Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970
by Thomas S. Hines
Given the title, Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900-1970, one might expect a range of architectural responses to those special qualities of the sun, light, and heat, as experienced in the benevolent climate and topography of Southern California. Rather, this book is really about architecture under the sun: a dense offering of the story of Modernisms in Southern California according to Thomas S. Hines, professor emeritus of History and Architecture at UCLA.
Note the "s." Hines concurs with other recent scholarship in that that there are many "Modernisms" that are not linear and cannot be neatly dispatched. Thus, the 756-page tome is actually an aggregation of histories, beginning by locating our beloved Craftsman architecture not as concluding the 19th century but inaugurating the 20th, and concluding with the large-scale corporate modernism at which Los Angeles excelled, especially that of Welton Becket, A.C. Martin, and William Pereira.
The book also includes extensive material that recapitulates work for which Hines is well regarded, especially his book on Irving Gill (Monacelli 2000) and his seminal biography of Richard Neutra (Rizzoli 2006). Other chapters address important architects or styles, including Gregory Ain, Gordon Drake, Craig Ellwood, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Rudolf Schindler, Raphael Soriano, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lloyd Wright, Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, some Case Study House architects, and John Lautner. However, even though Hines notes in his introduction that his choices extend beyond Los Angeles-Gill practiced primarily around San Diego, for example-other accomplished architects and firms who uniquely, even joyfully, responded to climate, light, and heat in their chosen locales, such as Palm Springs-based Albert Frey and Buff, Straub, and Hensman in Los Angeles and Pasadena, are striking omissions.
While the narrative on Schindler is notable in weaving primary and secondary sources to illuminate the man as well as the architect, Lautner comes across as an eccentric comet in the pantheon of these designers, with some of his most memorable work, such as the Malin House of 1960 (that flying saucer known as the Chemosphere) described as "exhibitionist stunts." Lautner's architecture was theatrical sometimes, absolutely, but a stunt, never. His genius lay in exploiting the limits of technologies and materials. He could demonstrate an economy of means so taut that one can almost hear the strains of tension, or just as easily display a king-of-the-jungle swagger with the same material, especially concrete. And yet, his 1960 Schaffer House in Glendale is one of the most serene houses in Los Angeles, where wood, brick, nature, modernity, and geometry are gently woven together with wood, glass, brick, and landscape. In any case, the book reflects what is clearly Hines' confident command of research and writing amassed during the past four decades, including both primary and secondary sources, and is rife with personal anecdotes that humanize these monumental figures.
Still, given our unrelenting sun, any brief for a practicing architect in Los Angeles is no less than to modulate the relationship between sun, structure, and site, whether aesthetically or on behalf of the user. A clear and consistent analysis of how this diverse crowd of Modernists negotiated light and heat would have been welcome, but is sometimes obscured or not addressed in the wealth of detail.
These architects considered light in all its spectrums, from technical to existential and philosophical. Swiss architect Frey, a one-time protege of Le Corbusier and famed minimalist, once told me that the reason he settled in Palm Springs, where the San Jacinto Mountains rear up from the desert, was because at its heart, "architecture is all about light and shadow." Critic Siegfried Giedion championed "Licht und Luft," light and air, as primary vehicles for banishing dank, diseased Victorian cities. For many of the De Stijl architects and even Neutra's future patron, the wealthy Dutch industrialist Cornelius Van der Leeuw, light embodied universal truth. Neutra viewed light as no less than urgent-care medicine and a tool for promoting productivity and well-being, whether at work, school, worship, home, day, or night, where he used exterior soffit lighting to extend the radius of vision and "defensible space" beyond the building envelope and into the shadows. (But he made mistakes, too. Some of Neutra's best-known buildings reflected almost an endearing lack of understanding of how punishing the Southern California sun can be: the master suite of the noted 1929 Lovell Health House is oriented to the southwest, with no overhangs, a "strategy" that ensured the slow cooking of the Lovells, a mistake Neutra seldom made again.)
As Hines and others have noted, Gill's seemingly white cubes were actually amalgams of tints, located according to the sun's orientation in order to affect a user's perception. Hines writes lavishly about Gill's landscaping, but it should also be mentioned that his lack of overhangs did not mean buildings insensitive to solar gain; his architecture was unfinished, Gill wrote, until vines and landscaping grew to temper heat. As in his earlier book on Gill, Hines compares him to the notorious Adolf Loos, but this conjectural linking still seems dubious to me. Buff, Straub, and Hensman, the mid-century masters of the glass-and-wood post-and-beam "USC School," created a warm Modernism that integrated a love of the woodsy Arts and Crafts with Miesian rigor and an acute attention to orientation and site for access to nature as well as for climate control.
Overall, Hines' incredibly ambitious work is a skillfully rendered and rich mine of architectural history. There may be many Modernisms indeed, but most are present here under one roof.
The skillful graphic design by Lorraine Wild and Xiaoqing Wang achieves a balanced sense of scale between text and myriad beautifully reproduced photographs-old and familiar, as well as new and surprising-many by Julius Shulman, and certainly never before collected in one handsome volume.
One final note. This book is substantial, not only intellectually, but physically. It is in the "book-as-object" category of desire. If such an object itself is to have a history, good bindings don't only contribute to its quality, they are the sentinel nodes of its longevity. Until we subject this book to what it deserves, a lot of use, we may not know its lifespan. But just in preparing this review, I suspect the binding underestimates the pleasure at hand.
Rizzoli International Publications; hardcover; 756 pages; $95.
-Barbara Lamprecht, M.Arch.
Former SAH/SCC Executive Board Member Barbara Lamprecht is author of Richard Neutra: Complete Works (Taschen, 2000).