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Friday, September 17, 2010

Beyond Googie

A conversation with the director of Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner

Director Murray Grigor

Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner (http://www.infinitespacethemovie.com/) immerses you in the architect’s legacy for ninety beautiful minutes. Lautner’s work was an all-or-nothing kind of proposition that seems to have consumed him. More than most architects, Lautner sought to unite people with nature, and in doing so, confronted the question that artists such as Robert Irwin also grappled with: What is left once this synthesis is attained? Lautner used concrete as his primary material to explore the existential tension between merging and nothingness. It is of the earth, but also man-made. Yet in his best work the concrete is not too heavy, reading almost like a sketch, a grey calligraphic mark between the land and the sky.

Turner House, Aspen, Colorado

Film is a good medium for understanding Lautner’s architecture. Most of his spaces are choreographed for movement. It was as if the big man was designing a space in which dancers could float. Film can capture that.

I only met Lautner once in Los Angeles and he said then (and repeated often) that he hated that city, but it was the only city where he could find clients who would let him do what he wanted. His lessons were not for the architect concerned with social equity. Few people will ever visit Silvertop, or the house overlooking Acapulco Bay. Yet, he inspired thousands of architects (and architecture students) to realize that a building emerging from a dream could be built. This film may be as close as we get to experiencing such spaces.

After the recent screening as part of the AIA’s Architecture and the City Festival (www.aiasf.org/archandcity) we joined curator Erin Cullerton, director Murray Grigor, and producer/editor Sara Sackner for dinner at Heaven’s Dog (http://www.heavensdog.com/). It was an evening of laughter and tales of making movies (Murray just completed a film about the British designers, Robin and Lucienne Day), and listening to Murray impersonate his long time friend Sean Connery. The evening was over so fast I had forgotten to ask the movie makers a single question. I followed up a few weeks later.

Since the screening, the City of Beverly Hills has approved demolition of the Shusetts House, one of Lautner’s early houses. Hopefully, more people will see the film and understand the significance of Lautner’s work.

Q: How did you choose Lautner as a subject for a film?

Murray: Lautner chose me, or at least Nicholas Olsberg did. As far as I understood, Ann Philbin, Director of the Hammer Museum, had invited architect and Lautner scholar Frank Escher, and thus Nick, to curate a Lautner architecture show. Both realized that Lautner's buildings would be better experienced if filmed sequences of key works, rather than photographs, were displayed to complement Lautner’s large models, renderings, plans, and sections.

This was an idea Nick and I had hatched when he was the director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, when Mildred Freeman was curating the 1999 exhibition about Carlo Scarpa, Intervening in History. In the end, the CCA chose photography over cinematography, although many of the planned sequences were incorporated in my film, The Architecture of Carlo Scarpa, which came out before the exhibition in 1995.

Q: You have a little bit of biographical information about Lautner, but you mostly stay away from the personal in this film. Why is that?

Murray: Infinite Space was always planned, as its subtitle suggests, to be The Architecture of John Lautner. This was the aim in my previous films, such as The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, which concentrated on Wright’s career as an architect, but only touched briefly on his family dramas.

Q: Did you know much about Lautner when you started the project?

Murray: Thanks to a US/UK Bicentennial Fellowship in the Arts I moved to Los Angeles in 1977 with my family, and stayed for a little over two years researching the Wright film. I joined The Society of Architectural Historians, Southern California chapter early on. I was lucky enough to carpool with the great UCLA historian, Tom Hines, who would soon become my advisor on the Frank Lloyd Wright film.

On many excursions I got to know the extraordinary wealth of innovative architecture in the Los Angeles area. Esther McCoy took us on a tour of the Case Study homes. Soon Ray and Charles Eames were helping to steer me to Taliesin. For our last six months we housesat at a film director's home in the Hollywood Hills, close to the Chemosphere House, which, along with the Googie coffee shop next to Schwabs on Sunset Boulevard, first introduced me to Lautner’s work.

Chemosphere House, Los Angeles

Q: Over time how did your perception of Lautner change?

Murray: In the mid-eighties I directed an eight-part Mobil PBS series on American architecture with Robert A.M. Stern titled Pride of Place. Lautner was just Googie architecture to Bob. I soon found that the East Coast consensus was really down on Lautner - with some really hurtful articles written about his work. I had always admired the writings of Peter Blake, but found that he was the most critical of all. Blake really hurt Lautner when he described his work as roadside junk that was poisoning the landscape. The fun and joyous elements were missed and Lautner's inventive spaces were disregarded.

That’s why for this film we interviewed David Wasco, the production designer who worked with Tarantino on recreating the Lautner spaces in films such as Pulp Fiction. Wasco celebrates the fun and joyous elements of Lautner’s Googie architecture.

Q: Do you feel that his architecture elevates building into the realm of art?

Shooting the Pearlman Cabin in Idyllwild

Murray: I do. Take the Pearlman Cabin. Using only logs and panes of glass Lautner created the simplest, most perfect refuge at the edge of a forest, framing a mountain beyond.

Marbrisa, hanging over the Bay of Acapulco, shares the little Pearlman Cabin’s DNA, though it far exceeds it in scale. The same overriding roof is there, but here it seems to be a floating cloud of concrete.

In the warmth and gentle breezes of Marbrisa, both the logs and glass are gone. There's no facade - just an anchored view over the sea into infinite space.

Marbrisa, Acapulco

Marbrisa, Acapulco

Marbrisa, Acapulco

Q: What insights did the clients offer?

Murray: In our film we were lucky to have included Donald and Octavia Walstrom, who were very much a part of their home's genesis.

Donald, like Leonard Malin of the Chemosphere House, was an engineer in the aerospace industry and helped build the house and invented some of its gadgets, much to Lautner's delight.

After getting over the shock of Lautner’s proposal - a house on a concrete stalk - Len Malin conspired with the great boat-builder, John de la Vaux, to triumph over Los Angeles planning restrictions.

At Silvertop, the partnership between inventor Ken Reiner and innovator John Lautner made for the most fruitful collaboration.

The tragedy was that Ken lost his home, then close to completion, when his partners forced his company into bankruptcy.

Q: Were these clients’ lives changed by Lautner’s designs?

Murray: They were, especially those like the Walstroms, Pearlmans, and Malins who had helped build their homes. Those who rescued homes from the wrecker's ball, as Kelly Lynch and Mitch Glazer did, have been rewarded by the sublime spaces they now live in. Kelly and Mitch did a lot to raise awareness of Lautner's importance years ago when their inspirational rescue was featured in Vanity Fair. Mark Haddawy has rejuvenated Lautner's first Harpel House by going against venal real estate logic. Losing a bunch of guest bedrooms he took off the accretion of an upper story, and restored the home down to the last hinge. Mark has achieved a masterful lesson on how homes designed by a master, when returned to their original plan, can become treasured works of art.

Q: What was the greatest surprise in making the film?

Murray: The kindness of the original clients, and all the new owners, who let our camera and our cumbersome equipment into their beautiful homes. They all shared with us the insights they had in the adventure of living in the ever-changing light of Lautner's magical spaces.

Q: How did you get Sean Connery to return to the Elrod house?

Murray: That, I am afraid, was achieved through smoke and mirrors. I had co-authored a book on Scotland with Sean - called Sean Connery - Being a Scot. The cinematographer Hamid Shams and I were down in Sean's home in the Bahamas to produce a short video to promote the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival. So after a fun day doing that, Sean recollected his experiences of the Elrod House for us in his study. Hamid's brother Farad is a genius at digital manipulation, and was able to seamlessly substitute the backdrop frame by frame, with one of Sara Sackner's photographs of the Elrod House. Because so few people have so far heard of John Lautner - even though many have seen his homes as backdrops in Hollywood movies - it seemed an obvious choice. In Diamonds are Forever the Elrod House had only recently been built, with everything in pristine condition and no clutter. Not to mention 007 himself, who defined the periphery of Lautner's great domed space like the panther that he was.

Q: What did you cut from Infinite Space that you wish you could have included?

Murray: Nothing of any real significance was cut. After paring down our list of homes we stuck to that and they are all in the final cut. The DVD also has the seven film loops which ran in the Hammer exhibition, along with insights by Frank Escher.

Q: Do you have a favorite Lautner house?

Murray: The Pearlman Cabin in the woods of Idyllwild, because I can imagine it would even have been affordable.

Murray during the filming

All photos by Sara Sackner,

Further Research:

The website for the film is www.infinitespacethemovie.com

The website for the Lautner Foundation is www.johnlautner.org

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Elaine Kollins Sewell Jones 1917-2010

Elaine Kollins Sewell Jones, Hon. AIA

The author with Elaine Jones, Summer 1990.

Elaine Kollins Sewell Jones, Hon. AIA, passed away last month in Los Angeles after being in failing health for several years. I have a hard time expressing what she meant to me as a friend and mentor. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to put a few memories into some order.

I met Elaine Sewell Jones at a workshop for architectural librarians at the San Francisco AIA Convention in 1985. At first, she seemed shy and feminine in an old-fashioned way, but she proceeded to ask me directly for advice on organizing the archives of her late husband, A. Quincy Jones, FAIA.

Jones was known for his Eichler homes, but he also created important custom residences, churches, factories, and campus buildings. He wasn’t a specialist—he believed in the idea of the architect as a generalist. There was little I had to offer Elaine at the moment I met her. But she saw something I didn’t. She was remarkable for living in the present, celebrating the past, yet nurturing the future.

She gave me her card; it was unlike any I had ever received. Smaller, more delicate, similar in size to a Japanese business card. I paper-clipped it to my copy of A. Quincy Jones: The Oneness of Architecture, published by PROCESS. Her card told me that she was a communications consultant. I wasn’t even sure what that meant. Yet I remember thinking, “One day I will want to call her.” Within a few years, I was no longer an architectural librarian but an architectural publicist, and the firm I worked for was opening an office in Los Angeles. Quite boldly, I contacted her and asked if we could meet again. I was surprised that she remembered me. Later on, I would learn that she rarely forgot meeting anybody. What I had mistaken for shyness was actually her way of creating space for herself. She was always sincere but kept a buffer zone around her until she knew you and let you in. If people proved themselves, she called them “the good goods.”

A. Quincy Jones: The Oneness of Architecture, edited by Elaine K. Sewell

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, I suggested that she allow me to interview her for L.A. Architect, the newspaper of the AIA Los Angeles chapter that Barbara Goldstein and later Noel Millea edited. For some reason, Elaine agreed. Although she was quoted in several books, articles, and documentaries, I don’t think she ever agreed to another full-length interview. (The interview is reproduced here.) In the 1990s, I suggested a few times that she agree to an oral history with UCLA, to which she was donating Quincy’s archives, but she would gently steer the conversation in a different direction. She created a process through which architecture and design could be understood and appreciated. She never wanted to be perceived as self-serving. Unlike most people, she didn’t need recognition. Our mutual friend Katherine Rinne told me that many of the unsigned articles in Arts+Architecture magazine were actually penned by Elaine.

During our many conversations, I asked her questions about some of her clients, including her work with the Herman Miller Corporation and with Charles Eames, Alexander Girard, and George Nelson. She was good at deflecting. As we got to know each other better, she would tell me a few things about Charles or Ray Eames, but never anything that would contradict her professional relationship with them. She told me once about taking a trip to Carmel with Ray. During the day, they went their separate ways and connected again in the late afternoon. They had both purchased a piece of ribbon—the same exact ribbon. She saw what her clients saw. We talked about creative people being self-centered, but she meant it as a compliment. They knew where they were going. She could be elliptical at times, but she also believed in facts. She didn’t like it when people got their facts wrong or mistook a speculation or opinion for the truth. This would happen a lot as people began to try and parse the Eames relationship. Her response about those people was clear: “They weren’t there.”

Elaine’s close friends Charles and Ray Eames outside their house in Pacific Palisades.
@Eames Office

In 1990, UCLA Extension asked her to talk about her husband’s work as part of a lecture and tour. She felt that would be too self-serving, and she suggested two young people interested in Quincy’s work instead: Maggie Valentine, an architectural history student at UCLA who later wrote a book on the architect, S. Charles Lee, and me. I had no real idea what I was doing, but I was driven by an interest in modernism and the challenge of preparing a lecture. For months, I spent every Friday afternoon at The Barn, the home in Century City that she shared with Quincy, going through materials trying to understand his oeuvre. Elaine never asked to see an outline or intervened except once when I had chosen a slide because the chemical change over time gave it an extra nostalgic punch. She promptly suggested a replacement. If the work was interesting why be false?

Jones & Emmons office at 12248 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles.

The steps leading to the former office of Elaine Sewell Jones.

The front door to the Jones & Emmons office.

One of the courtyards at the office of Jones & Emmons, now the office of Fred Fisher.

After I moved back to the Bay Area, I would try to visit her at The Barn in Los Angeles between meal times so she wouldn’t go to the trouble of preparing a meal. But still there was tea and it was always exquisitely presented in the large square table overlooking the courtyard. Even drinks would be accompanied by a beautifully arrayed choice of morsels. Beauty could not be compromised or contained.

The main room at The Barn, designed by A. Quincy Jones, FAIA. Photos courtesy of Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio.

The studio at The Barn where Quincy taught 5th year students. Later it was one of the spaces where Elaine processed the archives. Photo
courtesy of Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio.

She never wavered in her belief about modernism’s potential. She always said it wasn’t a style but a process. Likewise, in discussing Quincy’s work, she tried to stay away from interpretation about any specific building. She left that for others. She was interested in facts and in sharing information about the process. She would say that Quincy’s design was rooted in the experience of the building as people moved through it. I came to appreciate the humility it took to focus on spatial experience over object.

I think she hoped that the archives (now at Department of Special Collections at UCLA) would help future students and scholars understand the design process. She understood the value of an almost complete archive of a practice. She didn’t know how future researchers would use it and didn’t worry about it. The evidence would be there.

In the late 1990s, I received a call from a young man named Michael Blackford, who said that Elaine suggested he contact me. He was trying to save one of Quincy’s few projects in Northern California (besides the Eichler tracts), the Daphne Mortuary. Bridge Housing had bought the parcel from the Daphne family and wanted to replace it with affordable housing, a noble enough goal. Elaine understood from the outset that the dialog about saving the building was worth having, whether or not the building was actually preserved. If she got directly involved, it would be, again, too self-serving. Perhaps a more creative architect than the one Bridge hired could have figured out how to use the building and its ideas in the new scheme. The publicity resulting from the fight to save the Daphne was not about NIMBYism as Bridge first suggested, but about reassessing the architectural legacy of modernism. For better or worse, the process worked, even if the individual building wasn’t saved. Afterwords, Elaine always referred to it as the Daphne caper. Although her work had everything to do with the physical world she also understood that it was transient. Love was permanent.

Daphne Mortuary by A. Quincy Jones, FAIA. Photo by Donna Kempner.

Gardens of Daphne Mortuary. Photo by Donna Kempner.

Elaine never criticized religious traditions. I didn’t know her to practice any specific faith, although she certainly had a strong reverence for Japan. Yet she was the most compassionate person I knew. She treated every person with the same respect and generosity no matter what their line of work was. If someone proved untruthful or unkind, she subtly distanced herself. She was always moving toward kindness.

From the sketchbook of A. Quincy Jones

Christmas was special because it was time to acknowledge individuals. When Quincy was alive, the couple sent out hundreds of cards featuring a sketch of his. When I knew her, there were beautiful carefully selected presents, often from MoMA. Sometimes when I came calling, she would present me with a gift. Once it was a pre-Columbian carving that Quincy had given her, and another time it was a memo sample of Alexander Girard fabric. Always wrapped beautifully, without tape.

PreColombian artifact on Alexander Girard fabric

Maintaining hundreds of friendships, processing the archive, meeting scholars and students, and trying to take care of The Barn took up incredible amounts of time. She only slept a few hours a night. Sometime in the early evening, her watch would make a sweet ringing sound, which was a reminder for her to eat something. She would just go on working. The challenge of being Elaine’s friend was meeting The Standard. I always worried whether anything I did would approach her level of excellence and thoroughness. One day, we were discussing marketing and communications. I was using the terms interchangeably, and she focused in on the two words. Her point of view, which I came to adopt, was that communications was the umbrella. Marketing was somewhere beneath it. She didn’t correct me; she engaged. She never wavered in her focus on the individual or their work. No detail was too small to look at again.

This way of being must have been with Elaine from an early age. She graduated from Oregon State University in 1941. She moved to Kansas for a time and from there co-edited a newspaper during World War II called the Oregon State Yank that consisted of letters from fellow students who had become soldiers. The many letters ended up with her, and she would eventually catalog them all with great care and give them to the university in 1991. What could have been lost to history became one of the most significant archives in the country documenting the day-to-day wartime experiences of soldiers during the war. If she took on a job, she did it right.

Although we went to dinner a number of times, we rarely attended a cultural event together. But we both went to the opening of Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses in 1989. I was at the beginning of my career, and she was the doyenne of the modernist moment in Los Angeles. I feel that show (and catalog) was a catalyst for the resurgence of an interest in midcentury modernism that probably led to a reappraisal of Quincy’s work. For part of the evening, we toured the museum together with Lucia Eames. Standing in the reproduction of her father’s living room I said nothing, just absorbed in the brilliance surrounding me. Elaine and Lucia chuckled together over Saul Steinberg’s drawing on an Eames fiberglass chair. I couldn’t believe my good fortune to just be there.

The Eames living room reconstructed in the Case Study House exhibit at MOCA
Photo courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art

It took me several years to understand that Elaine had probably hoped that my interest in Quincy's work would blossom into a book. But we were different in a fundamental way. In addition to having great discipline, she was fearless and had an inner strength that would allow her to face any adversity. She would stay calm, solicit opinions, and make a decision. I followed my passion, but not quite beyond my fears. If she was disappointed that I didn’t pursue that project, she didn’t show it. Whenever I sent her writings or clippings, she was always encouraging.

In June 1999, I brought several friends from Northern California on a tour of Los Angeles, which culminated in a visit to The Barn. As always, she was prepared. She showed all of us around, gave everybody a PROCESS book, and joined us for dinner. She wanted to be around young people and hear what they were thinking and designing. She shared her home with thousands of people and it is hard to think of it without her being there physically. Thankfully, Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio, a direct charitable activity of the Annenberg foundation, has purchased it. Fred Fisher, the thoughtful architect who purchased Quincy's office building, is renovating the building.

Elaine Jones with the author and friends at The Barn, June 1999. Photo by Kenwood McQuade.

The Barn, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Kenneth Caldwell.

Until she couldn’t type anymore, she was the most faithful correspondent I’ve ever known. I have dozens and dozens of her letters. A number of years ago, I knew that her arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome had worsened, and she seemed to be aging quickly. We came down, stayed nearby at the Century Plaza, and spent most of an afternoon reminiscing. When it was time to say goodbye, she walked us to the car to get our parking permit, and I turned to watch her walk down the hill back to the porch. Her beautiful skirt fluttered in the wind. I saw a young woman nearly skip back to work.

From the sketchbook of A. Quincy Jones

Friday, September 3, 2010

Postcard from Tucson

Postcard from Tucson
September 1, 2010

At lunch yesterday my friend Yosh said that I don’t really write blogs; I write essays and then post them. So, I thought I would post a more postcard like blog to mix it up.

Tucson is a mini-me version of LA. By that I mean that the public realm is almost non-existent and that the private realm is where the beauty is. Unlike Los Angeles, the view is up. Up to the mountains that rise in every direction and up to the big sky with its sculptural clouds. For whatever reason Tucson remains relatively free of smog so the sky and mountains are visible almost every day. Like LA, it is an unfinished city. Besides the sunshine and nature that is the good news.

The Lawn at the Arizona Inn

We stopped by the Museum of Contemporary Arts to check out its new home and visit with Anne-Marie Russell, the Executive Director. (There will be another blog about the museum soon.) This year they moved into a surplus brutalist firehouse downtown. There are endless possibilities for all kinds of art in the great bays where the fire trucks once lived. MOCA’s inventive approach to sharing art (and its new plaza) is one move towards creating an authentic public realm.

The old firestation

Anne-Marie Russell in her element

Art in the old firetruck bays

Interrogation room at old firehouse

We spent a great deal of time at our favorite hotel, The Arizona Inn. The magic of the place lies in the fact it is still owned by the descendants of the founder, Isabella Greenway. There is no spectacle, just comfort. It is one of Tucson’s great private realms. Just when we were about to go for an evening swim lightning struck. We got out of the pool and sat on the terrace and watched the monsoon hit. I thought the pool was going to overflow. And then it passed. Everybody back in the pool.

Lobby at the Arizona Inn

Gateway to the pool

The pool at the Arizona Inn

The terrace outside our room

On Sunday I got a massage out on the Westside from someone named Eve. To my surprise Eve turned out to be a man with a horse in the backyard. I think there is a novel title in there... “A Man Named Eve.”

One of the funniest moments from the weekend was a conversation I had with a young friend who is ten. It went like this:

Uncle Kenny, are you Victorian or Modern?

Isn't there anything else?

No, the choices are Victorian or Modern. Which are you?

Well, I guess I am modern.

What's Paul?

Well, he is definitely a Victorian.

Then, how can you be married?

The Victorian cools off.