Reading L.A.: The giant, complex legacy of the Case Study program


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Consider this installment of Reading L.A. the All-Star Game of the series.

The 16th title in our year-long trek is ‘Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses,’ published to accompany a 1989 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith. It includes essays by some of the biggest hitters in our series, including Esther McCoy, Reyner Banham and Thomas Hines. There are also entries by historians Kevin Starr and Dolores Hayden and by Smith herself.


It is the only collection of essays I decided to include in Reading L.A., which is otherwise made up of books by single authors (plus one pair). Given the list of contributors to the book -- and the wide-ranging and continuing influence of the Case Study houses on American culture -- it was an exception that had to be made.

‘Blueprints,’ which Smith edited, is remarkably good: smart, concise, deftly organized and generously illustrated. It ranges far beyond the limits you’d expect to find in an exhibition catalog, especially one supporting a show on what was essentially regional architecture.

The Case Study program, in case it still needs any introduction, was a pioneering effort sponsored by L.A.-based Arts & Architecture magazine and its ambitious editor, John Entenza, to develop new and unapologetically modernist prototypes for the postwar American house. The program was unveiled in the January 1945 issue of the magazine; it made its last appearance there in 1964, after David Travers had taken over for Entenza, who by then was running the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

The architects hired to design the Case Study houses, for sites that were mostly in and around Los Angeles but ranged as far as the Bay Area and Arizona, made up a who’s who of California modernism: Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, Julius Ralph Davidson, Raphael Soriano, Pierre Koenig, A. Quincy Jones and Craig Ellwood, among many others. (There is a brief discussion in the book about the best-known local modernists who were left out, including Gregory Ain and Harwell Hamilton Harris.) In all, 35 designs were published, and roughly two dozen of them were built. Nearly all were single-family houses -- and fairly small ones at that -- but the program did in later years feature two multifamily projects, including an unbuilt proposal by Edward Killingsworth for a 10-unit complex in Newport Beach.

The public’s exposure to the houses was not limited to the pages of the magazine. Entenza envisioned them as built prototypes that might inspire architects, developers and homebuyers alike. When the first six to be completed were opened to visitors in 1946 and 1947, more than 368,000 people lined up to see them.

There were a handful of precedents for the program, as the book points out, including demonstration colonies of modern buildings put up in Europe between the wars; the best known of these, the so-called Weissenhof Estate of 1927 in Stuttgart, Germany, featured residential projects by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Peter Behrens, Bruno Taut and others. But as a sustained argument for the appeal of the modernist American house -- trim, transparent and spare, without a crown molding or Corinthian column in sight -- the Case Study program was unique.


As McCoy puts it in her essay, in typically snappy prose, the story of the program’s influence is the story of how ‘a magazine as flat as a tortilla and as sleek as a Bugatti with little advertising and no financial backing became the greatest force in the dissemination of information, architectural and cultural, about California.’

That influence can be measured in three separate phases. First was the way the Case Study designs, as they were being published in the magazine, helped Americans think about new modes of residential architecture as veterans returned from World War II and the country’s biggest cities began a period of optimistic expansion.

Next came the attempt, as the Case Study campaign was nearing its end, to make sense of what it meant and where it had triumphed or gone wrong. This phase was capped by McCoy’s 1962 book on the program. Banham argues in his essay, which traces the way the program was received and understood in Europe, that there is a direct line between the Case Study designs of Ellwood and the so-called high-tech school of Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster. He even defines Piano’s design for the 1986 Menil Collection in Houston as a cross between high-tech modernism and the Case Study variety, calling the unfussy structural steelwork on the building ‘unmistakably Ellwoodian.’

The final measure of the program’s influence is the way that interest in the houses, driven in large part by the huge popularity and ubiquity of Julius Shulman’s photographs, was rekindled in the 1990s and 2000s and helped drive a broader modernist revival in architecture and interior design. Once it was old enough to become framed as history, the program inspired an entirely new generation of homeowners, architects and photographers. (The MOCA show itself was arguably not just the start but also the engine of this third phase.) It was the Case Study aesthetic, ultimately, that produced Dwell magazine and Design Within Reach. Oh, and this 2005 spread in W Magazine.

So, what was the Case Study aesthetic, exactly? These days, most people think of it as synonymous with the lean, steel-framed houses Entenza commissioned from Koenig, Soriano, Ellwood and the Eameses. But as McCoy points out, a second and quite important Case Study strand was made up of more relaxed post-and-beam houses by modernist architects associated with USC, including Whitney Smith and the firm Buff, Straub and Hensman.

Together, those two groups of houses make up an architectural legacy that continues to be reflected in the work of contemporary L.A. architects and to be felt internationally. Two years ago, the talented young Tokyo firm Atelier Bow-Wow spent several months studying the Case Study houses in detail, turning that research into an installation at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. (My review of the installation is here.) One of the major exhibitions in this fall’s Pacific Standard Time series, LACMA’s ‘Living in a Modern Way,’ will painstakingly reassemble the interior of the Eames House, also known as Case Study No. 8, inside the museum galleries.


‘Blueprints for Modern Living’ doesn’t shy away from discussing another, less impressive legacy of the Case Study program: the way, implicitly but powerfully, it endorsed the low-density, car-dependent urbanism of postwar Southern California even as it failed to mature into a mass-produced style. The Case Study period –- 1945 to 1964 -– was precisely the period that Los Angeles made permanent its status as a suburban, low-rise metropolis; as we’ve already seen in Reading L.A., it was the era during which it tore out its interurban train system, built its major freeways and drained its downtown of life, knocking down many of the neighborhood’s architectural gems to make way for a sea of surface parking lots.

Entenza, his staff and his architects were not directly responsible for this shift, of course. But they were guilty of two related offenses. First, they made the expensive, land-gobbling single-family house an object of enduring mass desire. Beyond that, they failed to forge any meaningful alliances with the postwar housing developers who, in McCoy’s words, were in this very period ‘acquiring great tracts of land’ and turning housing into ‘an industry -– an intensely competitive one in which the architect was bypassed by the developer.’

McCoy, focusing on the Koenig-Ellwood-Soriano branch of the program, notes that ‘the steel frame was too strict to lend itself to mass production; the margin for error was too narrow and no scheduling procedure that mixed the wood carpenter and the steel carpenter was ever devised.’

Starr goes further in this critique, arguing that the Case Study houses were disconnected from urban concerns -- that they failed to think of the future of the postwar house as tied to the future of the postwar metropolis. As a result, he argues, the houses began to reflect some of the disconnected character of Los Angeles itself, a city that he calls ‘enclavist in its sociology.’

(What is most impressive about these arguments, even if they aren’t always perfectly made, is that they appear in support of an exhibition celebrating the Case Study program. Too often these days, architecture shows are mostly hagiographic affairs, afraid to bring up even the most obvious flaws in the work they’re framing.)

What this collective critique adds up to is ultimately fairly simple: The Case Study houses, for all of Entenza’s interest in creating what the book calls “replicability,” were ultimately a series of one-offs, more successful as examples of a drool-worthy boutique aesthetic than models for mass construction.


As singular examples of a minimal, ambitious, precise, light-on-its-feet kind of regional modernism, in other words, the Case Study houses were sublime. As prototypes, they were lousy. Entenza changed how we think and dream about houses -- how we market and consume them as objects of commercial, aesthetic and mass-media attention. What he couldn’t change, in any broad sense, is how we build them.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo (top): Case Study No. 16, a house by Rodney Walker above Beverly Hills. Credit: Julius Shulman.

Photo (middle): The interior of the Eames House, Case Study No. 8. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times.

Photo (bottom): Atelier Bow-Wow’s Sunset House, at REDCAT. Credit: Steve Gunther.