Lautner’s Mar Brisas House

For those who find consolation in visionary architecture, this city has always been a powerful antidepressant. Its wealth of 20th-century treasures, mostly private homes, reminds us that it is possible to find quiet corners of enlightenment in dystopian times.

“Between Earth and Heaven: The Architecture of John Lautner,” an exhibition at the Hammer Museum here, makes a strong case that Lautner’s role in forging that architectural legacy has been curiously underestimated. Organized by Frank Escher and Nicholas Olsberg, it presents about 120 plans, sections and renderings that counter his longstanding image as an architect who succumbed to Hollywood gaudiness and glamour. What we glean instead is a keen structural knowledge wedded to an environmental sensitivity — a seamless bond of nature, space and humankind.

Sadly, in their earnest effort to rehabilitate Lautner’s reputation, the curators have toned down the fantasy and sensuality that make his houses so intoxicating. The play of light, air, water and materials that is intrinsic to his best work is often lost amid an abundance of coolly abstract technical drawings. An impressive work of scholarship, this is nonetheless an oddly dry show that may bore the average viewer.

Like other great Los Angeles architects before him, Lautner, who died in 1994, was a dreamer in a land that inspired outlandish fantasies. The Michigan-born son of an artist and a professor, he worked as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s, when Wright was entering his most radical Modernist phase.

Attached to the woodlands and lakes of his birthplace, Lautner hated Los Angeles, which he viewed as a cultural wasteland obsessed with money and devoid of beauty. Yet few serious architects are as closely associated with the city’s blend of pop culture and nature, rugged individuality and lush hedonism. Like the work of the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, his buildings take their cues from their natural settings to such an extent that they are unimaginable elsewhere…

For me the great discovery in the show is the 1969 Walstrom House, in the Santa Monica Mountains. Built for an aeronautics engineer and his wife, it is a deceptively simple three-story wood box with a strikingly sloped roof. Lautner set the house into the side of a steep hill along a path that the couple used to hike up into the mountains. He even integrated the path into his composition, threading it through the rear section of the dwelling.

Lautner’s Walstrom House

Entering the house, you can either turn and step up into the two-story living room or proceed out to the top of the hill. A balcony is perched in the upper corner of the living room, like a bird’s nest; you feel as though you are wandering through the trees.

With its asymmetrical forms and intentionally rough wood construction, the house anticipates the iconoclastic work of later architects like Frank Gehry. And it teases out the mythic themes of Los Angeles architecture: freedom from convention, stunning surroundings, the fleeting nature of man’s imprint on the landscape.

It also underscores Lautner’s intellectual breadth. His work is never a mere sculptural exercise; it always starts with an intimate understanding of the site, which prevents him from slipping into self-indulgence. That spirit of empathy, of context, unites all great architecture. Whatever the show’s flaws, this revelation alone is worth the price of admission.

Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times