ON THE EDGE OF TOMORROW Three California architects, their unconventional clients, and an experimental building program radically transformed the modern house in the first half of the last century.
The architects believed new building materials and industrial methods would provide a replicable model for modern, mass-produced housing. The clients were reformers in their own fields who expected modern architecture to reflect their enlightened social values and healthful lifestyle.
They considered themselves rational and practical; but what resonates today is their romantic vision of the future that is now.
Starting in the 1910's and 20's, Southern California has asserted itself as a social and cultural influence on America. It developed distinct and prescient versions of modern architecture that reflected its social culture, environment and technology. The legacy of these modern experiments would define the architecture of California, which has influenced national popular culture until the present.
IRVING GILL came to California for his health. His simple, cubic, modern building designs were intended to promote a clean, sanitary and healthful environment.
His most prominent patron, Ellen Scripps, was a successful newspaper publisher and philanthropist with an interest in scientific research, women’s issues and girls' education. The innovative concrete construction technique Gill employed, using tilt-up concrete panels cast flat on-site, that were then tilted into place, is still in use today.
A commission from heiress Aline Barnsdall for an expansive home and performing arts complex in Hollywood ended a dry spell for FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, and enabled the architect to reinvent himself. Barnsdall was an independent, socially-progressive woman who had been a patron of the performing arts in Chicago, and was bringing high culture to Los Angeles.
For a series of other Los Angeles houses Wright developed a unique, structurally-integrated construction method that laid patterned cement blocks without mortar, interlaced them with steel reinforcing rods, then filled the gaps with concrete to create a monolithic wall system.
Construction supervision of the Barnsdall projects was left to R. M. SCHINDLER, who had trained with the most prominent modernists in Vienna.
The buildings Schindler designed in his own practice were appropriate and innovative applications of the properties of their different materials. The Lovell beach house Schindler designed in Newport Beach was an unexpected solution. Five bold, open concrete frames, which would not be possible in any other material, lifted the volume of the house above the street and beach.
Leah Lovell had taught in Barnsdall’s progressive kindergarten with Schindler’s wife Pauline. Her husband Dr. Phillip Lovell was a homeopathic, ‘drugless’ doctor whose newspaper health columns promoted body-building, nude sunbathing and a vegetarian diet; and helped shape the image of a California lifestyle.
The ‘Health House’ RICHARD NEUTRA, another Viennese exile, designed for the Lovell’s in Griffith Park was intended as a model for a healthy, clean and sanitary living environment. Its structure was an unprecedented steel frame from which lightweight planes and volumes were cantilevered and suspended, lifted free of the ground on slender piers.
There was a shortage of building materials available in the 1930’s and 1940’s. RAFAEL SORIANO experimented with local aviation technology, new materials like bent plywood, and standardized steel framing components to produce residential and commercial models for postwar building construction.
When practice wanes, theory thrives. The generation of architects who reached maturity after World War II envisioned the mass-production of low cost housing using newly-developed products, and tapping the under-used postwar industrial capacity for pre-fabrication.
To promote this potential, magazine editor John Entenza commissioned young architects to design experimental CASE STUDY HOUSES for real clients. The steel framed houses designed by Charles Eames, Pierre Koenig, Craig Ellwood and others created the enduring vision of the modern house and California lifestyle.