Film culture’s obsession with the LA architecture of John Lautner

In the new issue of VQR, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Los Angeles journalist Adam Baer (with photographer Elizabeth Daniels) explores his own and Hollywood's draw to LA architecture, especially the work of Lautner.

One should not move to Los Angeles ambivalent about living in a near-perpetual state of revision. I’ve lived in the city for eight years, enough time to love it deeply, and in adopting the Angeleno constitution I’ve come to embrace an abiding concern with appearances. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, that the city is superficial. But Los Angeles—with its sylvan, scruffy hills of shrubs and chaparral, its flexibly employed subcultures, the mishmash of mini-cities and architectural styles resting comfortably above fault lines—is both a city to watch and a city that watches you back as you traverse it. The mountains and valleys draw you in, the topographic secrets and security gates keep you hunting—especially if you have a taste for architecture (and you will build one here if you don’t). Soon enough you find yourself methodically exploring the sprawl in search of what’s deemed architecturally significant, making a personal study of each home’s provenance along the way: So-and-so owns this one; Movie A was made there; a Manson-family murder happened around the corner; this space-age thing could house the Jetsons.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I found myself energized by the city’s aesthetic extremes and, upon watching Brian de Palma’s Body Double, quickly sought out John Lautner’s Chemosphere house, arguably the film’s most pivotal character: an octagonal pod-like home with a 360° view, thrust above the hills on a single pole plunged deep into a steep, sloping lot.


Lautner homes—fluid, organic playgrounds for space and light, set in the elements—have been used in over a dozen movies, often as the homes of solitary men, most of them ne’er-do-wells....

Whether it’s the sculptural concrete, the walls of glass, or the surprising angles of steel and wood, the elements of Lautner’s homes appeal immediately to the human spirit. Lautner created spaces that invite us to be (or at least think) primal inside them, and therefore, in some sense, to act free, even play. His homes represent an independent, less systematic approach to modernism—honoring modernism more intrinsically than the homes of his forebears by following the contours of the earth as opposed to the linear blueprints of the more strict International Style. Lautner’s homes are not attempts at luxury. They are, at the core, art projects, and they were produced for remarkably humble sums (about $2,000 in 1960 to design and oversee the construction of the Chemosphere; about $4,000 in 1968 for the Elrod House). Despite their use in film, they evoke nothing nefarious; if anything, they project an exuberance for life, a dialogue with nature. Quite simply, they encourage imagination. (That Lautner was a jazz enthusiast makes sense: Many of his houses sculpt concrete as well as air, the way Miles Davis, say, used sound as well as silence.)

Photo of the Sheats–Goldstein House: Elizabeth Daniels

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