Los Angeles Architecture 1940 – 1970

The decade of the 1940s saw much less construction as a result of World War II, however, the decade is indeed an important transitional one. Unlike New York, and many other Eastern and Midwestern cities, where construction ground to a complete halt, some significant buildings were erected in Los Angeles – but more about that later. Jumping ahead, by the 1950s, most of the great practitioners of the historical revival styles of the 1920s and 1930s, such as John Byers, George Washington Smith, Reginald Johnson, Gordon Kaufmann, Garrett Van Pelt, and Roland Coate were either dead or retired. Only Wallace Neff, Paul Revere Williams, and H. Roy Kelley were still practicing. All three of these important Angelinos were designing very different houses than they did before the War. Yet, one can see in some of their l930s works a movement towards their 1950s and 1960s works. The “Mid Century Modern” and California Ranch are indeed the descendants of the earlier work, although many disdain the latter.

Neff’s Warren B. Duff House (1940) clearly bridges his earlier and later works. French-Norman in inspiration, but further simplified and modernized. The Dr. John Haigh House in San Marino (1948) has an elegant, yet compact floorplan, befitting the new realities of post war life, and even more modern fenestration than the Duff House. The Tevis Morrow Residence (1947), designed by Williams in Pacific Palisades, takes the Hollywood Regency style and infuses the design with a more modernistic flair. The roof is completely flat, the columns have no ornament at all, and the windows are single panes of undivided glass. Inside, his signature circular staircase is done with open treads and a Lucite railing. Even more striking is the A.E. Abdun-Nur residence in Tarzana, also from 1947. This may be one of the proto California Ranch houses that proliferated all over the San Fernando Valley as it exploded in population after World War II. Single story, with no ornament, the house meanders organically across it’s site. Large walls of windows bring the outdoors in. Williams may be the greatest example of an architect capable of changing with the times, and designing in every imaginable style.

By the 1950s (and continuing on into the 1960s) the Mid Century Modern movement was fully underway. Characterized by flat roofs, open floorplans, and with wide planes of glass serving as much of the exterior wall planes, houses in this style blend the geometry of the International Style, already 30 years old by the 1950’s, with a softer approach to materials and lifestyle. Both Williams and Neff designed houses in this style, which on the surface, seem to have little in common with their earlier works. But observing the evolution in their work from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, the fusion of the historically derived with more modern idioms is apparent. Examples of work in the newer Mid Century style by Neff are the Groucho Marx House in Beverly Hills and the Edgar Richards House in Palm Springs, both from 1956. Williams designed the Desi Arnaz & Lucille Ball Residence (1954) also in Palm Springs, and the Robert Gildred Residence (1957) in Beverly Hills.

Of course there were many designers and architects who worked in Los Angeles during the 1950’s and 1960’s in the Mid Century Modern vocabulary. The greats include: Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain, John Lautner, R.M. Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. (aka Lloyd Wright), A. Quincy Jones, Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Richard Dorman, Pierre Koenig, Edward Fickettt, and Craig Ellwood. There are many other important Mid Century Modern architects who practiced primarily if no exclusively in Palm Springs. In the interests of time and space, I will ignore them here.

 

The Case Study House Program

A seminal moment in the history of Mid Century Architecture occurred in January 1945, when Arts & Architecture magazine announced the Case Study House Program. Eight houses (of which five were built) were to be conceived and paid for by real clients in Southern California. Several of the country’s most talented and innovative architects participated, with the goal of defining the post-war house. The magazine posed as “the client” during the design phase. In all, 28 Case Study houses and two apartment buildings were built between 1945 and 1964.

Pierre Koeing designed two Case Study houses, in steel and glass that exemplify the California aesthetic, #21, and immediately after the 1960 #22 (Stahl House). This house was made famous by Julius Shulman’s classic photo of two well-dressed women enjoying cocktails in a glass house that seems to float above Los Angeles. Located in the Hollywood Hills, the home features striking, minimalist forms in harmony with it’s natural setting.

A further three houses were designed by Craig Ellwood: House 16 (Salzman House), in Bel Air completed in 1953, House 17 (Hoffman House), in Beverly Hills, completed in 1956, and House 18 (Fields House), also in Beverly Hills, completed in 1958.

 

Craig Ellwood

Craig Ellwood himself is a rather fascinating figure. Not actually a trained architect (he studied structural engineering at UCLA for five years), he was in fact an important designer, working with USC-trained architect Robert T. Peters, and later others, to provide the technical realization, drawings, and the required sign-off of a licensed architect. His work was well received by both the trade and potential clients, although his firm was never that financially successful. By the late-1950s Ellwood was a sought-after university lecturer, eventually giving a series of talks at Yale University, and teaching at the University of Southern California and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona’s Department of Architecture.

Craig Ellwood stated his architectural philosophy in the March 1976 issue of L.A. Architect, and I think he brilliantly sums up a particular architectural ideology, and indeed he sounds very convincing:

“The essence of architecture is the interrelation and interaction of mass, space, plane and line. The purpose of architecture is to enrich the joy and drama of living. The spirit of architecture is its truthfulness to itself: its clarity and logic with respect to its materials and structure.

Building comes of age when it expresses its epoch. The constant change in technology demands a continuously maturing expression of itself. When technology reaches its fulfillment in perfect equilibrium with function, there is a transcendence into architecture.

The truth about truth is it is — waiting for us to discover it. The consciousness of truth is not static, but ever progressively unfolding. We must strive for intrinsic solution, not extrinsic effect. The moment form becomes arbitrary, it becomes novelty or style — it becomes something other than architecture. Materials and methods will certainly change, but the basic laws of nature make finally everything timeless.

Architecture, by its own nature, must certainly be more than an expression of an idea. Art in architecture is not arbitrary stylism or ethereal symbolism, but rather the extent to which a building can transcend from the measurable into the immeasurable. The extent to which a building can evoke profound emotion. The extent to which a building can spiritually uplift and inspire man while simultaneously reflecting the logic or the technique which alone can convey its validity to exist.”

Other important homes in Los Angeles designed by Ellwood include the Lappin House (1948), the Hale House, in Beverly Hills (1949), the Smith House (1955), and the Hunt House (1955) in Malibu.

Other important Mid-Century Modern works, just to name a few, include John Lautner’s Goldstein Residence (1963) in Beverly Hills. His most celebrated design if for the Carling House, incorporating many innovative features including external steel cantilevered beams to support the roof of the hexagonal main living area, creating a completely open space, free of any internal columns. Another striking feature is the movable wall-seat, one entire wall section of the living area, with a built-in couch, is hinged on one side and supported by a caster on the other, allowing the entire structure to swing out, opening the room out to the adjoining terrace. There is also a swimming pool that partly intrudes into the living area under a sheet of plate glass.

In 1949 A. Quincy Jones was hired to design the Brody House in Holmby Hills, as a showcase for their stunning art collection. The home contains 11,500-square-foot and includes a floating staircase and floor-to-ceiling glass windows that create an indoor-outdoor living space.

Better Homes and Gardens declared Edward Fickett, “The Frank Llyod Wright of the 1950s”. Fickett was a draftsman under the architects Paul Williams, Sumner Spaulding, and Gordon B. Kaufmann. Commissioned by Dr. and Mrs. George Jacobson in 1965, their home embodies the distinguishing characteristics of Fickett’s work. The house is a pavilion with the interior extending into the exterior with Asian-inspired landscaping. Other “Fickett Details” in the house include custom designed light fixtures, clerestory windows, room partitions, walnut paneling, built-in amenities such as bar and music storage, aggregate stone paving, large wrap-around decks, doors framed with painted black surrounds, and a variety of building materials, in this case brick, wood, stone, and glass.