Midcentury Modern, Los Angeles Style (1)

This post really counts as ‘extra-curricular’ material as our Architectural Enthusiasm project is specifically concerned with twentieth century architecture in the UK.  But at the moment I have the pleasure of spending a few weeks in Los Angeles to pursue another of my interests: landscape/land art and artists’ books.  It has, however, been difficult to put enthusiasm for twentieth century architecture aside, especially because I am working at the Getty Research Institute, part of a huge modern-style arts/culture campus designed by Richard Meier that opened in 1997.  This, if nothing else, is certainly giving me an appreciation for how blue skies work to offset white buildings.  Not something we often get to appreciate in the temperate UK climate.   But here isn’t the place to start pontificating on climactic conditions and modern architecture.

The Getty Center

Los Angeles at large, thanks to its substantial growth since the post-war period, is an absolute hotspot for fans of twentieth century architecture.  As one person remarked to me “there is this stuff everywhere in LA.”  Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, Googie, Modern, Moderne, Historic Revival, Ranch Style, Streamline Moderne, Zigzag Moderne, Storybook*…you name it and I’ve seen it.  This glut of c20 buildings has definitely kept me, and my camera entertained, but I also wanted to look into what form architectural enthusiasm takes in a place where so much of the architecture dates from the period that our project is looking at.

My first stop was the Eames House in Pacific Palisades, also known as Case Study House #8.  Click here for more of a background to the Case Study Programme.  Conceived by design powerhouses Charles and Ray Eames, and lived in by them from 1949 until Ray’s death in 1988, the house is now run by the Eames Foundation. For a small fee, and pre-booked appointment, the Foundation allow limited numbers of visitors (never more than 20 at a time) to examine the exterior of the house and its modest grounds.  This is what they refer to as “self-guided exterior tour.”  I wanted to visit, both as an admirer of the Eames’ work, and also to find out who else would go out of their way to see this very modest scale house that is tucked at the end of a private road, in a not particularly obvious part of Los Angeles.  And if I’m fessing up to my modus operandi – also to see if I could bag a few other Case Study houses that are located nearby.  (Which I did but couldn’t actually see much because they are private homes, and very well tucked away, sometimes behind security fences).

The Eames House, Case Study House #8

My first impression of my visit to the Eames House was that I wasn’t going to find out much at all.  For nearly half an hour I was the only visitor, others who had booked before me were late, and the next party weren’t due for another hour.  But I did rather enjoy having the site to myself.  The house was far smaller than I’d imagined it to be, though impressive all the same, a kind of 3D expression of a Mondrian painting in the form of a Modern family home.  After I’d gone round a couple of times, read the information panels, and admired the view out to sea, one other visitor arrived who strangely seemed to ignore the house – instead concentrating on intensely photographing the rather scrubby grounds (or meadow as it was referred to by the Eames’).  How odd.

Round the back of the Eames House

I was lucky enough to catch the member of staff who was manning the office, which is based in what was the Eames’ studio, who obliged in answering my questions.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the House is mainly visited by architects and designers, so it’s something of a design mecca either for inspiration or sheer inquisitiveness into how the house was put together.  A lot of why people visit has to do with the reputation of the Eames as a couple, and to put it simply: people often want to have a nose at their house (I think I was probably in that category).  For this reason the House is very carefully managed so that it retains something of the sense that it was lived in, used and adapted over time, not mothballed in 1949 when it was completed.  It certainly isn’t a pristine ‘show home’, and apparently some people find this a bit disappointing.  I guess this is people who are hunting for architectural/design purity, but I enjoyed peeking through a window into the kitchen and seeing that it was actually a bit cluttered.  It made the place seem more alive.

Eames Elephant

I think the future of the Eames House is pretty certain, it has a lot of interest behind it, afterall, the Eames’ remain international design superstars.  The Foundation are certainly working very hard to ensure it doesn’t fall into disrepair.  This is underlined by its listing as a Historic-Cultural Monument.  So the House is validated as ‘significant’ in several ways.  This isn’t the case, however, for most post-war Modern houses in LA and I’ll return to this point in my next post which will cover a tour I went on around Silver Lake, an LA suburb with an abundance of Modern residential architecture.

For a far superior interpretation of the Eames House I recommend looking at: Ice Cube Celebrates the Eames.  “In the world of McMansions where the structure takes up all the land, the Eames made structure and nature one.  This is going green 1949 style.”
– Hannah

*Storybook is, quite frankly, even more bonkers than some of the Historic Revival mock-tudor-rama monstrosities I’ve seen. It’s specifically designed to resemble something out of a fairytale.  It’s probably quite apt that it was most popular in Los Angeles.


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One response to “Midcentury Modern, Los Angeles Style (1)

  1. popplewell1960

    Nice trip, Hannah! Your mention of clutter at the Eames House puts me in mind of Robert Venturi’s celebration of it ‘reinventing good old Victorian clutter’. Ian.

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