Midcentury Modern, Los Angeles Style (2)

Following my previous post on The Eames House in this one I provide a brief account of a half day spent in the company of Architecture Tours L.A.  I came across the tours online, and decided that they seemed to provide a more specialist focus to tours offered by the L.A. Conservancy, especially the coverage of post-war/midcentury modern.  I plumped for the Silver Lake tour, as it appeared good way for me to get a crash course into the domestic architecture of Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, architects that I’d come across via the luxurious photography of Julius Shulman.  (Schulman is most famous for his photo of the Stahl House, Case Study House #22, architect Pierre Koenig).

So it was that I found myself waiting in a supermarket car park at 9.30am on a Sunday morning.  This was when I realised that I had signed myself up for an architectural tour that was rather different from the C20 Society events that I’ve become accustomed to over the past year.  Main difference: participants = me.  This was going to be a very individual tour.


The next three hours were spent in the company of Laura, an architectural historian, who has lived in Silver Lake for the past twenty or so years.  What I received was a real insider’s view of select modern buildings in the area.  Being driven around stopping off here and there to take a closer look at mainly residential properties, did feel quite extravagant.  Being a public transport type, I’m much more used to approaching things on foot.  It did, however, allow access to the hills in and around Silver Lake (some of the steepest in L.A.) and plenty of opportunities to chat about the growing popularity of midcentury modern, and the status of these houses with regards to conservation, and the types of enthusiasts that own them.

McAlmont Residence, R.M. Schindler

The accompanying photos show a handful of the sites that we stopped at.  From neo-modernist houses built in the past few years that are trying to emulate the aesthetic (if not the original intent) – through to the pioneering work of Rudolph Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and even the space-age designs of John Lautner.  There was certainly a lot of midcentury to see in this gentrified L.A. suburb, and this concentration of modern houses was explained as part and parcel of the long-standing reputation of the area for attracting creative types and free thinkers.  Though it would be good to know more about the influence of prestige architects on gentrification in the area, if indeed, it’s been an influencing factor at all.

One of the houses in the Neutra ‘colony’ overlooking Silver Lake (8 houses he designed 1940-1955)

It was interesting to hear about the rise in popularity of midcentury modern over the past 10-15 years within the context of Southern California.  What perhaps started out as something that focused on furniture and interior decoration – as seen in the likes of ‘modernism’ and ‘atomic ranch’ magazines – began to expand into architectural spaces when collectors realised that their Spanish revival type houses (common across SoCal) weren’t the best settings to show off their clean lined, minimalist furniture.  Sometimes referred to as ‘retrofuturism,’ this tendency to venerate idealised projections of the future from the post-war period, is something that also resonates with certain types of enthusiasm for modernist architecture in the UK.  But within the context of Silver Lake there seemed to be a fine line between genuinely committed homeowners who were investing heavily into ensuring their properties are looked after, and others who are more interested in the ‘look.’  This came across very strongly when we bumped into the owner of the McAlmon Residence (R.M. Schindler, 1936) who discussed on-going maintenance works and how they’d been volunteering at The Eames House which provided them with useful contacts to sympathetic contractors who would handle the work with necessary skill.   This was clearly a long-term investment of time and money.  A few minutes’ drive away we went past a recently completed series of neo-modernist houses which had mostly sold off-plan for considerable sums – offering an approximation of the ‘look’ without the conservation issues.

Silvertop, John Lautner.

Midcentury modern, however, isn’t universally popular. The designs of Schindler, Lloyd Wright and even Neutra were pretty shocking when they first appeared.  Some would say they still are.  This has implications for the conservation of such properties, with restoration projects on modern homes often being low priorities when it comes to fund raising efforts.  Much rests upon the efforts of the enthusiasts who own the properties, and people like Laura, who make it their business to tell people about them.  But despite all this shared interest and enthusiasm there is also something rather exclusive about it.  Below is a list of modern house museums in L.A.  As you can see there are quite a few places to visit if you want to get a fix of SoCal Modern.  For a taster for the ultimate ‘elite’ architectural experience I recommend looking up tours of the Stahl House (not easy to access if you don’t have serious spare cash, and seemingly a car).  There are clearly tensions between the original thinking of the modernist architects who were proposing new ways of living via built form in the post-war period and how we see and experience this architecture today.  I did enjoy my tour of Silver Lake, but it leave me pondering.  It isn’t clear how to mediate between retrofuturism and the impulse to position modern architecture as upmarket museums.

Hollyhock House (Frank Lloyd Wright)

Lovell Health House (Richard Neutra)

Schindler House and Studio (Rudolph Schindler)

Stahl House (Case Study House #22) (Pierre Koenig)

Sunnylands (A. Quincy Jones)

Richard and Dion Neutra VDL Studio/Residence (RJ & D Neutra)

– Hannah


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