered, and built like a football player, but he had a high forehead and the intense, penetrating eyes of a scientist.
He enjoyed life at Taliesin, especially the physical labor and the actual building. He learned how to use stone and wood. This was unlike a typical architecture school where, according to Lautner, “they don’t even know what the materials are. They’re making sketches or plans, and they have absolutely no meaning.”8 Wright required the apprentices to plan and cook intimate dinners as well as elaborate banquets, thus teaching them the importance of kitchen design. Lautner observed that most architects “just read what some expert says about a kitchen, but they never worked in a kitchen, so they don’t know what the hell it is.”9
Although all of the Taliesin apprentices had come to learn architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright, most of them merely copied the way Wright did things. Lautner was different.
[Wright] kept accenting the idea that there wasn’t any real architecture unless you had a whole idea . . . it’s just an assembly. What most people do is an assembly of cliches or facades or what-have-you; there’s no real idea. . . .
And I purposely didn’t copy any of Mr. Wright’s drawings or even take any photographs, because I was a purist. I was an idealist. I was going to work from my own philosophy, and that’s what he wanted apprentices to do, too. . . . Well, practically none of them were able to do it.10
Lautner preferred building sites to drafting tables, and Wright trusted him to supervise many projects including the building of Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and the Johnson Wax Building in Wisconsin.11 In March of 1938, Lautner went to Los Angeles to oversee the construction of Wright’s Sturges House in Brentwood. He continued to supervise projects and design for Wright in California for several years, but he was eager to strike out on his own.
He sought employment in Los Angeles but didn’t mention where he had learned to build. “When I came here if I told somebody I had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, they’d kick me out. . . . I couldn’t get a job in any office, because that’s too radical.”12
In 1939, Lautner took on his first independent project: his own home in Silverlake, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. With borrowed land and money, and with his own hands, he designed and built an extraordinary home for $4,500 (about $80,000 today).13
In 1941, in the pages of House Beautiful, noted architectural critic Henry-Russell Hitchcock declared Lautner’s home “the best house in the United States by an architect under thirty.”14 The home launched Lautner’s career. Lautner recalled how, for a decade after the publication of that article, clients came to him because they were impressed by his home. “So I started right from scratch the way Mr. Wright did and built up my practice from my own work, without any PR or promotion or sales or anything.”15
After his own home, Lautner built the Bell House in Hollywood Hills in 1940 and the Springer House in Echo Park in 1941. In his first two or three years, he had about a dozen clients, and then the World War II rationing of materials halted all nonmilitary building.16
During the war, Lautner worked as a superintendent for a military contractor who built barracks. “I wanted to know more about the contracting so that in the future I could do more architecture,” he explained. “And that’s what’s enabled me to, because the typical architect doesn’t know enough about contracting or building. They’re scared to death. They all succumb to the contractors.”17
In 1944, toward the end of the war, Lautner began working as a designer for Douglas Honnold, a prominent Beverly Hills architect. Honnold’s daughter wrote about her father’s business before Lautner had joined.
Until John came, my father’s clients received a fine bunch of eclectic solutions to their needs. No new ground was broken, no surprises came, and the sedate rich of the movie colony could expect fine Georgian and Beaux Arts details and elegant moldings and finials and sweeping staircases.18
Then the untraditional, unrestrained, exuberant John Lautner arrived.
Daddy found that turning John loose was the way to go, but for heaven’s sake keep him away from the clients. . . . those brilliantly colored shirts, that giant Irish guffaw, those massive hands that carved their jobs out of thin air . . . a risky flight indeed. And building by building, up one side of Rodeo drive and down Doheny and around the corner on Sunset, the magical Lautner touch came to pass.19
Lautner told how Honnold’s social and political connections brought him plenty of work.
[W]e did some black market work in Beverly Hills, because you weren’t allowed to build anything [during the war], and you couldn’t get any materials unless you had the priorities . . . and that was all baloney too. If you were rich in Beverly Hills you could build anyway, so that’s the way it was. So I worked with [Honnold] for, I guess, two or three years. And I designed about one hundred and fifty jobs while I was with him. And, I don’t know, maybe ten or fifteen were built. But he knew how to—he had all the contacts, you know. He knew how to get jobs.20
Lautner was busy and doing well, and Honnold soon took him on as a partner. Then Lautner met someone who was to have a major impact on his life and career: Elizabeth, the great love of his life.
But Lautner was married. Elizabeth was married, too—to Douglas Honnold.
In 1947, two marriages and a business partnership ended. In 1948, John Lautner and Elizabeth Gilman Honnold were married. The lovers were together but, professionally, Lautner was now completely on his own.21
When he split with Douglas Honnold, Lautner lost the many lucrative commercial projects that Honnold otherwise would have brought him. In the late 1940s, Lautner was barely getting by doing small, private homes.
Lautner’s radical designs—and the ingenious construction techniques he invented in order to build them—had always been newsworthy. Pictures of Lautner’s dramatic buildings sold magazines and newspapers. But in the articles, he was always credited as “John Lautner, Designer.” He wasn’t a licensed architect.
He hadn’t studied at a recognized school of architecture, and his six years with Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t earn him an accredited degree. Despite his experience with construction, his innovative use of materials, and his invention of new structural components and methods, he kept flunking the structural engineering part of the architectural licensing exam. He had never learned how to make ordinary buildings in the usual and accepted way.22
His clients didn’t care. They had seen Lautner’s buildings in magazines and in person, and they wanted him to design their homes. Then the February 1952 issue of House and Home changed all of that.
Douglas Haskell, the editor of America’s premier architectural and home building publication, liked modern architecture and promoted it—as long as it was the ordinary and usual steel and glass box. But Lautner thought and built far outside the minimalist box, designing freely with open circles, triangles, and soaring spaces. Haskell didn’t know what to think of this and found it quite disturbing.
Worst of all, people were talking about Lautner’s buildings, and they loved them. Haskell hated them—especially for the characteristics that everyone else found so unique and wonderful—but he didn’t have the courage to say so. Instead, he mocked the best aspects of Lautner’s work, not even in his own name. Haskell put his ridicule into the mouth of a fictional “Professor Thrugg” who lectured about a silly new architectural style he called “Googie Architecture.”23
Googie’s was a popular and commercially successful restaurant in Los Angeles that Lautner had built, but the professor never mentioned Lautner’s name. He just made fun of his designs.
“Professor Thrugg” described how Googie’s “bright red roof of cellular steel decking suddenly tilts upward as if swung on a hinge, and the whole building goes up with it like a rocket ramp.” He noted there was a building next-door and commented, with fake sadness, “It seems to symbolize life today. . . . Skyward aspiration blocked by Schwab’s Pharmacy.”24
As for the Googie-style of lightness and freedom, the professor noted that “both the glass and the stone are conceived to float,” and concluded disparagingly that “it is strictly an architecture up in the air.” The professor also made fun of Googie’s bold use of materials. “Redwood and asbestos cement and glass block and plastics and plywood and more and more and more and more orchard stone! . . . ‘Why throw the coal into the furnace?’ it asks. ‘Why not into the wall? Why not build with string?’” As for Googie’s structural innovations, he wrote: “To the inventions of the modern engineer, Googie adds all of Popular Mechanics. Walls that are hinged and roll out on casters, doors that disappear into the ground, overhead lights that cook the hamburger.”25
Haskell mocked the creativity of Googie-style structures, comparing them to the buildings of an individualistic fictional hero.
Googie is produced by architects, not by ambitious mechanics, and some of these architects starve for it. After all, they are working in Hollywood, and Hollywood has let them know what it expects of them. I refer you to that great popular classic, The Fountainhead. You may recall that every building the mythical hero Roarke [sic] created struck his audience on the head like a thunderclap. Each was Original. Each was a Revelation. None resembled any building ever done before.26
Haskell followed this article with another titled “John Lautner’s Houses Take All Hollywood as a Stage.”
The article pretended to be an impartial critique of three Lautner buildings. The sneering professor was gone, and there was no mention of “Googie architecture,” but the connection to the previous article—and the same snarky attitude toward exactly the same unique features of Lautner’s work—were obvious.27
The first building was L’Horizon Apartments on the UCLA campus. Lautner described L’Horizon as eight apartments of about nine hundred square feet each. Each apartment also included its own private terrace, and there were no common walls, so the “apartments seem like separate houses.” The “full perimeter has light and air,” and “All apartments [can be] entered from easy winding ramps.” The interiors were designed “without bearing walls,” which Lautner pointed out, “make[s] re-division of rooms possible.” Haskell scornfully remarked that the apartments showed “how far a ‘free-wheeling’ treatment of free form . . . can go.”28
Next was the hillside home Lautner had built for Foster Carling. Lautner had designed and engineered the house so that its entire living room and its enclosing wall pivoted on a turntable. When the mechanism revolved, the living room opened up and became a patio. Haskell commented that the home “looks architecturally more like an operating stage set than a customary dwelling.” And echoing his earlier criticism of Googie’s rolling walls, he said, “Since the walls support nothing, one of them can be swung out on hinges to survey pool and view, swung back again to close the room.”29
The third building was a home Lautner had built on a residential street in Sherman Oaks for Louise Foster, which Haskell described as an “astonishing house built around a kind of wheel-spoke frame for floors and roof which Lautner once again finds irresistible.” Haskell sarcastically assured his readers that the curving wood-clad structure was “not a shipping crate or fort, but a house for a single lady.”30
After casting aspersions on Lautner’s three buildings, Haskell ended with a warning to anyone thinking of hiring Lautner to design their home. Did they really want a house that would be so out of place and undignified? “Are residential streets of the future to be as exuberant as today’s highways lined with the fantasies of gas station and roadside nightclub?,” Haskell asked.31
Haskell’s attack on Lautner and his work, unfortunately, was effective. Architectural historian Alan Hess wrote, “The temptingly silly label helped to squelch any serious consideration of vernacular commercial architecture, or Lautner’s solid contribution to commercial architecture.” Hess wrote that “Googie” came to be looked down on because “it was a little too commercial, a little too flamboyant, a little too western, a little too American for serious consideration.”32
Although Lautner finally got his architectural license in 1952, by then nobody wanted “Googie architecture.” His work had dried up.
His stepdaughter described what the family called “a thin time” when Lautner had “only about half a job on the boards and nothing coming in whatsoever.” What kept them going, she said, was that “my mother had a deep and abiding faith in John’s work, and a total confidence that the good angels of architecture would, in time, provide.” Elizabeth Lautner gave her husband moral and emotional support—and cooked plenty of beans and other “stretchable meals” for him—while waiting for his kind of client to come.33
Throughout Lautner’s career, he needed to find rugged individualists as clients, but there weren’t many of them in Los Angeles. “Out of 10 million people in this area,” he said, “I find maybe five or six a year with some independent thinking and concern for architecture.”34 Like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Lautner didn’t build in order to have clients, but he did have to have clients in order to build.
According to Lautner’s stepdaughter, Lautner’s independent, architecture-loving clients were “either rich bastards or poor geniuses.”35
One of them, Kenneth Reiner, was rich and a genius.
Reiner was an industrialist who had made his fortune in the 1940s and 1950s designing and manufacturing two innovative products: self-locking aircraft nuts and spring-loaded ladies’ hair clips. He brought the same inventiveness to building his dream home with Lautner. Starting in 1956, the two of them worked for more than a decade building Silvertop, considered one of Lautner’s masterpieces.
“They really clicked,” Alan Hess wrote. “They were both far-out thinkers” who loved technology and invention.
Silvertop had faucet-less sinks that automatically filled with water, a dining table you could raise and lower on a hydraulic pedestal, silent and invisible heating and cooling systems, and lights and appliances with hidden controls in the walls. If Lautner needed a part that didn’t exist, Reiner invented it and made it for him in his factory.36
Unlike Reiner, Leonard Malin, who commissioned the flying saucer-like Chemosphere, was far from rich. He was an ambitious young aerospace engineer who saw that “most people work their whole lives to build their dream house,” and thought, “Why not build it now, and pay for it for the rest of my life?”37
Though Malin didn’t have much money, Malin’s father-in-law had given him a lot with a magnificent view of the San Fernando Valley. Unfortunately, the forty-five degree slope was considered unbuildable without expensive earthmoving to flatten the lot. Having seen a nearby home by Lautner, Malin went to him for a solution.
Lautner boldly sketched a vertical line, a cross, and a curve above it for the house, a design that left the hillside untouched. The home would rest on a single concrete column supported by a concrete pedestal, almost twenty feet in diameter, buried under the earth, so that the house could survive earthquakes and heavy rains.38
Determined to build as Lautner had designed, Malin devised a plan to stretch his limited budget. He went looking for sponsors to pay for the materials and construction, and he found them. The Chem Seal Corporation donated the building materials and promoted the home as a showcase for their experimental epoxies, coatings, and resins used to put the house together. The Southern California Gas Company paid to feature the futuristic home in its ads.39
Just as Lautner needed independent, rugged individualists to commission his buildings, he also required such men to construct them.
Most contractors, after seeing Lautner’s plans, wanted to charge as much as five times more than the reasonable cost for steel and masonry work. Lautner’s wartime experience working for a contractor gave him insight and confidence that many architects lacked. “I’d just have to tell the contractor to go to hell,” Lautner recalled. “I had to get all the sub-bids and hand it to the contractor in order to get a decent price.”40 Thus, Lautner often filled the roles of both architect and contractor, though he was not paid for the latter.
But Lautner eventually did attract a few remarkably skilled, competent, and honest men he could rely on.
John de la Vaux was a master carpenter who built yachts and fine homes. Lautner described him as “a fantastic builder who could do absolutely anything.”41 He built many homes for Lautner including Silvertop, Chemosphere, and the Foster Carling house with its revolving indoor-outdoor living room. The turntable mechanism still works perfectly, after seventy years, “like a Rolex watch.”42
For work with concrete, Lautner relied on Wally Niewiadomski, whom he brought from Chicago to build
Silvertop in 1956. Lautner also had him build the Elrod “James Bond” house because, “if I didn’t have him, why, I could never even design anything like that; nobody would touch it, no typical general contractor.”43
Lautner’s work eventually gained the respect it deserved. In 1986, he told an interviewer that he finally was working on the kind of commissions he so desperately had wanted for the first forty years of his career. “I have three or four that are all interesting like that, I mean, under construction. So that’s my reward. I do have some exciting buildings under construction, and it’s fun to see those accomplished.”
There was, however, a slight downside to finally being recognized as an architectural genius. “I find that people come, the last two or three years anyway, maybe more, they expect a museum piece. . . . And so that really is a challenge.” But that was a challenge Lautner had always wanted. “I asked for the responsibility, which I couldn’t get when I was younger, and that used to make me madder than hell, because nobody’d allow you to do anything. And now every one has to be a masterpiece. So I asked for it, and I got it,” he said, laughing.44
Lautner no longer was derided and pigeonholed as a “Googie architect.” Instead, decades later, critics found him impossible to classify. “I know some of them have said . . . ‘Lautner has not yet developed a style.’ Well, I never wanted to develop a style,” he said. “I just wanted to do good architecture.”45
Although Lautner refused to identify with any style, eventually he did name his architectural philosophy. He called it Real Architecture. By this, he meant architecture that is “authentic, creative, new, and based on the needs—including emotional needs—of his clients,” while integrating with—and enhancing—the site.46
Lautner wrote: “The world’s richest nation should be able to produce a free, beautiful Architecture for individuals—for people—to daily increase the Joy in life. . . . Architecture being involved with everything is like life itself when it is Real Architecture—alive, fresh, exhilarating—yet solid and enduring.”47
Each of John Lautner’s buildings is individual, innovative, logical, and true to its central integrating idea—just like their creator. They are joyful, open, free, alive, and real—and so was John Lautner.