City lights

Chemosphere’s glue-lam beam construction offers panoramic windows on the Valley. (Ken Hively / LAT)

When Benedikt Taschen, a globe-trotting publisher of stylish art books, and his then-wife first laid eyes on Chemosphere House in 1997, the iconic Los Angeles structure had seen better days.

The sleek, octagonal house, perhaps the boldest work by the singular architect John Lautner, is considered a masterpiece of California Modernism and is beloved by cultists of midcentury design.

But the Taschens saw dirty, disco-era, wall-to-wall carpet on much of its 2,200 square feet, an old aluminum door, smudged windows and seven layers of paint on what was originally a gently austere, exposed brick wall.

Still, "it was love at first sight," says the laconic German, wearing a red Muhammad Ali bathrobe as he shows off the place on a hazy morning. The backlist of Taschen's company — from homoerotic nudes to the original Lutheran Bible — includes books on Modernist homes, the architectural photographs of Julius Shulman and monographs on Richard Neutra and the Case Study houses. Some of the books, along with dozens of art magazines, are scattered around the house and its unobtrusive furniture.

Today, the place is serene and airy, with a simple, light-wood openness that suggests midcentury Scandinavian crossed with a ski chalet, and views that are pure Southern California.

"I bought it right away — as fast as possible," says Taschen.

Frank Escher, who was brought in as restoration architect, vividly remembers the place's condition. "I have to give Benedikt credit for seeing past the disrepair and sad state the house had fallen into," he says. "It looked like a rundown motel. It had been rented out for 10 to 12 years; it was like the ultimate party house."

In fact, during much of that decade, the place had been on the market. "It was for sale for so long," says Taschen, "that it was even in a 'Simpsons' episode: a house with a for-sale sign."

"There was no market for that house," says Julie Jones, the Realtor in the sale, who had watched the place languish after she listed the house. "Everybody loved Spanish, and then shabby chic came in." Midcentury houses "would sit and sit and sit — you couldn't give 'em away. People would want to see the view, and that was about it."

The fate seemed unjust for a structure the Encyclopedia Britannica had once judged "the most modern home built in the world," and which had appeared in Brian De Palma's "Body Double." It's hard not to see the house, which sits on a 29-foot-high, 5-foot-wide concrete column over a long-considered-unbuildable Hollywood Hills site, as a hovering flying saucer or a prototype for the 23rd century architecture of "The Jetsons."

But the 1960 house is very much a work of its time and place.

Alan Hess, an architectural historian and author of "The Architecture of John Lautner," considers Chemosphere as perfect an expression of Southland culture as Greene & Greene's Gamble House, Eames House and the finest work of Neutra and R.M. Schindler.

Chemosphere was characteristically Los Angeles of that time because "it didn't have to look like a house," says Hess. "It was an architecture newly defined. It could take on its own brand-new shape. It displays the optimism of its time: that technology can be used to solve any problem, just as Century City and Googie's," the Lautner-designed Sunset Boulevard coffee shop, did. "The West would not be possible without technology: Water, electricity, everything that it took to overcome dryness and distance was dependent in some form on technology.

"Something I find fascinating about the house is that it is a single-family home," built for a couple and their four children. "And yet whenever that house is used in the movies, it's always a decadent bachelor pad. You have the reality of Southern California life, and the image of Southern California life, summed up in one house."

It's not the only contradiction the place contains. "From the outside it looks like a spaceship which you cannot enter," Angelika Taschen says from Berlin, where she now lives. (The couple are finalizing a divorce.) "But if you go inside, it feels very cozy … very Zen and calming. Maybe because you are floating above the city, above reality in the sky. You feel disconnected from the planet and completely free and happy."

The house is the product of a fortuitous union of architect, client, time and place. Leonard Malin was a young aerospace engineer in late-1950s L.A. whose father-in-law had just given him a plot north of Mulholland Drive, near Laurel Canyon. The land was leafy and overgrown, with extravagant views of the San Fernando Valley.

"My philosophy at the time was, most people work their whole lives to build their dream house," Malin says from Arizona, where he's constructing a new home. "Why not build it now, and pay for it for the rest of my life?" This was a time, during L.A.'s postwar expansion, when a middle-class client could build in the Hollywood Hills on a modest budget: Malin had $30,000 to spare.

The only catch: At roughly 45 degrees, the slope was all but unbuildable. The plot may have remained empty had Malin not approached Lautner, whose work he knew from a nearby house. Lautner, a brilliant but reputedly prickly man, sketched a bold vertical line, a cross, and a curve above it. "Draw it up," he told his assistant Guy Zebert.

Though Lautner could appear imperious, a quality he may have learned from his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, he was also a deeply practical and hard-headed problem-solver. Lautner didn't see the house as a flying saucer but as a sensible solution.