Ancient granite supports visitors' feet as they walk the last steps up a wooded hill to Midgaard. Inside the timber cabin whose name, in Norse, means “between Heaven and Earth,” the loft railing bears peeling but still colorful floral designs, hand-painted decades ago. The back deck abuts a cliff and overlooks the shoreless horizon of Lake Superior: a breathtaking expanse of nearby islands and indigo blue. This rustic home grows out of earth to witness water and sky.
On another hill, far away, sunlight breaks through a concrete roof to cast drops of white light on an epic living room. At the Sheats-Goldstein House, an ultramodernist luxury home with a panoramic view of Los Angeles, old-fashioned drinking glasses embedded into the ceiling replicate the holes in the canopy of a primeval forest.
Thousands of miles and a million lifestyles separate Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Beverly Hills, but the imposing figure of John Lautner — who would have turned 100 on July 16 — bridges the gap.
Lautner is the great American architect whom few people have heard of. He has none of the name recognition of the famous Franks: Lloyd Wright, with whom Lautner apprenticed, and Gehry, whose imaginative work Lautner presaged (and reputedly disliked). That obscurity may be changing: The city of Los Angeles has declared July 16 John Lautner Day, and the John Lautner Foundation has scheduled a series of events to commemorate his centennial (see sidebar).
Lautner's fabulous, futuristic creations — including the “flying saucer” Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills and Bob Hope's Palm Springs hangout — have attracted cult followings and location scouts. They were the subject of a traveling Hammer Museum exhibition a few years ago. A Cal Poly Pomona class is working to have 10 of them put on the National Register of Historic Places.
The world may be catching up to the iconoclastic vision of the man who, when asked what he thought of the metropolis that he made his home, said he wanted to roll a giant boulder down Mulholland Drive. If only Lautner had been given the chance to sculpt the cityscape, instead of merely erect rare gems. The man who designed the Googie Coffee Shop — the origin of the name for a whole style of design — could even make roadside vernacular sing.
“Wright looks like a late-19th-century into early-modern architect — like he's dragging the 19th century into the 20th century,” says Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is hosting some Lautner events. “Lautner looks like the future. He's way ahead of his time and aesthetics.”
Eighty-eight years ago, the 12-year-old son of a professor father and artist mother caught the building bug when he helped haul logs up the cliff, then nail them into place at Midgaard, the family cabin. Although he lived most of his 83 years in Los Angeles, Lautner held fast to his grounding in nature and to the physical process of building. Long before the green construction vogue, he worked with wood, air flow and lighting, designing his structures to be part of — not an intrusion upon — the environment.
“Helping build the family camp, which was a family project, gave him his first experience in working with natural materials,” says his oldest daughter, Karol Peterson, who heads the John Lautner Foundation. “The view was expansive. This type of full view showed up in many Lautner houses.”
Lautner apprenticed at Wright's Taliesin East and West. He first came to L.A. to supervise construction of Wright's Sturges House. He stayed and hung up his own shingle, but never forgot his mentor's lessons.
“He worshipped Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Jim Goldstein, who worked with Lautner, until the architect's death, on upgrading and expanding his home, the Sheats-Goldstein House. “But he was opposite of Wright in terms of his ego. He had no ego.”
Lautner absorbed the master's ideas about connecting indoor and outdoor space, and then launched them into outer space. A wizard of engineering feats, he made concrete roofs fly and walls disappear. Homes like the Arango, a colossus of cement and glass encircled by a clear, flowing moat, and the Beyer Residence, where Malibu beach boulders spill into the living room, defy logic and convention, not to mention traditional building codes. When Hope first viewed Lautner's model of his Palm Springs home, he quipped, “At least when they come down from Mars, they'll know where to go.”
“What's also striking about Lautner is his range of imagery,” says Govan, who will eventually make Goldstein's Lautner-designed office his own, once LACMA renovates its West building. “He didn't have a signature style. The office is truly a symphony of materials: wood, stone, glass, concrete, steel, copper. It's very sculptural. That's what's attractive about his work — it's like sculpture.”
Goldstein's bedroom looks out across L.A. through ceiling-to-floor windows. With the push of a button, two panes of glass slide back from a triangulated corner to open the room to the sky. The wall and sink of the master bathroom are also translucent, offering the same view. The interior wall of this master suite houses a window into the swimming pool. Air and water, views and voyeurism, from the U.P. to L.A. — Lautner honored what nature provided. “He felt that the people in Los Angeles who make the decisions on how public buildings are designed and constructed were way too conservative,” Goldstein says.
Not all of Lautner's works are tony, space-age bachelor pads of gangsters and porn stars in movies such as The Big Lebowski and Charlie's Angels, which Sheats-Goldstein is. A July 23 tour of four Lautner houses will offer a rare glimpse of the Jacobsen House, a modest two-bedroom. Raised by erudite but middle-class Midwesterners, Lautner wanted his buildings to be for the public, not just for playboys.
But most of the commercial buildings he built, including Googie, are gone. Architectural admirers have lovingly refurbished the Desert Hot Springs Motel and renamed it the Lautner Motel, but it will cost you a few hundred to spend a night in this remote Dwell wet dream.
Then again, the architect himself didn't know what it was really like to live in one of his buildings. Though the first L.A. home he built was for himself in Silver Lake, he lived there for only a few years. Peterson says it was one of the disappointments of her father's life that he never again built a roof over his own head.
Inspired by climate and geography, every 20th-century architect who made L.A. the fountain of American modernism — from Greene & Greene, to Wright, to Schindler, to Neutra — has sought to bring the outside inside. For Lautner, the elements were his foundation. Towering old-growth pines, ancient volcanic rocks and the sweetwater seas of Superior gave him a deep but not sentimental respect for Earth's creativity.
Like Lautner, I've spent years walking the woods of northern Michigan, soaking in its grand vistas and contemplative solitude. I recognized that feeling of light, that spirit of natural imagination, the first time I saw Lautner's designs. Last summer, Peterson gave me a tour of Midgaard. Watching an eagle soar across the lake from its back porch, I wondered what Lautner used to think when he stood on the deck of Sheats-Goldstein. Could he see past the neon and smog to Santa Catalina and the Pacific?
Lautner called his approach “real architecture.” “It seems to me, the Artist's and Philosopher's lifetime work is a search for Reality,” he wrote. “Reality is my lifetime search to produce timeless, joy-giving, life-giving free spaces to fulfill ideally man's needs — physical and spiritual, i.e., total.”
JOHN LAUTNER EVENTS THIS MONTH
John Lautner exhibit at LACMA, July 16-24: includes an archival model and photographs of the Goldstein Office
Stayin’ Alive: The Legacy of John Lautner, at LACMA, July 16, 2 p.m.: panel of architects, critics and preservationists, followed by birthday reception (4:30 p.m.)
Artist Dan Graham discusses Lautner, at LACMA, July 17, 4 p.m.
100th-birthday home tour, July 23, 10 a.m.: Offers behind-the-scenes access to four Lautner-designed L.A. homes
Gala celebrating Lautner’s 100th birthday, at Lautner’s Harpel Residence, July 24, 6 p.m.: to benefit the protection of Lautner’s buildings
An evening of Lautner-related films, at the Egyptian Theatre, July 30, 7 p.m.
For more information visit johnlautner.org.