Back to the Future
When Jacqueline Markham was a child playing on the lawn of the house on Kings Road in West Hollywood, she liked its clean modern lines and air of quiet simplicity. Thirty years later, she bought the house the moment she heard it was was up for sale. “Ever since I can remember I’ve always loved the 1950s style of architecture,” Markham says. “There’s something so fresh and uncluttered about it. Something, well, pure, in comparison with other kinds of houses.”
Markham is not alone in her passion for 1950s domestic architecture. A number of real estate agents and designers report that the 40-year-old homes are attracting an increasing clientele of eager home buyers. “Essentially, it’s a nostalgia for a time that’s perceived to be more confident and less confusing,” says Westside agent Gary More, who sold Markham her house. More reports he now gets several calls a week inquiring about any modernist houses that might be on the market.
Most of these retro-seekers, who are in their 30s, weren’t even born when the high modernism of the decade following World War II was at its height. Many of them, like Markham, are artists, or people who work in the entertainment industry. “They have a discriminating eye for quality,” More says.
Agent Crosby Doe, who has long specialized in modernist properties, says interest has peaked among a sophisticated group of home buyers who are “surprisingly well-informed about the period.”
The Kings Road house Markham shares with her husband is a prime example of 1950s modernism. Designed by the late architect Joseph Van Der Kar, who worked for modernist masters Gregory Ain and Buckminster Fuller, it is essentially one flowing, flat-roofed, open, glass-walled space wrapped around a central courtyard. A continuous transom window provides light and air while protecting the occupants’ privacy from the street.
The Markham house displays all the basic concepts of 1950s modernism:
* An open plan, with a minimum of interior walls or divisions, enclosed by a simple structural skeleton of wood or steel.
* Clean, simple lines inside and out, under a flat roof.
* Floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that intimately connect the interior with an exterior courtyard or garden.
* The preference for relatively cheap, unpainted materials, such as plywood, and just-developed plastics such as Formica and vinyl.
* Cupboards, seating and even beds are built-in, leaving the floor space uncluttered.
Favorite gestures, symbolic of modernism’s urge to integrate people with the landscape, are the tree that penetrates the flat roof, or the pool or pond that is partly inside the house.
Markham’s house is almost across the street from the original prototype of California residential modernism: the Schindler Studio House at 833 N. Kings Road. In the early 1920s, Rudolph Schindler, a Viennese immigrant who came to Los Angeles to work for Frank Lloyd Wright, created a landmark house that embodies all the essential elements, listed above, that characterize post-World War II modernism. Ironically, it took a European sensibility to fully appreciate the possibilities offered by the Southland’s easy climate and relaxed culture.
Before World War II, relatively few modernist houses were built. At the time their stripped, Bauhaus style had little public appeal. After 1945, however, the desire for a fresh, new kind of house with clean and simple lines took hold. Today, most of the modernist residences that survive were built in the immediate postwar period. Even at its height, though, modernist architecture was never as popular as, say, the suburban ranch-style house. After the 1950s and early ‘60s, the modernist style fell out of favor for many home buyers, who seemed to consider their simplicity rather “cold” and unhomey.
Though Markham’s place is urban in its sense of enclosure, the Glendale mountainside residence recently acquired by Disney Imagineering executive John Solomon opens itself nakedly to the landscape. Designed by Richard Neutra, another Viennese immigrant who, like Schindler, was a pioneer of modernism in Southern California, Solomon’s house features a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that seems to swallow the chaparral-covered hillside. “Wherever you are, it’s almost like living outdoors,” Solomon says. “Even when I’m in bed I feel I’m sleeping under the oaks.”
Solomon bought the house from the Taylor family who commissioned Neutra back in the late 1950s. “It was in pristine condition,” he says, “exactly as Neutra created it, down to the plywood cupboards and the ancient Frigidaire oven.” Solomon has furnished the rooms with a mixture of furniture from the period--a Noguchi glass table, a George Nelson chair--plus pieces from his extensive art collection.
“I’ve only been here a few months, but this place has already had a real effect on my life,” Solomon says. “Its profound simplicity has forced me to simplify my domestic environment, to strip my way of life to the essentials. I feel quieter at home and more alert at the office. It’s a real tonic.”
Solomon paid “in the mid-$300,000s for his house, and prices for 1950s modernist homes range from $350,000-plus, depending on location. However, given the increasing popularity of these houses, agents expect these prices to rise steadily in the next few years.
Architect Pierre Koenig, a prominent member of the group of designers who created the famed Case Study House program between 1945 and the early ‘60s, reports that he has never been busier. “I get calls daily from people who’ve bought one of my houses and want me to restore it to its original condition. What amazes me is that these young people love them to death.”
Movie producer Dan Caracchiolo, who is renovating a 1958 Koenig Case Study House in Laurel Canyon, says he wanted the property as soon as he saw it. “I love its stark simplicity, its lack of pretense, its quiet air of confidence,” he says. “After a hot, hectic working day, it’s like coming home to a cool, clean breath of air.”
The Case Study Houses, sponsored by John Entenza, editor of Arts and Architecture magazine, aroused worldwide interest in experimental design for residences and put Southern California modernism on the map.
However, Koenig makes the point that the new generation of modernist-lovers often lacks an understanding of the deeper intentions of his kind of architecture.
“Back then, modernism was more than merely a design style. It was a way of life, a desire to change the world, to create a whole new sense of society. We thought of ourselves as the prophets of a new age! I revel in the appreciation these youngsters bring to modernism, but still I’m a little sad that a revolution has become a retro fashion.”
Santa Monica architect Brian Murphy disagrees that the original motivation of ‘50s modernism has been entirely lost.
“The essential innocence and verve of a Case Study House or an Eames chair still speaks out clear and strong,” he says. “These qualities are inherent in the design and they are always felt, even if unconsciously. They belong to a time when America was on top of the world, riding high, free of doubt in its destiny. That sensibility shines forth even today, seducing us from our uneasy dreams.”
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This letter published December 20, 1999 regarding Josef Van der Kar:
Architect Van Der Kar Is Alive and Thriving
Los Angeles Times Monday December 20, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 8 inches; 272 words Type of Material: Letters to the Editor
Recently I was researching an unrelated matter and came across an article that appeared in The Times on Sept. 11, 1997 (“Back to the Future”). The article features, among other things, the unique architectural design of a house on Kings Road in West Hollywood built in the 1950s. I was surprised to see that the architect, Josef Van der Kar, was referred to as the “late” Josef Van der Kar. Josef is a neighbor of mine and is, by all appearances, very much alive.
Josef’s life has been so varied and interesting that telling his story would require an article devoted to the subject. I will just mention a few of the highlights. In the 1930s, he and a colleague won the Purchase Prize with an innovative tension design for the Palace of the Soviets. He was a professor of architecture at State College in Pennsylvania. He served in the Marine Corps during World War II and returned to architecture after the war working for a time with new designs for factory fabrication of housing. He has designed homes of varying design and remains active to this day. At 92 years of age, he is very likely the oldest licensed and practicing architect in good standing with the American Institute of Architects.
Aside from architecture, Josef continues to enjoy a life remarkable for its breadth of interests. He is a very good painter. He is a devoted student not only of music, but of musical instruments and handcrafted a replica of Bach’s clavichord. He is indefatigable in his study of new and alternative methods of health maintenance. In his 70s, he began a comprehensive study of body work and is now perhaps the oldest certified Traeger massage practitioner. But ultimately, Josef is an intelligent observer of life. I own the three books of aphorisms he has written that reveal the perspective and wry sense of humor which are the foundation of his personality.
Josef is a good friend and neighbor, and I am pleased to inform you he remains among the living.
--JACK D. DWOSH Malibu
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