Review:  Exploring 'The Postwar House in Southern California'

What makes an L.A. house an L.A. house?

That question -- a more slippery one than it might appear -- is the driving force behind “Technology and Environment: The Postwar House in Southern California,” an exhibition running through Friday at Cal Poly Pomona as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Presents architecture series.

The single-family house, of course, has always been more than just a building type for the architects, builders, promoters and mythmakers of Los Angeles. It has been laboratory, muse, marketing staple and badge of cultural honor.

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But that idea is more starting point for the exhibition than conclusion or thesis. The show assumes you already know it.

The curators, Lauren Weiss Bricker and Judith Sheine, are out to explore L.A.'s residential architecture in some more deliberate and less obvious ways. Their show dissects nine canonical pieces of residential architecture in and around L.A. -- one each by the architects Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood, Pierre Koenig, Rudolph Schindler, John Lautner, Ray Kappe, Frank Gehry and Charles Moore. The houses cover a chronological range from 1940 to 1974.

If the show has a central goal, it is to suggest the limitations of the idea that the modern L.A. house is without exception a house with a steel frame, a flat roof and lots of glass -- the kind of house made famous by Julius Shulman's photographs.

There are, to be sure, a few houses like that in the exhibition, including Koenig’s famous Case Study #21, an almost obsessively precise single-story design. But starting before World War II and continuing long after it, ambitious pieces of L.A. residential architecture were just as likely to be structural hybrids, even mutts.

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Schindler built his own 1922 house on Kings Road in what is now West Hollywood using tilt-slab concrete walls and exposed redwood framing; he was inspired by tent design as well as by his architectural contemporaries in New York and Europe. Neutra built in steel but also in wood.

By the time the modern movement began to fray in the 1960s, opening up space for such architects as Gehry and Moore to reinvent the idea of the Los Angeles house, this approach had become its own kind of local tradition: a vernacular of adaptability.

Rooms to the left and right of the main entrance to the exhibition, at the school’s Kellogg University Art Gallery, explore the environmental performance of these houses and how they were marketed and sold to an increasingly affluent postwar public in Southern California. The room on energy is particularly thorough -- a reminder of how few of the shows in the architecture series have directly addressed ecology or sustainability.

But the heart of the exhibition is a careful study, filling a long single gallery, of the nine houses and what we might think of as their structural philosophies -- of the relationship between how they were built and the architectural ideas they wanted to dramatize and convey, along with the constraints they wanted to push against or overcome.

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The curators use a variety of materials to tell the story of each design, relying on video, photographs, drawings and -- for four of the houses -- large models constructed by Cal Poly architecture students that strip each project down to its structural skeleton. The exhibition designer is Timothy Sakamoto.

The three most fascinating houses are those falling in the middle of the show’s chronology. All three use ingenious structural solutions to deal with tricky hillside sites or pursue unorthodox architectural goals.

Schindler’s 1946 Kallis House, in Studio City, was an early example of the architect’s postwar experiments in new kinds of wooden frames for hillside lots. In this case the “Schindler Frame,” as the system became known, gave the architect the freedom to experiment with canted ceilings and break away from the same steel box the Case Study program was at the time beginning to lionize.

The clerestory windows in the Kallis House are appealingly idiosyncratic, less a continuous band of glazing near the ceiling than a way to frame the house’s own peculiar geometry.

Lautner’s Carling House of 1948, also in Studio City, is another example of an architect impatient with the limitations of the modernist box. Designed for a musician, the house is a structural hybrid, mixing a hexagonal steel-frame roof over the living room with a wooden post-and-beam structure elsewhere. It is a house that packs a number of ambitious ideas about architectural space and engineering into a relatively small package.

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The final house in this pivotal trio dates from 20 years later. It is the stunning (and I’d argue still underrated) house Ray Kappe designed for himself and his family on a difficult, sloping lot in Rustic Canyon. Using massive concrete towers and glue-laminated wooden beams to create interior spaces on multiple levels, it is the design of a committed modernist who departed from modernist orthodoxy in shaping the house more for practical reasons than theoretical ones. It is a West Coast rejoinder to the experiments that Paul Rudolph was carrying out at the same time in the Northeast.